CINDY NEMSER (1937–2021)

February 08, 2021 at 3:40pm

Cindy Nemser sits for a portrait backdropped by a projection of an earlier portrait of her and her husband, Chuck, painted by Alice Neel. Photo: New York Artists Circle.

Art historian and critic Cindy Nemser, who cofounded the influential Feminist Art Journal and was an early and outspoken critic of chauvinism in the art world, died on January 26 at the age of eighty-seven, her daughter Catherine Nemser reported. In the course of a career that spanned more than fifty years, Nemser successfully fought to change the sexist language and stereotypes surrounding art made by women, and worked to bring women artists into the mainstream at a time when few enjoyed gallery representation or were shown at major museums.

Born in Brooklyn, Nemser earned her BA from Brooklyn College and taught elementary school while taking night classes toward her master’s in literature there, after which she took a second master’s, from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, in 1966. Following an internship at the Museum of Modern Art, she began working as a freelance critic, and in this capacity was the first to write about the work of Vito Acconci, Chuck Close, and Gordon Matta-Clark, among others. In 1969, Nemser was invited to a meeting of the New York coalition Women Artists in Revolution, which she would later describe as having changed her life. A year later, she published a long-form interview with Eva Hesse in Artforum’s May 1970 issue. (That edition’s cover featured hanging sculptures by Hesse, who died later that month.) Her other contributions to this magazine during the early ’70s include an essay on the paintings of Lee Krasner.

In 1972, with Patricia Mainardi she cofounded the Feminist Art Journal, which over the following five years would lobby for the recognition of women artists and called out art world luminaries who routinely sought to belittle, denigrate, or suppress women’s art, as well as those who recognized women’s artistic efforts but cast them as subordinate to or owing to those of male artists. “Art history and art criticism are almost unanimous in assuming that if a woman artist has any contact with a male artist, be he husband, lover, friend or acquaintance, she must either be his pupil or deeply under his influence,” wrote Nemser in the April 1972 issue.

In 1975 Nemser published Art Talk, a now-canonical volume of interviews with women artists including Barbara Hepworth, Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, Marisol Alice Neel, and Louise Nevelson; the book has since been expanded and republished twice. She continued to write, lecture, and teach over the course of her career, and occasionally curated exhibitions as well. In the 1990s she turned to theater criticism with the same feminist acumen, while always continuing to write about art and to encourage the elevation of women artists.

“We need a press that analyzes the sexist underpinnings of seeming ‘objective’ presentations,” she wrote to the editors of fledgling newspaper HER New York in 1993. “Just be honest about the way sexism still controls every aspect of our world.”

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