Miriam Schapiro was a trailblazing feminist artist and educator, who made paintings, installations, book art and who was a leading member of the Pattern and Decoration movement. No one did more to promote women in the arts than Miriam Schapiro.
She was born in Toronto but grew up in Brooklyn. She worked as a successful Abstract Expressionist painter in New York in the 1950s and created “shrine paintings” – homages to the great art of the past. In 1967, Shapiro moved from New York to California for her husband’s teaching job at U.C. San Diego, where she became a lecturer.
In 1970, while she was teaching at Cal Arts, she and artist Judy Chicago founded the country’s first Feminist Art Program (FAP) at Cal Arts. In 1972, Schapiro, Chicago, and twenty-one of their students took over a condemned Los Angeles building, which they called Womanhouse. They turned it into a colorful, idiosyncratic art space just for women. With her experience at Cal Arts, her work changed radically from hard-edge abstraction to feminine handkerchief paintings.
In 1977, Schapiro was one of the founding members of the feminist collective, Heresies. When she returned to New York in 1978, she helped establish the feminist-based Pattern and Decoration movement, which rebelled against the sterility of an art world, dominated by Minimalism and Conceptualism. She sought to embrace techniques, materials, and content that connected her to other women. She dubbed this technique “Femmage,” the collaging of materials relating to traditional women’s work. She combined painting and collage, incorporating quilts and other textiles – such as embroidered handkerchiefs – which previously were thought of as folk art.
Since the 1980s, Schapiro re-embraced figurative representations in her collages of silk-screened colored papers, acrylic paint, fabric, and found paper. Her 1981 “Mexican Memory” is a fan-shaped painting with Japanese-inspired flourishes in gold. Her work revealed a celebratory world of women and men dancing, jumping, and moving as seen in her 1989 book art “Rondo.”
Images of dolls have always featured prominently in Shapiro’s work. They were made from paper cutouts or photos and were outfitted in traditional costumes of various cultures. Many of them embodied her enjoyment of dance. One such work is her 2005 “Pas de Deux,” an elaborate 60-by-50-inch acrylic and collage on paper. The two dancers are wearing brightly patterned costumes on a black ground and are dancing beneath a proscenium of sequined appliqué and rickrack columns.
Another painting “Time” incorporates paint, fabric, and femmage and was based on a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Schapiro painted her subject in two different guises – one old and one young – but both were cast as creators. Working as a sculptor, she created a thirty-five foot high, painted aluminum and stainless steel work of dancers.
Her art works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.