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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sylvia Sleigh

A woman artist can objectify the opposite sex as well as a man.
Feminism, during the 1970s and in the decades since, brought to the fore any number of exceptional women artists determined to make their names and faces known on an equal basis with the male artists of their time who pretty much dominated the world of art, especially in the U.S. and England. Those names and faces included Cecile Abish, Dotty Attie, Helène Aylon, Blythe Bohnen, Louise Bourgeois, Ann Chernow, Rosalyn Drexler, Martha Edelheit, Audrey Flack, Shirley Gorelick, Nancy Grossman, Pegeen Guggenheim, Nancy Holt, Lila Katzen, Diana Kurz, Marion Lerner-Levine, Vernita Nemec, Betty Parsons, Ce Roser, Susan Sills, Michelle Stuart, Selina Trieff, Audrey Ushenko, Sylvia Sleigh, and a host of others. I've listed them, knowing full well that most people have never heard of most of them. Even those with some knowledge of women artist may only be familiar with a few, such as Pegeen Guggenheim, Audrey Flack, and Betty Parsons. Let me therefore bring to light just one more of these artist, one of the most virulent feminists of the group, and a woman whose immense art collection included works by all of the above--Sylvia Sleigh.

Sylvia Sleight and forty years--the painting in the upper-right corner is
Lawrence Alloway and Betty Parsons at Horton’s Point, 1963, by Sylvia Sleigh.
Self-portrait, cropped, 107 Blackheath Park,
the Red Dress,1952, Sylvia Sleigh.
Sylvia Sleigh was British...Welsh, actually...born near Llandudno, Wales, in 1916. Her formal art training began and ended with the Brighton School of Art during the 1930s, though her first solo exhibition at London's Kensington Art Gallery wasn't until 1956. Then, in 1961, she married the well-known art critic and museum curator, Lawrence Alloway. Shortly thereafter, they moved to New York, where Alloway became curator of the newly completed Guggenheim Museum. Sylvia Sleigh was no newcomer to feminism. In 1973, Sleigh was a founding member of the all-women, artist-run SOHO 20 Gallery before later joining the A.I.R. Gallery (the first all female gallery in the U.S.). She painted group portraits of both organizations. Her portrait of the A.I.R. Gallery members (below) includes such names as Daria Dorosh, Nancy Spero, Dottie Attie, Mary Grigoriadis, Blythe Bohnen, Loreta Dunkelman, Howardena Pindell, Patsy Norvel, Sari Dienes, Anne Fealy, Agnes Denes, Laurace James, Rachel Bas Cohain, Louis Kramern, Pat Lasch, Maude Boltz, Clover Vail, Kazuko, Mary Beth Edelson, and Donna Byers. Again I've listed all the names in the hope they'll become at least somewhat familiar.

A.I.R. Group Portrait, 1977, Sylvia Sleigh
Annunciation, Paul Rosano,
1975, Sylvia Sleigh.
Sleigh's art contribution to the feminist movement came as she cast a spotlight on male artists of the past and their infatuation with the female figure as seen in Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' The Turkish Bath (top) juxtaposed with her own all-male version featuring nude portraits of famous art critics (including her husband, in the lower right corner). Not only were the sex roles reversed, but she also cast her male subjects in situations reserved for the gods of antiquity and Renaissance art. Idealism was brought firmly to earth by her habit of recording body hair in painstaking detail and depicting up-to-date fashion statements such as cutoff jeans and flip-flops. Her Annunciation: Paul Rosano (right) from 1975, is one such example (look carefully and you'll see Rosano is several of Sleigh's paintings). Not all of Sleigh's nude figures are male, however most of those which are not, are also too explicit to display here.

The Crystal Palace, Sydenham: The Departure, 1957, Sylvia Sleigh
Sylvia Sleigh, put a feminist spin on the portrait genre by painting male nudes in poses that recalled the female subjects of Ingres, Velázquez and Titian. Unfortunately, most of her nude figures are too nude for display here. However that's not the case with one of my favorites, her The Crystal Palace, Sydenham--The Departure (above), from 1957. The painting depicts the sculpted figures housed in the (rebuilt) Crystal Palace fleeing a fire there in 1936. In October of 2010, Sylvia Sleigh died at her home in Manhattan as a result of complications involving a stroke. She was ninety-four. In 2011, the extensive Sylvia Sleigh Collection of work by women artists was donated to the Rowan University Art Gallery (Glassboro, New Jersey) forming the core of its permanent collection.

Working at Home, 1969, Sylvia Sleigh


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