Feminine Touch: on Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s “Touching the Art”

A stylized image of American Jewish painter Gladys Goldstein working on an art collage.

To be a woman in the modern world is to be an acrobat of social expectations. In contemporary times, gender is such an eager subject that some cultures reveal the biological formations of flesh while the forthcoming infant is still in the womb. Women do have wombs, but a woman is more than her womb. When a woman wills herself to be more than her womb, she runs directly into her culture’s social expectations. For those who were born women, these social expectations are inculcated from the first gulp of air when they are gendered. The processes by which little girls are educated in their gender roles extends beyond dolls versus cars. Recent conversations about readily recalled moments of their girlhood from adult women include an attention to their hair not given to brothers (the pincurl for Christmas), required domestic tasks (Mom and I cleaned, the boys went outside), the presence of dresses and other diminutive replications of gender-specific adult costuming. This is so entrenched in our social expectations that we are surprised at any scrutiny of them.

When a woman wants to be more than a womb, she will bump up against these social expectations, these invisible Rules. Some of the interaction with the Rules will be external—her healthcare institutions, educational institutions, and geography will do much to influence how she moves about in the physical world. Her rights as a sentient being, as a citizen, will include these external interactions. If a woman thinks she can be someplace, it is because she was educated to do so, she was permitted to do so, or she fought to do so. Contemporary culture has stories galore of the first woman to do something, and how now many women can and how girls can aspire. But what if she wants to be an artist? Art history has women in it, and not all of them are naked.

If we begin a consideration of contemporary art not with photography—for that would be modern art, academically, overall—but with our own cultural sense of contemporary being within the last hundred years, we can consider what Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in Touching the Art (November 2023) calls “the legendary misogynist men of Abstract Expressionism” (155). Sycamore further states that “this world of New York artists in the 1940s and 1950s was […] overwhelmingly white and male” (156). Sycamore is an exhaustive researcher, and makes much mention of Grace Hartigan, who “labored in anonymity for years, but rose to fame […] was the first woman among her cohorts to be hailed in the New York art world” (155). However, the focus of Sycamore’s study is the work of Gladys Goldstein, who has enough work in archive that a Google search can reveal images. Sycamore refers to the work’s subject as Gladys and says: “Gladys never compared herself to women artists, it was the men that mattered. In this way she was a product of her generation, and exactly in tune with the women of Abstract Expressionism. Almost all of them have a story they tell over and over about how some famous critic wrote that they painted like a man. Gladys has this story too” (156). It is the story of this generation that is the overarching comparative structure of this work, which is both memoir and critical biography, as Sycamore is the artist’s grandchild.

The book itself is structured as a collage, which is made visually overt with pages of partial text interspersed with exhaustive research and personal recollection, including an extended stay in the artist’s house in Baltimore after Gladys Goldstein’s death. The text starts with the inspection of the work of this personal ancestor’s art—a situation which is too sadly familiar to those who suddenly become heirs: what will become of this woman’s art? In this particular case, Goldstein had work in archive, had exhibited during decades of her life, but this is not true of many women artists. A recollection of the woman who cleaned also reveals an expert needle woman who could make doll clothes from imagination, has handsewn quilts now owned maybe among distant kin; the lost work of woman artists shows up in estate sales, flea markets, the landfill. Sycamore’s text is a bid to save Goldstein from such erasure, even though she has work in the Baltimore Museum.

Sycamore’s text is exhaustive, a fact easily seen by the extensive end notes. Of this, Sycamore makes repeated remarks, including “I want a history of everything that was never recorded, and all the records have been lost” (200) and “I want to read a biography of all these women artists, without any mention of the men who dominated their lives. I want these men to disappear. But then I guess that wouldn’t be a biography, it would be an exorcism” (220). Yet, the reader gleans the text for how these women thought, how they viewed their art. Sycamore refers to her research often in an effort to answer this question and includes this observation by Grace Hartigan, who she sees as Gladys Goldstein’s Baltimore contemporary:

You are inside yourself, looking at this damned piece of rag on the wall that you’re supposed to make a world out of. That is all you are conscious of…Inside yourself, you’re looking at this terrifying unknown and trying to feel, to pull everything you can out of all your experience, to make something (245).

…and while this experience of course echoes that of the pages Sycamore writes, it is also resonant with any creative endeavor.

Perhaps it is Sycamore’s insistence on contextualization that tells us most about what it is to be a woman artist when the text includes references to activist artists, the other artists of Goldstein’s time, her friends, her family. Sycamore writes extensively about the visual experience of Goldstein’s work in a kind of sensory alt text without illustrations, makes mention of pieces from childhood now in collections or on a kitchen wall, gleaming. It is these passages that can resonate most widely when the memoir and the biography meld. “Gladys helped me to dream in everyday experience, to look at a flower and savor each element. To take it all inside. She helped me to imagine a world where everything else could and should be pushed away to make room for more imagination.” (42); however, Sycamore does not romanticize the artist’s life: “…Gladys changed her artistic process due to pain; it forced her to innovate” (43). Perhaps this is the way of all those dedicated to their professional achievement, yet when faced with the Rules of Women’s behavior, this can mean a single human must work two or more tasks full time. Sycamore discusses Gladys Goldstein’s work as a teacher, as well her acceptance to the 1957 Corcoran, and in photographs from childhood journeys remembered. The reader gets a thorough and critical view of the art and times of this artist, this grandmother. And while her work was well-received during her life, it is this work of Gladys Goldstein’s descendant which illuminates work that might have remained marginalized.

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