Art In Conversation
MIRA SCHOR with Will Fenstermaker
“I was looking for that something that could make it possible for me to be an artist.”
The works in Mira Schor’s California Paintings: 1971–1973 were made during the artist’s time as a graduate student, at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where she was enrolled in the inaugural year of the Feminist Art Program. Underscoring the significance of this program and the artists it fostered, Schor’s exhibition at Lyles & King comes months after she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art—an accolade she now shares with both of the Feminist Art Program’s founders, Miriam Schapiro (honored 1988), and Judy Chicago (1999).
In recognition of her award, and on the occasion of Schor’s exhibition of early works—many of which have not been on view since the early ’70s , if at all—I visited the artist on an unusually warm, late winter day. Schor (b. 1950, New York City) had thrown open the windows to her studio, located on the Upper West Side, in the apartment where she grew up.
Will Fenstermaker (Rail): What room from your childhood are we in?
Mira Schor: This was my mother’s bedroom, where she lived to be almost 96. She was a painter, and in my childhood she painted in her bedroom, this room, on that easel. Her name was Resia. My father, Ilya, worked at his table in a small workshop near the kitchen.
Rail: Both of your parents were artists, and in 2013 you curated a show of their work, Abstract Marriage: Sculptures by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. What kind of work did they make, and what was their relationship like, as artists?
Schor: My father was a painter, jeweler, and engraver. He was quite famous for his work in Judaica. I still have all his tools, and also the tools he collected. He was an incredible craftsperson; as a teenager, before he went to art school in Warsaw, he had been apprenticed to an engraver and goldsmith. They met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.
When he died, my mother was only 50 years old and she had two kids, one going to college and me. I was just 11. She felt she couldn’t make a living from painting, so she thought to finish some of his silverwork. She sat down to his desk, having only the most rudimentary knowledge of the craft. First she finished some small pieces of his, but then she began to play around with her own ideas.
She was a good painter, but in silver and gold, she really found her medium. It was fascinating as a young woman to see her working—one of her main tools was fire, soldering. My older sister, Naomi, went to graduate school and left the house, but I was still in high school, living here with my mother.1 I was a teenager, so there was a lot of weeping and wailing and acting out—but the one area where there was no tension was that I really admired her work. And she took seriously my support for her and she truly valued my judgment in art.
Rail: I’m curious if watching your mother make art influenced your decision to attend the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, even in an indirect way. Or how did you become part of the beginning of this storied institution?
Schor: I’d been pickled in art since childhood, and in her I had the model of a working woman artist. It was sort of a protofeminist experience without the word “feminism” attached to it yet. In a sense all the elements of my work were in place by the time I was 19, but then I had to learn them in a more structured way. Even in college, I was already making the sort of art that is being shown at Lyles & King.
After NYU I took a year off to develop my portfolio and figure out which school I wanted to go to. There weren’t that many graduate programs at that time, and the most famous was Yale. Jack Tworkov, who was a very close family friend, had recently retired as chair of the art department. He made it clear I shouldn’t apply there. He told me something to the effect of, “Go west, young woman.”
Then my sister told me that her friend Sheila de Bretteville and her husband, Peter, an architect, had gone to California and were involved with a new art school. That’s how I found out about CalArts. Its current campus was being built at the time, which was part of what Sheila and Peter were involved with. I don’t remember exactly when I found out about the Feminist Art Program, but I think it was again through Sheila, who was a faculty member and had started a feminist design program.2
That intermezzo year of 1970, ’71 was also the year of the Fresno Feminist Art Program, which Judy Chicago initiated. It was a completely new, radical thing. She was about 31 or 32, and was friendly with Miriam Schapiro, who was learning about feminism as a slightly older woman, in her 40s. Judy and Miriam founded the program at CalArts, and Judy’s students at Fresno were given admission to transfer. Around the same time, in the spring of ’71, I met Miriam and her husband Paul Brach in New York, when Miriam had a show at Emmerich Gallery.3 I was already getting a lot of information about feminism from Sheila and my sister, who was very involved with women’s liberation. Naomi hadn’t quite gotten around to becoming an early expert on French feminism—Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray—but she was definitely a model.
Rail: It’s interesting how this program kept coming up for you. You were caught up in the vortex of history, the swell of the wave!
