Born 1923 Toronto, Canada
Died 2015 New York, United States
Miriam Schapiro is known for her pioneering role in the 1970s Feminist Art Movement, and her artistic practice that includes abstract paintings, ‘femmage’ collages, and prints. Born in Canada, Schapiro moved to New York as a child. She completed a BA (1945), MA (1947), and MFA (1949) at the State University of Iowa, before returning to New York City in 1952. After the birth of her son in 1954, Schapiro found it difficult to find the time and space to paint. Her struggle to combine the roles of wife, mother, and artist meant that she began to consider gender as a component of her art. In the 1970s, she co-founded the radical Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno, with Judy Chicago. Schapiro also spearheaded the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s and 80s, which employed craft and decorative traditions to honour the women artists excluded from art history.
Madness of Love (1987) portrays a couple in a close embrace, dancing on a stage. The work is made from an eclectic mix of materials, including fabric, gold thread, and sequins. It is an example of what Schapiro termed ‘femmage’, combining the words ‘feminine’ and ‘collage’. In these works, she incorporated elements of craft and ‘low’ art, such as sewing, that had been excluded from the realm of ‘fine art’ and merely described as ‘women’s work’. By combining these materials and processes with visual elements taken from canonical art and Old Masters, she sought to elevate these female traditions and place them alongside oil painting and classical drawing as equals. The femmages seem especially radical when considered in the context of ‘macho’ Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism movements in New York, where Schapiro lived and worked.
Court Jester (2007) depicts a dancing jester framed by a house built with multicoloured shapes, paint, patterns, sequins, cut-out characters, and lace. Its vibrant colours demonstrate Schapiro’s skill as a colourist. The various materials – sequins, lace, and paints – recall traditional handwork techniques associated with ‘women’s work’, such as appliqué and quilting. One figure in the frame wears a kimono. Interested in the tradition of kimono-making as a female practice in Japan, the garments feature as a significant motif in the artistic practice of Schapiro, most fully explored in her monumental installation, Anatomy of a Kimono (1976).
Court Jester is part of ‘Femfolio’, a series of works by twenty women artists who were influential in the feminist art movement of the 1970s in America. The inclusion of Schapiro in ‘Femfolio’ resonates with one of her aims to construct a female genealogy between women artists of the past and present, with collaboration a key strategy to this end.