Contemporary Art

The Material Feminine

By Sotheby's
This April’s Contemporary Art Online auction will feature works from some of the most important women artists repurposing the materials and methods of painting, conceptualist practices and domestic labour; these artists are constructing new vocabularies in diverse new media.

F rom Turner Prize-nominated talent in Anthea Hamilton, to innovative, stalwart artists working across both sides of the Atlantic, including Rosemarie Trockel, Andrea Zittel and Louise Lawler, April’s upcoming Contemporary Online auction is proving the breadth and depth of female artists coming to public sale.

Across a plenitude of media and materials, a variety of distinct styles, themes and stories emerge. Gerda Scheepers’ Psychogeographic Plan (2012) combines a geometric architecture of panels, conjuring the image of an unfolded garment set on deep black fabric. And this is no accident; the South African Scheepers, who studied under Rosemarie Trockel at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf between 2001 and 2005, consistently appropriates the fabrics and arrangements of clothes, flat-packed and disposable furniture to draw allusions to the absent body.

Nina Beier’s Fatigues work from her 2012 series continues this material thematic, employing the social and cultural significance of the fabrics she incorporates into her wall-works, testing their aesthetic hardiness by subjecting them to dyes and pigments. Often using purportedly indestructible materials that were designed for use in public sector buildings and transportation, Beier brings the materials to bear as objects of art; implying their significance as surfaces that are fire retardant, stain resistant, and immune to vandalism, but not exempt from aesthetic appraisal.

The spotlighting of materiality and the sociocultural undercurrents that inflect media has been a central concern of feminist art practices since the 1960s. With the publishing of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963, what emerged was a fundamental shift in how domesticity was perceived; not as the definition of womanhood, but as a social construct under patriarchal powers. The materials, fabrics and objects of the housewife-mother were endowed with meaning, as symbols of female oppression.

This material emancipation served to break from the hierarchies of painting and sculpture, employing “traditional” mediums with characteristic subversion. Both hugely acclaimed, Katharina Grosse and Louise Lawler are renowned for their radical methods in painting and photography respectively. Grosse’s museum-scale installations – that have seen her coat the South London Gallery in Peckham, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Germany, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in swathes of acrylic paint jettisoned from a hosepipe – have pushed the medium to its maximal limit. Her Untitled (1997) monochrome painting brings her interest in color and career-defining interest in the painterly support – in this instance, on aluminium – into wonderful clarity.

Lawler – whose work Carpeaux (Musee D’Orsay) will feature in the April Contemporary Art Online sale – similarly, has carved out a career for going beyond the boundaries of her medium; warping, reformatting and rephotographing the work of other artists in situ. This highly conceptual approach has placed her amongst the most important artists of the postmodern period, alongside the likes of Cindy Sherman and Sherry Levine, for whom appropriation is central to their practice. As art historian Douglas Crimp has written on the subject of Lawler’s work, “what Lawler often captures in her ‘museum’ photographs [is] those illusive indicators of an artwork’s material history, something more than just what the artist portrayed, something less than a full account” (Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins, Cambridge 1993, p. 12).

As pioneers of contemporary art practice across the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, these artists embody the materially progressive and culturally forward-looking ethos of generations of breakout female practitioners, many of whom have been academically, institutionally and commercially undervalued. With an exceptionally broad array of practices represented across a plenitude of periods and price points, April’s Contemporary Art Online sale continues Sotheby’s outstanding track record of bringing acclaimed and significant artists to the online marketplace.

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