Jane Kaufman, artist who celebrated women's work, dies at 83

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Jane Kaufman, artist who celebrated women's work, dies at 83
Jane Kaufman, Embroidered, Beaded Crazy Quilt, 1983-1985, embroidered thread and beads on quilted fabric, 94 × 82 in. (238.76 × 208.28 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Joshua Nefsky.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jane Kaufman was making minimalist paintings in the early 1970s, spraying automobile paint on huge canvases. To be sure, the paint was sparkly, so the canvases shimmered — “lyrical abstraction” was how one reviewer described her art and that of others doing similar work — but they were firmly of their reductive minimalist moment. Hilton Kramer of The New York Times approved, giving Kaufman a nod as a “new abstractionist” in his mostly dismissive review of the Whitney Biennial in 1973.

Then Kaufman made a sharp turn.

She began stitching and gluing her work, using decorative materials like bugle beads, metallic thread and feathers, and employing the embroidery and sewing skills she had been taught by her Russian grandmother. By the end of the decade, she was making first luminescent screens and wall hangings, then intricate quilts based on traditional American patterns.

In celebrating the so-called women’s work of sewing and crafting, she was performing a radical act, thumbing her nose at the dominant art movement of the era.

Kaufman died June 2 at her home in Andes, New York. She was 83. Her death was confirmed by Abby Robinson, a friend.

Kaufman was not alone in her focus on the decorative. Artists like Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro were inspired, as she was, by patterns and motifs found in North African mosaics, Persian textiles and Japanese kimonos, as well as by homegrown domestic crafts like quilting and embroidery. It was feminist art, though not all its practitioners were women. (One of the more prominent ones, Tony Robbin, is a man.)

The movement came to be known as pattern and decoration. Kaufman curated its first group show in 1976, at the Alessandra Gallery on Broome Street in lower Manhattan, and called it “Ten Approaches to the Decorative” (there were 10 artists). For the exhibition, she contributed small paintings she hung in pairs, densely striped with sparkly bugle beads.

“The paintings are small because they are not walls, they are for walls,” Kaufman wrote in her artist’s statement.

Other galleries, like Holly Solomon in New York, began showing the pattern and decoration artists’ work, and it also took off in Europe before falling out of favor in the mid-1980s. Decades later, curators would scoop up artists like Kaufman in a series of retrospectives, starting in 2008 at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York.

“It’s funky, funny, fussy, perverse, obsessive, riotous, accumulative, awkward, hypnotic,” Holland Cotter wrote in his review of that show in the Times. The pattern and decoration movement, he wrote, was the last genuine art movement of the 20th century, with “weight enough to bring down the great Western minimalist wall for a while and bring the rest of the world in.”

Kaufman was born May 26, 1938, in New York City. Her father, Herbert Kaufman, was an advertising executive with his own firm; her mother, Roslyn, was a homemaker. She earned a Bachelor of Science in art education from New York University in 1960 and a Master of Fine Arts from Hunter College. She taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1972, one of its first female professors. “She was famous for telling her female students, ‘You are all brilliant and you are all going to end up at the Met,’ ” said arts writer Elizabeth Hess, a Bard graduate.

From 1983 to 1991, Kaufman was an adjunct instructor at the Cooper Union in New York. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution. She was a Guggenheim fellow in 1974 and in 1989 received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her “Crystal Hanging,” a glittering sculpture that looks like a meteor shower, is in the Thomas P. O’Neill Federal Building in Boston.

In 1966 she married Doug Ohlson, an abstract painter. The marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s.

No immediate family members survive.

While Kaufman was extremely serious about her work, she was also a prankster dedicated to political activism; for decades, a pink penis poster she created was featured at marches for abortion rights and other women’s issues. Its last outing was at the Women’s March in New York City in January 2017.

She was a member of the Guerrilla Girls, the art-world agitators, all women, who protested the dearth of female and minority artists in galleries and museums by papering Manhattan buildings in the dead of night with impish posters like “The Guerrilla Girls’ Code of Ethics for Art Museums,” which proclaimed, “Thou shalt provide lavish funerals for Women and Artists of Color who thou planeth to exhibit only after their Death” and “Thou shalt keep Curatorial Salaries so low that Curators must be Independently Wealthy, or willing to engage in Insider Trading.”

Membership was by invitation only, and most members’ names were a secret (they wore gorilla masks in public). Many Guerrilla Girls used the names of dead female artists, like Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo. But Kaufman did not.

“Jane had a wicked sense of humor, the ability to get right to the center of an issue and the courage and principles to confront the powers that be,” the Guerrilla Girl who calls herself Frida Kahlo said in a statement. “We will never forget her. We hope that Jane is also remembered as a wonderful artist who tirelessly worked to break down the conventions of ‘craft vs fine art’ and later combined her meticulous handwork with biting political content.”

Kaufman’s later work, Hess said, was as political as her decorative work had been, and dealt with religious and social divisions. But she was unable to find a gallery that would show it. An embroidered piece from 2010 announced, in metallic thread on cutwork velvet, “Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.”

“She was an artist who floated under the radar,” Hess said. “She was underacknowledged, though she had curated the first pattern and decoration show. Her work came out of her interest in women’s labor, but I think the real revelation to me about Jane’s work was its sumptuousness and beauty.”

In late 2019, a retrospective called “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972 to 1985” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (it is now at Bard through Nov. 28). Anna Katz, the show’s curator, chose a multicolored velvet quilt by Kaufman for the exhibition. Inspired by traditional crazy-quilt patterns, Kaufman had used more than 100 traditional stitches, some dating back to the 16th century, in the piece, which she finished in 1985.

Katz said the quilt was Kaufman’s “magnum opus, an acknowledgment of women’s place in art history” that “stands as a redress to the marginalization of women.” Quilting, she noted, is how women made art — often collectively and anonymously — for centuries. And for centuries, she said, “quilts were a highly developed form of abstract art that preceded the so-called invention of abstraction in painting.”

“It was a risk for Jane to make decorative art,” Katz added. “The term ‘decorative’ was a career killer. It still is. I think her attitude at the time was, this wasn’t the boldest thing she could do; it was the most necessary.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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