Who’s that Lady?

By Mary Savig
March 26, 2012
Honoré Sharrer tempera sketch
Even during the Abstract Expressionist dominance of the American art scene, Honoré Sharrer remained committed to projects of social realism. Many of her paintings were based on actual photographs or images in newspaper clippings. The focal point of this tempera sketch is a mysterious woman clad in pink. Men in suits standing with a woman in a pink dress, 196-?. Honoré Sharrer papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The month of March is dedicated to the venerable subject of Women’s History. Considering the incommensurable contributions made by women to social causes, politics, science, and art, one out of twelve months may not be adequate, but women have historically worked against the odds.

In the following images, women stand out among a sea of dark suits, begging us all to ask—along the lines of the Isley Brothers classic—“Who’s that Lady?” To be sure, these women were not objects of male affection; they were movers and shakers with successful careers in the diverse and dynamic art world. Let’s explore who they really are.

Juliana Force

Public Works Art Project regional directors and staff
Regional Directors and Washington Administrative Staff. Public Works Art Project, 1934 / Lewis P. Woltz, photographer. Forbes Watson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1934, a few years into the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first federal program to support the arts in the United States. Regional directors commissioned artists across the country to create art for post offices, libraries, and schools.

Juliana Force was the only woman to serve as a regional director. By then, Force had already achieved prominence in the workforce, becoming the first director (male or female) of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

She began her career as a private secretary to sculptor and collector of American art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. When The Metropolitan Museum of Art rejected Whitney’s collection in 1929, she forged ahead and founded her own museum, naming her longtime associate, Force, the director.

Alma Reed

Gathering at Alma Reed's Apartment
Artists in Alma Reed's Apartment, 1932? / unidentified photographer. Enrique Riverón papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Alma Reed was of a few woman journalists in San Francisco during the early 1920s, and her social engagement with Mexican American families there eventually brought her to Mexico where she launched her successful career as reporter for the New York Times.

In the late 1920s, she moved to New York City and befriended numerous Mexican artists including Jose Clemente Orozco and Jose L. Gutierrez.

In her studio apartment in Greenwich Village, she staged Orozco’s first solo exhibition in the United States. Soon thereafter, she established Delphic Studios in her apartment, which was committed to the work of Mexican artists.

In this photo, a radiant Reed smiles amidst a phalanx of supporters.

Elaine de Kooning

Tanager Gallery roof gathering
Gathering on the roof of the Tanager Gallery, 1956 / unidentified photographer. Joellen Bard’s, Ruth Fortel’s, and Helen Thomas’ exhibition records of “Tenth Street Days: the Co-ops of the 50s”, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Tanager Gallery, the setting of this photo, was part of the cooperative of artist-run spaces known as the Tenth Street Galleries in New York City. Elaine de Kooning and her husband Willem de Kooning were among the established Abstract Expressionists whose studio presence in the neighborhood attracted a bevy of younger artists.

In the late 1950s a series of forums were held at Tanager Gallery to ponder the practical and philosophical concerns of the New York avant-garde. A book documenting the forums was to be published, but when the artists of Tanager Gallery rejected the inclusion of Elaine in the forums, Willem quit in protest. Without the support of the de Koonings, plans for the publication dissolved.

In this photo, Elaine holds her own in a group of men on the rooftop of the Gallery.

Hedda Sterne

Nina Leen photograph of The Irascibles. Time Life Pictures.
The Irascibles, 1950 Nov. 24 / Nina Leen, photographer. © Time Life Pictures.

Hedda Sterne often claimed that she was not an Abstract Expressionist, nor an Irascible. Nevertheless, she remains the most prominent figure—“the feather on top”—of this 1951 portrait published in Life of the notorious Irascibles, a group of painters who protested The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s dismissal of avant-garde American painting.

Sterne later lamented to Phyllis Tuchman in her 1981 oral history interview with the Archives of American Art that this iconic photo detracted from her own work. She also explained that the men in the photo were displeased by her prominence:

 Listen to Hedda Sterne interview clip

STERNE: These are the people who signed the letter of protest. And I always sign everything. But there were many other people int he meeting who refused to sign the letter of protest against the Metropolitan. That was all.

TUCHMANN: Oh, I see.

STERNE: And then I forget what journalist who called this group the "Irascibles." And you know how the press loves a word or a name. We becamse the Irascibles, and the Life magazine made the story and it got all inflated. . . Well the girl at Life magazine had prepared the chairs completely. . .I remember I came in rather late and she told me, "Stand there," that's all. . . .They were all very furious that I was in it because they were all sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.

Paula Cooper

Park Place Gallery artists, ca. 1967-1968
Artists of Park Place Gallery, ca. 1967-1968 / unidentified photographer. Park Place, The Gallery of Art Research, Inc., and Paula Cooper Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1963 a group of artists, mostly from the West Coast, established Park Place, an artist space in downtown Manhattan. The original members, Anthony Magar, Mark di Suvero, Forrest Myers, Tamara Melcher, Robert Grosvenor, Leo Valledor, Dean Fleming, Peter Forakis, and Edwin Ruda emphasized an informal, if not offbeat, approach to operating a gallery.

When the artists incorporated the gallery in a new space at 542 West Broadway in 1965, they named it Park Place, the Gallery of Art Research, Inc. Paula Cooper first served as president and then performed the duties of both the president and the director.

When the Gallery closed in 1967, Cooper brought many of the artists to another gallery at 96 Prince Street in SoHo. She retained the exploratory spirit of Park Place that to this day encourages innovative artistic practices at her gallery.

…and many more

Chase School of Art women's life class
Women's life class at the Chase School of Art, ca. 1896 / unidentified photographer. F. Luis Mora papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

While the drama of these images relies on their singularity, the fact is that women have long found strength in numbers. Women have always played a critical role in advancing the theories, histories, and aesthetics of art. The Archives of American Art, for example, has in its holdings more collections created by women artists than any other repository of its kind. Beyond the month of March, the work of women artists, curators, dealers, and administrators will continue to inform and influence the history of American art.


Mary Savig is an archives specialist in the curatorial department. Her book, Season’s Greetings: Handmade Holiday Cards by 20th Century Artists will be published by Smithsonian Books in 2012.


Jose Clemente Orozco is exceptional. Many of his murals can be found at the Antiguo Colegio San Ildefonso where the Mexican Murals were born.

Isn't the last a still from "Mona Lisa Smile'?

Really like the blog, appreciate the share!