Schor: Miriam was definitely trying to make sure that I came to CalArts. By the time I made the decision to go out there, I did have the word “feminism,” and I had my sister’s enthusiasm for rethinking everything. It all worked out so beautifully, really. I feel incredibly lucky that I was at CalArts when I was. When I got there, I was invited to a meeting of the Feminist Art Program at someone’s house in the San Fernando Valley. I had no idea where I was. Part of the discussion there had to do with the Womanhouse project, which was already planned. It was a given that that’s what the students were going to work on. I felt that I was under intense pressure to make a decision on whether I wanted to join the program. It was a political decision, but at the time it boiled down to that I felt I would be cut off from something that I was interested in, if I didn’t join.
Rail: Womanhouse is such an important exhibition in the history of contemporary art. Within the single month it was open, ten thousand people visited. It was a watershed moment for feminist art. Of course, you might not have anticipated it to that extent, but your writings from the time make clear you understood that this was an important movement and program, and you had to be part of it.4
Schor: I did. Feminist art history was a new discipline. Women’s liberation was just coming to wider public consciousness through mass media. We were really pioneers, there was nothing like the feminist program. So it was, “In or out?” I chose “in.”
Pretty immediately we started working on Womanhouse. The program was a major time commitment. We had intense consciousness-raising sessions aimed at developing subject matter for art. One of the works at Lyles & King is the product of an assignment from the program, to depict one’s body image. Our art history section was very important because it was right after Linda Nochlin’s article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” came out in 1971. I knew what art history was—I mean, I actually studied with H.W. Janson—and at the core of classic art history there were no women artists to speak of, really, except a few in the 19th century, and anything that smacked of the feminine (small or delicate or genre) was considered lesser. I knew names like Helen Frankenthaler because I’d been brought up in the art world, but even if you knew the work, you’d go to a museum and you wouldn’t see any work by women artists.
Five years later there was the beginning of feminist art history as something that you might actually study, but in 1971 it was just beginning. Lucy Lippard’s From the Center was published in ’76, and up until that publication there was very little feminist art criticism.
Rail: What was a typical day like in the program?
Schor: It was very concentrated, psychologically demanding, and for the two months we worked on Womanhouse it was physically very stressful, because we were working in a house with no heat, no electricity, no toilets, doing things we’d never done before, with consciousness-raising taking place and intense performance-art pieces being rehearsed. We questioned everything about what it means to be a woman.
Rail: And what was your experience of the exhibition itself?
Schor: I learned a lot about what kind of art and imagery worked best in a political project—painting seemed the least effective because it is inherently metaphorical, even when representational, performance was the most effective—and to never underestimate your audience. Womanhouse took place in a beautiful, old, decrepit villa in Hollywood. The neighborhood was about to be razed for urban renewal. These ladies would show up wearing flowered housecoats, like something out of All in the Family. This one time we were giving a tour to these ladies—I swear one even had curlers on—and as we got close to Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom, we just couldn’t take it. We vanished into thin air and left them to their own devices.
We were hanging out downstairs, giggling or whatever, and the ladies came down and said, “You thought we wouldn’t like it! We loved it!” I thought, you know what, we’re girls and they’re women. You know? What did we think we were discovering? What secrets did we think we had that they didn’t? It was the opposite, really.
Rail: That must have been a very illuminating realization. With your first year being so geared toward Womanhouse, how did things change after it ended? Was there a shift in the intensity in your second year?
Schor: Once Womanhouse was over, we kind of split off within the program: people who were interested in painting worked with Miriam Schapiro, and people who were interested in performance art worked with Judy Chicago. I left the program before the end of that first year so that I could fully experience the rest of what CalArts offered.
My last semester there I was a TA, and I designed a class called “Picture-Making,” which turned out to be very influential. It was responding to the limitations of the painting department, which was still very formalist: macho men, lyrical abstraction, very emptied out…. The dominant discourse at the time, if you were a painter, was the dregs of Clement Greenberg and formalism. So I brought my own interests, including Indian painting, Japanese painting, costume, folk art, Romanesque art, Surrealism, all kinds of things that I loved. These were my sources, and they had given me courage before there was such a thing as feminist art.
I grew up around discussions about what was considered art and what was considered design or craft. There were a lot of prejudices and limitations placed against women and against certain materials. But of course there had already been Pop Art, which was a lot of fun for a teenager in the ’60s. And then conceptual art had a big influence on me, through its use of language.
