Women artists are doing it for themselves at Frieze Masters

The London fair features a raft of women, including Judy Chicago, who are eschewing assembly-line art

“For the first time in my life, it’s unremarkable that I am a woman,” says 74-year-old Judy Chicago, referring to her participation in the Spotlight section of Frieze Masters, where 11 of the 23 solo presentations are by women. “I am just an artist among artists, which [is what] I have always wanted to be.” Chicago’s presence can be felt elsewhere during Frieze week—the US artist’s Rearrangeable Rainbow Blocks, 1965, is installed in the sculpture park, while prints from her series “A Retrospective in a Box”, 2008-10, are on show at the art fair Multiplied (18-21 October).

At Frieze Masters, Riflemaker (S9) is showing three of Chicago’s “car hood” sculptures, including Birth Hood and Bigamy Hood, both 1965/2011, each priced at around £250,000. Made from Chevrolet Corvair car bonnets sprayed in lacquer—a technique Chicago learned when she left graduate school and trained to custom-paint cars in a class of 250 men—the works challenge the macho image of American car culture. But despite her use of mass-produced objects and an early introduction to factory-style surroundings, Chicago says she has never employed a big team of assistants. “For me, it’s about expressing something in terms of process and technique,” she says. “I believe in an art that goes from the hand to the heart.”

Chicago is not alone in her focus on process, at least among female artists. The assembly-line approach to producing art has become popular among male artists—Damien Hirst is currently building the biggest studio in the world in Stroud, south-west England, Jeff Koons is said to have 150 people on his payroll and Takashi Murakami’s company Kaikai Kiki employs 50 people in Tokyo and 20 in New York—but it seems that their female counterparts are less prone to the factory model.

Cindy Sherman, for example, is known for working alone in her modest-sized studio in New York, shooting and appearing in her photographs as well as doing her own costumes, hair and make-up. Kiki Smith’s studio, meanwhile, doubles as the living room in her East Village house. Of the younger generation, Berlin-based Katrin Plavcak, whose paintings are currently on show at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, says that she does not feel the urge to produce gigantic works. “Size really doesn’t matter,” she says.

Women taking risks

There are many exceptions to this trend, particularly female artists such as Jenny Holzer who make large-scale public works of art that would be impossible to produce single-handedly. Conversely, the British septuagenarian David Hockney has publicly expressed his disdain for artists who use assistants to create their work. But Monika Sprüth, the co-owner of the Berlin and London gallery Sprüth Magers—which is showing at Frieze (FL, F4), among others, a 2012 oil painting by Holzer priced at $225,000 and a 2002 cibachrome print by Louise Lawler priced at $40,000—detects a difference in how men and women approach their practices. “It seems that this factory-like way of producing is less common among female artists,” Sprüth says.

Sprüth also argues that female artists take bigger risks intellectually with their work. When she opened her first gallery in 1983 in Cologne, Sprüth noticed a dearth of female painters. “This was an area traditionally occupied by men,” she says. “So women went into new media: photography and film. A group of female artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler began to experiment with new media and became visible this way.”

Female artists such as Valie Export, Carolee Schneemann and Judy Chicago also turned to performance as an alternative to painting. As Chicago put it in 1970: “Performance can be fuelled by rage in a way that painting and sculpture cannot.” Cuban-born Ana Mendieta, another female artist who used performance, is gaining critical appreciation with her first UK retrospective (until 15 December) at the Hayward Gallery in London. (Mendieta’s life was cut short when she fell 34 floors from her bedroom window in 1985, aged 36.)

Mendieta’s focus on process rather than finished product is evident in the pared-down nature of the Hayward exhibition. She would obsessively document her performances, but would pick just one photograph from a whole roll of film to represent the work. “Mendieta created her work for herself and no one else,” says the show’s curator, Stephanie Rosenthal. “She wasn’t keen on anybody watching her while she did her performances. It was about that very private moment.”

Mendieta is just one of a growing number of female artists who are receiving recognition in public institutions in London. Tate Modern is presenting the first international survey of the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel (until 19 January 2014), while, at 50, the YBA Sarah Lucas has her first major solo show in the capital at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 15 December).

The picture is not quite as rosy for women in New York, where Chris Burden is at the New Museum, Robert Motherwell and Christopher Wool occupy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Robert Indiana is showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Magritte is at the Museum of Modern Art. As Chicago says: “The battle is far from over.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sisters are doing it for themselves'