It was during lockdown in 2020 that Jenna Segal, a New York theatrical producer, made it her mission to create a collection of works by the all-female cast of artists featured in Peggy Guggenheim’s historic show at her Manhattan gallery, Exhibition by 31 Women (1943). The exhibition is said to have been the first dedicated exclusively to women in the US.
Over the past three years, Segal has scoured auction houses, art fairs, galleries and online marketplaces, acquiring 143 works by 30 of the women (a selection of which are on show this week at Guggenheim’s former gallery, which Segal rents, at 30 West 57th Street). But one artist remains elusive: Gypsy Rose Lee—the burlesque entertainer, stripper and inspiration for the musical Gypsy, who also made paintings and collages.
“It was as if Kim Kardashian was creating art and was in an exhibition, and then you couldn’t find anything ever again,” Segal tells The Art Newspaper. “The most famous woman of that time and her work evaporates, there’s just nothing.” According to Gypsy’s son, Erik Lee Preminger, who lives in California, most of her work was bought by a friend of his but was destroyed in a fire.
The work by Gypsy thought to have appeared in Guggenheim’s show—for which there is no list of titles, much less any photographic evidence—is a three-dimensional collage that features an image of the artist dressed in a Victorian bathing suit, her head replaced with that of a dog. The self-portrait, from 1942, also includes seashells, clip art and newspaper cuttings documenting Gypsy’s career.
According to WorthPoint, an art research website, the work was sold on eBay in 2007 for $1,000, having previously been sold by Sotheby’s in a sale of Gypsy’s estate in 1971.
Segal has not been able to locate this self-portrait—however, her mandate is not to exactly recreate Guggenheim’s exhibition (a near impossible task given the lack of documentation), but to collect works by those artists included in the show. Recently, the Broadway producer came close to sourcing another work, Breast in Bowl, which Gypsy painted for her fourth husband. “A dealer contacted me about two months ago saying he’d found this painting. We were in discussion but the owner died,” Segal explains.
With Gypsy’s art still out of reach, Segal has instead acquired pieces of ephemera relating to the burlesque dancer’s career, including two negatives she bought on eBay and a photograph by Arnold Newman of Gypsy reclining in front of one of her paintings. The producer says she was offered a crocheted G-string allegedly once owned by Gypsy, but, with no proof of provenance, she declined.
“For me, Gypsy is literally like a striptease, she keeps sending little crumbs. She shows me her shoulder and then she walks away,” Segal says. “Whether we will manage to acquire any of her art works will be totally up to Gypsy. She’s in charge.”