Rail: Right, of course, language and conceptual art are a big part of the mythology of CalArts at this time, too, through artists like Lawrence Weiner, or John Baldessari and his famous post-studio course. Your use of language in your paintings first appears around 1972 or ’73—including two of the works that are in this show, one of which is figurative and the other is abstract. Was there a lot of interchange between the Feminist Art Program and the other groups at CalArts?
Schor: Yes, there was. In much of my writing I’ve tried to rectify the history of that period and describe what made it such a unique school. The interchange took place for a number of reasons. It was a small school—when I was there, there were only about six hundred students. And it was all in one building, with a large public space that accommodated all kinds of daily events. You were constantly exposed to something interesting. Even if you didn’t study with Allan Kaprow, he was around, performing his ideas. Plus you knew what his students were doing because they would tell you, “I’m working on a game that’s like a walk-in chessboard with language.” I always thought, “Oh god, that sounds so boring,” but of course meanwhile it’s like, chicka-chicka-chicka, clicking in my head.
It was about being there, in this constant flow of information—but not in a dogmatic way. The mythology around the school misses what made it so powerful in those early years. For a rare instance, no one art ideology was dominant, even though all of this had been put together by somebody who was part of the Greenbergian school, Paul Brach. But he hired Baldessari, Chicago, Kaprow, several Fluxus artists and poets! He thought it was important.
Now, when I look back on the whole thing, I think the school was perhaps the first and last flowering of May 1968 for U.S. education. It was egalitarian, with a great degree of parity between students and faculty. Learning was experiential. There was freedom, experimentation, risk-taking—and the Feminist Art Program was part of that. It was a very unique moment.
Rail:Where exactly do the works at Lyles & King fall in this period, chronologically?
Schor: The bulk of my works in this exhibition were made after Womanhouse, many after I left the program. The most ambitious works, the group I call “Story Paintings,” were all done afterI left the program.
Rail: One of the things that has really struck me about the “Story Paintings” is what I’ve been thinking of as their mythopoetic quality. My friend said they have a bodily intelligence. There’s a sense of an immediacy of meaning, of consciousness being formed not in relation to an abstract idea but rather through experience, entity to entity. I see this particularly in the two triptychs—the bears and wolves deep inside this lush landscape. I don’t know if that speaks to your experience making these, but it’s something I picked up on.
Schor: No, it does. I had a very strong relationship, a kind of eroticized relationship, to certain aspects of nature, which you see in the “Story Paintings.” Part of this was my love of Provincetown, where I had spent many important summers of my life. When I was 20, my mother bought a house there, just as I was making the decision to be an artist. So there’s my being an artist, my being a young woman, in the beauty of this place, experiencing a freedom that I felt there, which a young woman wouldn’t feel in most places. As a New Yorker, I’m always aware that I have to be afraid, but in Provincetown I felt like I could walk home alone at night and nobody would bother me. I could go out in my nightgown and nobody would bother me. I mean, that happened once, when there was a fire nearby, I just went out in my nightgown into the most beautiful summer night. There was a kind of sensuality there. I think I have a kind of animistic view or perception of the world.
Rail: This idea of lived experience did not have a strong structure within the discourse of Western art history. You had to seek it out.
Schor: I was looking for that something that could make it possible for me to be an artist. The history of high art certainly gave me a lot of information, which I continue to use—I feel it’s mine, I own modernism as much as anybody else, or abstraction, or anything—but still, I had to find something that would make it possible to do work that did have imagery or narrative. I found a lot of commonality with Surrealism, even before I knew about women Surrealist artists. A strangeness and a fetishism of objects, which I think is a little bit relevant to what you’re talking about.
In about ’69, Yvonne Jacquette lent me a book of Rajput painting and poetry. It was this absolute treasure of a book, with beautiful paintings accompanied by poems; some paintings represented a woman alone at night with a beautiful plant, on the facing page, a short mysterious poem. That book, that work, had a huge, huge influence on me.
At every moment I have to go very deep into myself to do what I really want to do, and even now that’s very difficult. The work has to represent who I am, right this minute, although I do always bring something back from some previous moment. So for example, I worked with language in the ’70s and then I really didn’t work with language again until the ’90s. I had to reeducate myself in theory at that point, and I returned to language in my painting, too, but it was completely different, no longer personal but appropriated from theory and the news.
