Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 23, 2020
Christina Weyl The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. 296 pp.; 76 color ills.; 63 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300238501)

A current and valuable effort in art history is the examination of a well-known topic with greater attention to the contributions of women and other marginalized individuals. This expansion of familiar narratives is grounded not in rewriting historical facts but in rehabilitating figures—whether they be artists, gallery owners, curators, or collectors—who have been largely or even entirely overlooked, not only to shed light on their accomplishments but also to establish a broader understanding of a moment in time, which allows for a deeper historical account. Christina Weyl’s book The Women of Atelier 17, focused on women artists working at the studio during its time in New York City (1940–55), falls within this ambition. Based on her 2015 doctoral dissertation and drawing on extensive archival material and primary sources, the volume offers a convincing study of a print studio’s legacy through its lesser-known members and of the situation of women artists in the United States of the mid-twentieth century. The book is also a plea for printmaking to be used as a meaningful entrance point to any area of art history, in this case the development of modernist forms of expression.

Founded in 1927 in Paris by the British artist Stanley William Hayter, Atelier 17 was a crucial site for the development and promotion of printmaking in interwar France and subsequently in the United States. It had a major impact on several generations of artists thanks to its tradition of passing on knowledge (for instance, many former members became printers or teachers in their own rights), and it set a new standard for the highly technical medium of printmaking, anticipating—thanks to the commitment of female entrepreneurs Tatyana Grosman, June Wayne, and Kathan Brown—the so-called American print boom of the early 1960s. Atelier 17 is thus familiar to print scholars because of its significance to the history of printmaking. But while it has been a familiar exhibition topic through the years, few alternative or additional facts have been added to Joann Moser’s landmark publication of 1977, Atelier 17: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective Exhibition.

Weyl’s book builds significantly on Moser’s work by taking an explicitly feminist perspective that offers a broader vision of Atelier 17. Throughout her well-argued book, Weyl demonstrates that “it is simply impossible to understand Hayter’s intellectual and artistic project and the full scope of the midcentury printmaking renaissance without factoring in the contribution of women artists” (19). She asserts that the unique openness and egalitarian workspace of Atelier 17 contributed to the advancement of women artists and to the exploration of their creative selves through printmaking, pointing out that “women’s affiliation with the studio generated a spectrum of proto-feminist attitudes and practices, such as collaboration, network building, and collegial support of one another’s career” (7). As Weyl underlines, women not only benefited from working at the influential studio but also contributed to its innovative character far more than its famous male members, who tended to continue their regular work while at the studio.

In order to ground these women artists’ experiences in a historical and cultural context, Weyl eschews a biographical perspective. While a biographical approach remains necessary to document underrepresented artists and disseminate their work, here it would have missed the point by ignoring the larger structural situation that women had to face. More than ninety women participated in the workshop, representing two-fifths of its total members. In opting to study a more limited number of artists, Weyl reflects on how their paths crossed, how they networked, and what common issues they shared as women artists. Weyl concentrates on eight figures (Louise Bourgeois, Minna Citron, Worden Day, Dorothy Dehner, Sue Fuller, Alice Trumbull Mason, Louise Nevelson, Anne Ryan), carefully analyzing their work and specific moments in their careers. Two appendixes complete the volume: a full list of women who were active at Atelier 17, and short biographies of select lesser-known members. All of the artists’ biographies are available on an affiliated website, as are three charts and a chronology of Atelier 17’s group shows.

The book consists of five thematic chapters. The introduction sets the scene by describing Nevelson’s independence of mind and nontraditional approach to printmaking as exemplified by the print Moon Goddess, made at Atelier 17 in 1952–54. This opening story embodies what will follow: Weyl’s great knowledge of technical printmaking and her commitment to making it accessible to readers, her ability to put printmaking contributions into perspective, and her sharp cultural and gender analyses. Weyl then usefully recalls the story of both Hayter and the founding of his studio, addressing both its legacy and Hayter’s reputation. She also discusses her methodology and its feminist framework.

