The queer community is frequently said to have given birth to the 1960s pop art movement. With the heavy use of camp and clever plays on consumerism, gay men were attracted to and very prominent within pop art. However, lesbian artists are notably absent from the movement’s art historical records. While it is possible that lesbian pop artists existed yet remained unrecorded, the complete lack of information on such women makes it more likely that there were no lesbians creating pop art. Due to the community’s exclusionary attitudes towards women artists, the invisibility of lesbians at the time, and the attractive emerging feminist art movement lesbians were largely not drawn to or accepted into the pop art movement.
One of the most important contributing factors to the lack of lesbian pop artists is the lack of women in the movement as a whole. The artists who became successful and influential within the movement were entirely male while women remained strangely absent. An ideal example of the lack of female pop artists is found in the exhibition and its accompanying film, “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968”. This 2010 exhibition attempted to display the work of and interview women pop artists. However, many of the artists included created work that was distinctly not pop. For instance, Martha Rosler and Faith Ringgold were both featured within the film, yet did not actually work within the pop art movement; neither running within the same circles as other pop artists nor creating work that was stylistically pop. The fact that they were included in the show reveals the limited number of women pop artists available.
Although not all necessarily pop, the experiences these women shared would be relevant to the plight of all women artists of the time. Exclusionary practices towards women, queer artists, and artists of color were common; one of the most recurring troubles being finding gallery representation. For example, Rosalyn Drexler was exhibiting at Reuben Gallery along with emerging pop artists George Segal, Claes Oldenburg, and more when the gallery closed. While her male peers had no issue finding new representation, Drexler inexplicably struggled. While her work was at a level comparable to her peers, her gender was apparently not. She also recalls the societal expectations upon women artists who must work while caring for their husbands and children saying, “I couldn’t go to the factory and use drugs. I couldn’t go to Andy’s and hang out”. Drexler’s peer Idelle Weber reiterates this idea, saying, “We were the only ones with children so we had a hard time going out to play”, claiming further that if her contemporaries knew that she had children it would have ended—or at least greatly limited—her career. This idea of a boys club in which the women cannot play is a recurring theme for women artists of the 1960s. While their work may have been innovative and visually strong, it was difficult to advance while being excluded by peers.
The lack of innovative, successful, and influential women artists has been thoroughly explored in Linda Nochlin’s famous article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in which she attributes the dearth of women in the field to a system structured to prevent just such a thing. The limited options of education for women artists, societal expectations discouraging women entering the arts, and a romanticized ideal of the male genius has historically led to the institutional exclusion of women from the ranks of the truly great. While this piece does not directly address the plight of lesbian artists, one can assume similar structural inequalities prevented lesbian women and straight women from achieving notoriety. In addition to gender discrimination, lesbian artists’ sexuality increased the difficulty of obtaining success in a field dominated by straight men. Continue reading