Rail: I’m interested in the way you use language in your work, which began in 1972 or ’73, right around the end of the period of time this exhibition covers. You’ve already touched on its relationship to conceptual art, but in your writings, you’ve described your paintings of language as having a kind of bilingualism. Your early education was through the Lycée Français, but I think what you’re actually referring to there is semiotics, which was in the air at this time, combined with the language of painting.
Schor: In the afterword of my book Wet  I talk about some of the complexities of being a painter who is also a writer, and how that’s perceived—how people don’t generally believe that you can be truly bilingual. The language of art, painterly language in my case, is patterned over the fact that my parents spoke several languages, and my sister and I were both bilingual. I think my answer connects back to what you were asking about my relationship to nature. I think that that sense of an animistic relationship to form and nature is also active in my relationship to learning how to write. I took tremendous pleasure as a child in learning how to write script at the Lycée. It wasn’t just that I was learning language; to me it was also drawing.
Rail: Right, you were mark-making.
Schor: I was mark-making. Gradually, the way I articulated handwriting became mine. All of a sudden, in my twenties, I felt that that is my handwriting and it’s beautiful—and it’s illegible. I felt that I could use it not just to write my own thoughts, but to represent thought, to represent the idea that women are filled with language, which is something that I felt very strongly as a young woman. As a young feminist, I was haunted by an awareness that at any given moment, a woman can completely drop out of public life and the world just doesn’t care. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes about all the rooms in the world permeated by millennia of women’s thoughts that have not been expressed in art. Thought and all of what language implies. So I saw my handwriting, which was only partially legible, but when you looked at it as an image, you’d understand, “Oh, that’s language.”
Rail: I see where perhaps you share some thinking with Luce Irigaray, in the way the formal line becomes a signifier for more than just what it literally signifies. Because you’re also talking about an aspect of self-portraiture, too, in that it reminds the viewer that this painting was made by a thinking human.
Schor: Yes, a thinking human, and from my point of view, a thinking woman. My goal, my agenda that I developed at CalArts, was to bring the experience of living inside a female body—with a mind—into high art in as intact a form as possible. I think what was really brilliant about that, considering that I came up with this when I was very young, was “with a mind,” because that gave me the ability to grow. The paintings in this current show are mostly figurative works, but a few years later, even by that spring of ’73, I didn’t feel I had to be in the picture anymore. Not as a person who looked like Mira.
Rail: Because your mind was in it.
Schor: Because my mind was in it, because my hand was in it, my handwriting—which is something that identity is studied through—was in it. I was very aware of the fact that I had made a transformation of visual language into a form of abstraction or conceptualism, but the way I was doing it still had all the richness of art materiality: pigment, paper, painting, form. I didn’t feel like giving up on all of those things in the way that is advocated for in early conceptual manifestos, by Lawrence Weiner among others.
Rail: This February you received a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, which recognized the political dimension of your art. The political bite is less explicit in your early works, but is it there?
Schor: I entered the fray when the dictum of feminism was, “The personal is the political.” I really have lived that and believe in it. I think my work has remained that way, even in paintings where feminism is a pretty distant subtext. I have a painting that just says, “I’d like to put forward the notion of modest painting.” What does that have to do with feminism? Well, it’s critiquing the mainstream idea of what art has to be, which is large and immodest. For me, feminism is a gendered critique of power, so feminism is always a subtext of the work.
Then there are times where the work is overtly political, like the series of paintings and about two hundred drawings that I did from Trump’s inauguration until the 2018 midterm elections. Trump is usually symbolized through a red tie and a flying, sagging dick, or his words are the image, but each work is influenced by that day’s news. I stopped making those just before the midterms because I feel like … I don’t know. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to, or I felt we were waiting. Now we’re still waiting. I have a painting from last summer that says, “What kind of art will we make under fascism?” As I said in a lecture recently, if you want to know the answer I can tell you.
Schor: I didn’t know the answer until I’d done the painting. Then I thought, well, the answer is that we’re already doing it. I don’t think there’s any question about that. Right now I’m working with themes and spaces from earlier paintings. There’s a kind of calm to this work from 2010. I was doing work about philosophy, basically. I was reading and then doing paintings of words that were in the text. That was only nine years ago. I felt that I had the luxury of time for philosophical reflection, which I do not feel I have now. I feel like I’m bombarded with fear and horror and anger and toxicity from morning until night.
Rail: I don’t know if I had this sense at the time, but I have this sense now that the Obama years were actually a cozy time for critics and intellectuals.