In the first two chapters, Weyl describes how Atelier 17 attracted women when it relocated to New York and became associated with the New School for Social Research (an association that remained in place until 1946). The New School appealed to women mainly because its “liberal admissions policy permitted [them] to pursue instruction at Atelier 17 with fewer barriers to entry” (40) and because it accepted students regardless of age, which meant that women could attend the school after having raised their families. Hayter, who took his first lessons in printmaking from Mary Huntoon in Paris, was thought to acknowledge talent regardless of gender. Although printmaking was a far more welcoming milieu for women than painting or sculpture, especially because of its association with crafts, women were nevertheless expected to earn their way into a print studio. The lively atmosphere of Atelier 17, its cooperative activity, and the equal access all were given to workshop facilities were key to women’s participation. As Weyl writes, “As a hybrid space, Atelier 17 was exactly the environment that women needed to assert their professional status; its somewhat ambiguous place as neither academic school nor traditional printmaking workshop had the benefit of attracting women without stirring up too much concern” (47). Another positive aspect of Atelier 17 was that it could accommodate several artists working at the same time. This allowed for a mix of people, including members of the avant-garde, that benefited women artists by offering social connections. Moreover, they had to assume every task, from carving plates to inking and printing, processes usually associated with masculine skills and appearance; being ready to stain their clothes and dirty their hands became a sign of commitment. Lastly, Weyl shows how the printmaking work of Nevelson and Dehner influenced their work in sculpture.

In the third and fourth chapters, Weyl offers another view on her topic by focusing on art criticism. By comparing reviews of women’s and men’s art, she points out differences in vocabulary, including critics’ failure to identify women’s work as fine rather than decorative art and their unwillingness to ascribe women’s art the quality of innovation. Weyl explains how women started to use tools and materials familiar to them at that time (e.g., a kitchen can opener for Bourgeois, lace and fabrics for Fuller, Ryan, and Nevelson, Karo corn syrup for Fuller) to explore printmaking, which was in opposition to Hayter, who masculinized the burin and used an aggressive language to describe the labor of printmaking. Although marginalized from burin engraving, women came up with new approaches to the medium. In particular, the use of textiles in soft ground etching opened the path to what would become known as fiber art. Weyl connects this tendency with what Miriam Shapiro and Melissa Meyer characterized as “femmage” (Heresies 1, no. 4 [Winter 1978]: 66–69), then pursues her study of the gendered reception of women’s prints. She contextualizes modernist printmaking as undermining technical mastery, as privileging intention and concept over technique. Nevertheless, inventiveness, experimentation, and expressiveness through emblematic gestural effects, although in line with contemporary aesthetics, were less acceptable for women. Restraint was expected to reflect their role in the home. With particular reference to Citron, Weyl writes, “Female members of Atelier 17 struggled to balance their creative urges with the feminine comportment recommended by social conformity” (149).

In the fifth and final chapter, Weyl briefly discusses women artists’ difficulty accessing the art market and their alternative strategies for disseminating their work. Because prints are cheaper than paintings and can be easily shipped, they potentially offered a greater chance of revenue and recognition for women. Female artists such as Day and Ryan built networks, including business relationships, to help promote and sell their prints. In addition to supporting one another, the women of Atelier 17 looked for opportunities to exhibit their prints in alternative venues and annual print shows. Although it was difficult to make their work known, they became ambassadors of modernist expression through the circulation of their prints.

Besides its shedding useful light on a moment of history, one of the most fascinating aspects of Weyl’s book is how the author approaches the gender dimension of her topic in a balanced way: she uncovers every aspect of sexism in any given situation or declaration while acknowledging that women understandably often complied with stereotypes, such as when she notes that some of the women of Atelier 17 “amplified connections between domestic labor and their command of the printmaking press” (70). This is but one example of how, by compiling facts and putting them in perspective, Weyl provides a comprehensive account of historic events while remaining clear-eyed about their significance.

Laurence Schmidlin
Curator, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, Switzerland