If many people recognize Warhol, Liechtenstein or Johns, even without particular knowledge of contemporary art, lesser known are the names – and works – of Idelle Weber, Rose Wylie or Marjorie Strider. These artists are all women, perhaps better than their male colleagues, who were able to use the subversive personality and character of Pop Art to harshly criticize, yet ironically, certain cultural layers.
Men in the shadows, discussing something in an office, captured on the escalators, a silhouette sitting with a cigarette in his hand, the inevitable “suit” with the standard tie. If you have seen at least one episode of Mad Men (all you need is a few seconds after the theme song), you will inevitably associate the last image to Don Draper, star of the TV series on the advertising firms of Madison Street set in the ’60s and’ 70s. Quite few, however, will be able to guess who the artist is. While even non-professionals recognize the works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, a rather small minority has ever heard of Idelle Weber, one of the personalities of Pop Art who best knew how to narrate the consumer society. A cosmopolitan world, lively yet at the same time anonymous, all with a scathing look that took aim at the prevailing machismo attitude, criticizing the pre-established gender roles.
Creative, militant feminists, unlucky and forgotten: the women who worked in Pop Art shared this fate. Their works can be admired, mixed with those of some celebrity (who obviously wore trousers) in some specialized museums, art temples like MoMA and the Metropolitan, in New York, or the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) and its counterparts from Orange County (OCMA, located in Newport Beach) in California, and Santa Fe (New Mexico Museum of Art).
For them, despite the extremely “liberal” environment, breaking through was an uphill battle, highlighted by an anecdote told by Rose Wylie, known for her stylized and comics drawings, painted on rough canvases. Wylie would have a little bit of success after years of hard work that she started at the Folkestone and Dover School of Art, Kent, where a teacher once said to her: “You know, it doesn’t make much sense to talk to you, since you will get married, have children and then take care of the house”.
However, the role of housewives, for pop artists, was definitely a tight fit. The response to the prevailing climate, on their part, would be provocative and sarcastic. The Californian Jann Haworth invented the «soft sculpture», the sculpture in which the statues are made of cloth. Not only characters, but also objects: one of Haworth’s most famous works is a still life with some … muffins. “Do they think we’re good at sewing? – is the underlying reasoning – here is a skill in which men can’t beat us”. Haworth would also put her name on a masterpiece symbol of popular culture of the late 20th century, the cover of the album «Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band», created with a collage featuring the idols of the legendary quartet from Liverpool, including the esoteric artist Aleister Crowley.
Another way of responding to the “artistic patriarchy”, against the avant-garde of those male colleagues who in those years immortalized women in the role of perfect wives busy in housework, passes through the sexual realm. This is represented by cheerful and very suggestive figures, such as the “Girl with Radish” by Marjorie Strider or the “Ice Cream” by Evelyne Axell. It is impossible not to notice a reference to a “forbidden pleasure”. Decades later, these works continues to create a scandal: the latter work is one of many that the censors of Facebook occasionally obscure, saying that it is too “explicit”.