Schor: There may have been arguments that were theoretical or political, but now other shit is happening. I mean, people have known about global warming since 1970. By Hurricane Sandy, we already experienced a disaster in New York. But I would say it’s only in the last two years that I’ve begun to feel that there may be no future for life on earth. The whole experience of being a human being is that you have trouble understanding your own mortality, but you do have the sense that there is a future. As an artist or writer, you’re leaving something for a time after yourself, just as, as a person, you may leave a child after yourself. All of a sudden, I think, I don’t really know if there is a future. I know that sounds very alarmist!
An example of this change in thinking is my papers are promised to a feminist archive at Brown University, where my sister’s papers are. When that first was suggested to me, around 2003, I was deeply moved. I thought, the archive of this little Jewish refugee family is going to be in this bastion of the American establishment. Cut to last year and I’m thinking it’s really good that Brown is up on a tall cliff, 30 to 40 feet above current sea level. I would never have thought of that before! That’s the future. Nothing about life on earth has the continuity that one could assume it did before. I could just lie under my tree in Provincetown and read a book and run into the studio and do a painting from that book and be, in a way, in a dream world—because philosophy is, in a way, a dream world.
Rail: How do you continue to make art or write if you no longer believe in the future?
Schor: That’s a major question. I think back to that question, “What kind of art will you make under fascism?” What makes my apprehension of it, in both meanings of the word, vivid is the fact that I’m the child of refugees from Hitler, who were not themselves in concentration camps but who lost everybody. Both of them lost their entire family and all of their friends from their youth. They started out with youthful promise and a normal life, and then all of a sudden everything is topsy-turvy and they’re running for their lives. I’ve always feared that, my whole life—feared that it would happen, and wondered how I would cope with it. I don’t think I’d be a particularly effective survivor. For one thing my parents knew when to drop everything and flee, while my reaction has been to cling to the archive and try to preserve. But you can’t flee climate change.
Rail: In your essay “The White List,” you wrote, “There is one final modality of resistance I am interested in: Joy, the liberating power of hilarity and laughter.” Do you still believe in joy as a form of resistance?
Schor: Oh, I think real joy is transformative. If you think about living in a fascist society where public life becomes impossible, and the state begins to make incursions into private life, then you can see human joy as a very radical act. In that sense, that is one of the roles of art.
I think that’s one of the reasons why people have responded so strongly to Hilma af Klint’s exhibition at the Guggenheim. That first room that you walk into, with the 10 largest paintings, I just think you’d have to be dead not to experience this sense of … I don’t know what to call it if not joy. She was working above the ability of an ordinary human being. She was working for some future she believed in—and she knew it was not the present! That’s what’s so amazing about it. I think that when people see those works they are experiencing joy.
What I was getting at in “The White List” is that political repression sees resistance much better than the people who are resisting do. Power senses where something is germinating, bursting through the cracks. It can be something as simple as rock ’n’ roll or women wearing miniskirts. It can be high art, or things that are more obviously questioning the status quo. The repression looks at things that, on their face, are innocent. The female body is, of course, one of the main sites of repression. So I was thinking about that very fine-tuned sense, and my point was that it’s not that you resist the culture, it’s that the culture resists you. It sees you doing something that, in some way, whether you intend it to or not, is going against it.
I was just thinking about these tiny gouaches that my father did when my parents were in Marseille, waiting to get their visas to America. You know, what did they do all day, all of these refugees trying to get papers? It was an incredibly stressful and dangerous situation they were in. They were at the end of the plank in Europe. But they had flowers on the table of their boarding house room, and my father would sit and paint the flowers or friends who were playing cards to pass the time of day. Even in that moment, there was a search for pleasure. Joy is a bigger emotion than pleasure. It involves more than the senses of smell and touch and vision. It’s something that’s buoyant. Pleasure is different than joy, but it gives a promise, and it is a rebellion as long as that rebellion can continue against an oppressive force.
- Naomi Schor was a feminist scholar and literary critic. She was an early expert on French theory in the United States.
- Sheila de Bretteville founded the women’s design program at CalArts, in 1971, and the Feminist Studio Workshop (later called the Woman’s Building), an arts education center in Los Angeles, with Arlene Raven and Judy Chicago, in 1973.
- Paul Brach was a painter and the founding dean of the School of Art, CalArts.
- See “Miss Elizabeth Bennett Goes to Feminist Boot Camp,” A Decade of Negative Thinking (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2010).