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Yoko Ono | 72nd St station on the C train

There are a handful of women of the map who pose a terrific challenge to an amateur biographer like me. Yoko Ono is one of them. Her personal life utterly fascinating, her body of work immense, her impact and activism ongoing. John Lennon once described his wife as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” Let’s just say she did a lot of art. A lot of feminist art at that.

Like many of her map compatriots, firsts [woman to enter the philosophy department at Gakushuin University] and onlys [woman to sing lead vocals in a Beatles song] pepper her life. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she moved to New York in 1953 and still lives here today. Before she became synonymous with the evil girlfriend trope [utterly unfounded and unfair], Yoko was a well respected, working conceptual artist.

In a 1964 performance piece Yoko sat alone on a stage, dressed in her best suit, with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience took turns and cut off small pieces of her clothing. Another piece, Arising, invited women of all ages, across the world, to send Yoko Ono a photograph of their eyes and a written testament of harm they experienced solely for being a woman.

Her most recent work is a MTA-commissioned mosaic at the 72nd St station. Seems oh so appropriate, no?

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 22: A tile mosaic, titled ‘Sky,’ by Yoko Ono adorns the walls of the newly re-opened and renovated 72nd Street subway station on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, October 22, 2018 in New York City. Ono lives in an apartment co-op building, The Dakota, above the underground subway station. She has lived there since the 1970s, when she moved in with her husband John Lennon, who was later shot and killed outside the building in 1980. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Joan Mitchell | 6th Ave station on the L train

Apologies in advance to any Joan Mitchell devotees out on these streets [raises hand]. This post is going to be woefully inadequate. And it’s particularly annoying to me because when I think about this map, I think about the first two women I studied intently: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joan Mitchell. I knew exactly nothing about Vincent. I read Joan as Joni. I’ve come a long way since.

For now, I will simply leave you with Regina’s sketch, my photos from the 2018 Cheim & Read exhibition, “Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953–1962” and her fine, confident, painter self in the studio.

I dare you not to feel something.

“When I am working, I am only aware of the canvas and what it tells me to do. I am certainly not aware of myself. Painting is a way of forgetting oneself.”

Joan would have been 95 today. She has not been forgotten.

“Joan Mitchell looks to be the only artist of her generation, man or woman, who produced a big, abstract, painterly painting that can stand up to the best of de Kooning and Pollock. The legions of arrogant young men who swaggered into the Cedar Tavern have been eclipsed by this woman who probably had more self-confidence and certainly had a more abundant gift than any guy her age in the room.”

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Harmony Hammond | Canal St station on the N train

What makes a woman born in Illinois on this day in 1944, educated in Minnesota and resident of New Mexico since 1984 eligible for a City of Women subway stop designation? I couldn’t wait to get up this morning to tell you!

Hammond was a trailblazer of the 1970s feminist art movement in New York, an experience which served as launching pad for a fifty year career as artist, feminist, activist, curator, academic and scholar.

1970s New York also proved personally liberating. “I was an artist before I was a lesbian. I came out through my art and the feminist movement.”

She was co-founder of A.I.R., the first women’s cooperative art gallery in New York. “The group” got together to present their work [always called “work” rather than art], understand what it meant [consciousness raising] and critique one another. At the time, it was hugely radical because it was a kind of stepping outside the masculine painting sites where women as makers or subjects were not really welcome. And they said we don’t care. “We did as much damage as we could.” Air Gallery is still going strong.

The Group began looking back to gendered creative traditions that had been erased or ignored or devalued. Hammond started working with old rags, cast-offs, remnants, worn out bedding. She describes the process: I’d dip strips of fabric into acrylic paint and throw them down on the floor. Then began to tie them, knot them, stitch them together, maybe paint on them some more and began to build forms out of these fragments of fabric that came from the women in my life.”

She literally put the women in her life in the work.

It was an additive process. There was power, a presence in the accumulation of things. “It’s intentional that the seams show, that we see things are pieced together. I don’t like digital seamlessness. Piecing, patching, fraying, layering, suturing are loaded with meaning.”

Hammond has had more than 30 solo exhibitions but her first retrospective wasn’t held until last year at The Aldrich.

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Elaine de Kooning | 23rd St station on the F train

Elaine was one of the most power figures in America’s first great artistic revolution, Abstract Expressionism. Vibrant, intelligent, talented. Not only a painter and figurist, she could also write. “The right word was as vital to her as breathing,” her sister said. As a bridge between those two worlds, she used the force of her personality and the power of her pen to bring the movement out of the studio and into the mainstream. 

To be an artist, she said, you had to be reckless. I’d like to think of her as audacious. I love this from Ninth Street Women: Elaine liked to think of herself as a modern-day version of the hetaerae of Ancient Greece, a comrade to and companion of intellectual men, a woman who was equal to them and treated as such. 

She may have considered herself equal to the men, but it was their art, not her own, that garnered the spotlight. She became “wife of” Bill de Kooning, even if she never stopped painting. 

Her art matched her personality: vibrant, bold, playful but serious. Not surprisingly, she painted a lot of men and there is an intimacy to those portraits that I just love. 

After her separation from Bill, Elaine lived in near poverty. She taught at dozens of colleges, was politically active and continued to writawst e and paint, including a commissioned portrait of JFK. I saw it last year at the National Gallery [swipe for the photo]. She’d been in the last stages of the painting when JFK was assassinated. Devastated, she didn’t touch her brush again for a year. The last decade of her life found her reunited with Bill after a 20 year hiatus. The ended as they began: she as advocate and protector, painting in his light [never his shadow]. She died 31 years ago today, just 70 years old, with a studio full of recent canvases.

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Lee Krasner | 18th Ave station on the 1 train

Here she is, the indomitable and prolific artist known as Lee Krasner. Born in Brooklyn on this day in 1908 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Lee changed American art.

It’s fitting I return to this project today because Lee’s story challenges the idea that women haven’t played an active role in history, except perhaps as help maids and villains. Correcting the record is fundamental to the City of Women and our efforts to change the maps.

Her story is utterly compelling, both as a woman and a painter challenging social norms. Lee was by all accounts “a marvelous pain in the ass” who “detested stupidity.” She was tenacious, driven, a forthright and stalwart accolade. There is little complication here, perhaps an odd thing to say about an artist who was the “mother courage” of abstract expressionism. But it was how she saw herself: “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”

She kept working, even when as a young student the great Hans Hofmann said to her, “This is so good, you would not know it was done by a woman,” as a WPA muralist finishing de Kooning’s work, relegated first to the “ladies union” and later to little more than Mrs. Jackson Pollock, later still as his widow. All along she simply wanted to be seen for what she was: a painter. “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”

Standing before her life’s work at the Barbicon earlier this year was unexpectedly emotional. I was gob smacked by her talent, the breadth of her work, its scale and boldness. And I was angry that we had been deprived of this genius all these many years. This is an artist who deserves to be known.