Miriam Schapiro - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Hampton Bays, New York
Biography of Miriam Schapiro
Childhood and Education
Canadian-born American artist Miriam (Mimi) Schapiro was an only child born to Jewish parents of Russian descent; Theodore Schapiro, an artist and industrial designer, and Fannie Cohen, a homemaker. Her grandfather, who emigrated from Russia, was responsible for inventing the first movable eye for dolls and made his living making teddy bears.
Moving to Brooklyn, New York as a child, Schapiro's early interest in art was nurtured by her family. After informally studying drawing with her father, she participated in art classes at the Museum of Modern Art and live model drawing courses offered by the Federal Art Project. She also frequented the studio of her friend's brother, the Surrealist artist Federico Castellon.
After a brief period of art study at Hunter College, she transferred to the State University of Iowa where she earned her B.A. in 1945, M.A. in 1947, and M.F.A. in 1949. She also was one of the founding members of the Iowa Print Group. While at school she met art student Paul Brach whom she married in 1946.
Schapiro returned to New York City in 1952 and quickly became part of the art scene. She lived in the same building as artists Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell, frequented the infamous artist hangout, the Cedar Bar, exhibited her work in local galleries, and taught children's art lessons. Her work at this time, like so many of the New York City-based artists, was mostly in the vein of Abstract Expressionism.
Shortly after the birth of her only child Peter in 1954, Schapiro struggled to find not only the time and space, but also the desire to paint. She had to build herself back up as an artist. In describing this process, she stated, "I talked to myself as if I were reborn, totally new on this earth. 'You have to have turpentine. You have to have your paints laid out. You dip the brush in the turpentine. You mix the color you want. You start to draw.' I repeated this litany, followed my own instructions. I began to work again." This struggle to combine her roles as wife, mother, and artist would influence her political and artistic feminism.
Newly energized, Schapiro began to consider her gender as a component of her art. Her work of the 1950s featured recurring symbols, including the tower, window, and egg, which would form the foundation for her Shrine paintings. These objects were a visual comment on the many facets of a woman's life, and Schapiro's notion of female compartmentalization and objectification. She later explained "women see themselves in fragments, in parts...not only mind-body, but also parts of the body."
While creating works about the female experience, Schapiro faced the limitations of being a woman in the male-dominated art world. She remembered that when a male art historian visited her artist husband, he remarked on his discomfort at having to walk through Schapiro's studio (a repurposed dining room) to reach the living room of their apartment, forcing him to confront a woman artist at work. Despite the prevalence of misogyny, her work gained critical attention, earning her a Tamarind fellowship in 1963 and a Ford Foundation grant in 1964.
In 1967, when her husband's job led to a cross-country move, Schapiro became assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. While there she was an early adopter of computer technology, creating geometric-themed works. One of these paintings, OX (1967) became an iconic example of early feminist art because of its reference to female genitalia.
A faculty job at the Art School of California Institute of the Arts begun in 1970, led to an introduction to the artist Judy Chicago. The two decided to co-teach a class and, in 1971, founded the Feminist Art Program. Talks with students and women artists led to the collaborative art piece Womanhouse (1972) which involved the co-opting of an abandoned house and turning it into a work of art. Related to this installation, she created her career-defining work Dollhouse (1972). In this supportive feminist environment, Schapiro also turned her attention to great artists of the past and made the first of what would be an important body of work, her Collaboration Series which paid tribute to female master artists such as Mary Cassatt.
During the 1970s Schapiro began to make collage works, incorporating traditionally domestic materials within her painted canvases. She referred to these pieces as "femmages." Along with other like-minded artists focused on using decorative motifs, many of who were active feminists, Schapiro was part of the formation of the Pattern and Decoration (P&D) movement - also known as Pattern Painting.
After returning to New York City in 1975, Schapiro's desire to advocate on behalf of women in the art world grew in parallel to her rising career (which included a prestigious 1976 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts). She was involved in the founding of the New York Feminist Art Institute in 1979 and later joined the College Art Association to fight for better representation of women artists at the university level. Her drive to include more women in the canon of art history was partly fueled by a memory from when, in a library in her twenties, when she was dismayed at her inability to "find a woman artist of the stature of Velazquez or Vermeer."
In the 1980s, Schapiro created a series focused on the woman-as-entertainer. Her interest in dance and costuming dated to her childhood and her fascination with the beautifully illustrated programs her parents would bring back from performances of a favorite Russian cabaret group. In later years, Schapiro's art became increasingly autobiographical. In Mother Russia (1994) she used her fan motif to pay homage to her Russian descent. She also created works that explored her Jewish heritage and her relationship with her father.
Late in her life, Schapiro suffered from a dementia-related illness. After a long health battle, she died at the age of ninety-one.
The Legacy of Miriam Schapiro
Schapiro was a leading voice in the development of the Feminist art movement. Through her art she helped to elevate the status of works often perceived as "craft" art and paved the way for female artists to embrace these materials, such as Polly Apfelbaum, Deborah Kass, and Mira Schor. In describing Schapiro's legacy, Schor stated, "Through her work and her teaching she influenced the work and changed the lives of women artists all over the world who heard her lecture and saw her work."