On (Women) Artists: Kathamann, O’Keeffe and the Two Louises

“I’m a painter who happens to be a woman,” Kathamann tells me. We are in her snug Santa Fe house where artwork blossoms from every crevice. Her husband Don has prepared homemade bread and there is a fresh pitcher of iced tea sweating tears on the kitchen table as if set out for a still life. Moments before we were exploring some of the sculptures on her lawn: carefully arranged structures of wood and metal that communicate the curious feeling of movement, aliveness, and personality.

How did this woman with waves of jalapeno-red hair become an artist? “I had a Chinese nun throughout high school,” Kathamann told me. “She encouraged my ‘boldness’ and experimentation.” In 1970 the young idealist took off for an exhilarating trip to Afghanistan as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she worked in a small hospital. Once back on her home turf, she became a nurse by day and an artist on nights and weekends. “I had a lot of energy,” she said. “My night classes kept me in the loop.” Soon she combined both elements of her life, producing a series of vivid body tissue studies in watercolor.

Work and art collided once again when she found a short-term job in 1984 looking after Georgia O’Keeffe, who at the age of 96 was declining and nearly blind. “She was an icon from our own history: gray hair in a bun on top of her head, countless wrinkles,” Kathamann remarked. “She wore a white kimono when she started to walk about. I might paint that image someday.”

When we think of the evocative open mouths of O’Keeffe’s flowers, they are delicious, swirling concoctions painted thick with sensuality. “Intuitive” and “emotional” had been pejorative terms in the art world of the 1920’s and 1930’s expressly because they were associated with feminine traits. O’Keeffe brought a new vision to the fore. “The line, the form or the color could not have derived from a man’s consciousness or experience of life,” photographer Paul Strand wrote about her work.

In Full Bloom, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s biography of O’Keeffe, the author quotes the celebrated New Mexican artist: “And I would hear men saying, ‘She is pretty good for a woman; she paints like a man.’ That upset me. Before I put brush to canvas, I question, ‘Is this mine? Is this all intrinsically of myself? Is it influenced by some idea or some photograph of an idea which I have acquired from some man?’…I am trying with all my skill to do painting that is all of a woman, as well as all of me.”

Kathamann admires O’Keeffe for “the singularity of her focus,” but prefers the two Louises as role models: Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010).

When asked to address the topic of feminist art, Louise Nevelson said: “Our organs are different, so inevitably our approaches are… What makes anyone think a woman can’t do big things herself?” Nevelson related to found objects in an intuitive manner: “She felt she could imaginatively grasp the earlier existence of a board, table leg, or banister rail marked by daily use, weather, accident, or craftsmanship, and tell whether it had been ‘touched, fondled, caressed, even kicked,’” Laurie Wilson writes in Art Is Life, her biography of Nevelson.

When it comes to the sculpture Black or Black Chord (1963), Nevelson’s somber painted wood is almost musical in its arrangement: each piece strikes a different note, in the end choreographing a harmonious whole. Patterns repeat, as does a variation of straight and curved elements. That sense of balance and order she achieves is deeply soothing. Compare this piece to Kathamann’s Another Urban Legend: a similar mixture of wooden odds and ends that rhyme together as an ensemble. This sculpture is elevated on six legs and it consists of a tangled mass that looks like a vast cosmos. The feeling evoked is one of controlled chaos and motion.

In the early 1940’s ,sculpture began to step away from being strictly a carving and modeling medium when a significant group of artists learned to weld in wartime factories. Manipulating metal was certainly not “ladylike,” and the unstoppable Nevelson received a lot of flack for it. “When I first started, nobody took me seriously,” Nevelson told the feminist magazine Aphra in 1970. “In the galleries—a woman!… A man said to me, ‘Louise, you don’t want to be a sculptor. To be a sculptor, you’ve got to have balls.’ ‘I’ve got balls,’ I said. But it hurt inside.”

“My work deals with problems that are pre-gender. For example, jealousy is not male or female,” the deliberately prickly Louise Bourgeois once said. However, much of her vast opus—from her paintings to her installations to her large-scale sculptures—deals with family, sexuality and the body. Aren’t these particularly female topics? Or is this an outdated, facile assumption?

Bourgeois’s entire career as an artist could be seen as an effort to purge herself of her childhood traumas. When Bourgeois was growing up, her father had a ten-year open affair with her English nanny. The dysfunction of her family of origin left gaping wounds she never was able to stitch up completely. Pain, anxiety and depression inform Bourgeois’ giant black spindly-legged spider sculpture Maman (1999). Like her work Femme Maison (1946-47)—paintings of women whose heads have been replaced by windowless houses—this thirty-foot-high bug is the stuff of nightmares. Contrast Bourgeois’ spider with Kathamann’s own creepy insect installation: a white plaster-over-metal-armature critter dangling in front of a backdrop of elegant cursive letters curiously printed on the slats of window blinds. Kathamann’s creation is more quirky than alarming, more friendly than sinister—yet there is something powerfully feminine about both artists’ forms.

Like Bourgeois, who said “I could express much deeper things in three dimensions,” Kathamann feels sculpture takes her further than painting. Consider her Mummy Series, for example. One day Kathamann happened upon a TV show about an Egyptian tomb discovery at Saqqara. “Thousands of animals had been embalmed and wrapped in linen and placed in this tomb,” she recalls. “The announcer said they even discovered chimpanzees or some other large primate wrapped up for the afterlife.” Thus the eerily barren Mummy Series was born.

The lifeless, masked primate of Mummy Series I has a threadbare tangle of string for a face and ropy, tightly bound limbs. This anonymous gray form—seemingly unearthed from a mass grave—is so powerless and so human that it arouses compassion as well as fear. It is a silent scream in 3D, ghostly and unforgettable. It would be impossible not to dub Kathamann’s Mummy Series as “intuitive” and “emotional”—the two adjectives women who are artists either revel in or reject. But is it fair to classify an artist by her gender? Or is it inevitable that an artist will see things through her unique lens due to both her biology and her upbringing?

Should one say, “please, don’t box me in!” or “vive la différence?” Certainly that is up to each artist to decide for herself. Call it her artistic license.

Alison Oatman is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Fe, where she also teaches “Italian for Opera Lovers” and “Women in the Middle Ages.” She has recently completed both a novel and a memoir. What’s more, she has been an avid reader of Ms. since adolescence.

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