The Little Wife Complex: The Great Women Artists meets Kate Bryan

On Monday 10 June, we celebrated the launch of Kate Bryan’s book, ‘The Art of Love’ at Sketch London. The Head of Collections at Soho House and author, Kate Bryan spoke with Founder of @thegreatwomenartists, Katy Hessel all about the romantic stories behind some of the most fascinating art world couples who’ve enjoyed peaceful collaborations - to those who’ve suffered passionate and explosive clashes - from Gilbert & George to Ana Mendieta & Carl Andre. Read on for highlights of the conversation..

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Kate on where the idea for the book came from..

The book team and my fantastic editor, Anna Watson approached me and pitched this idea for a book and asked if I would shape and craft it. I knew I wanted to write a book, I was hoping to do it later on but my new policy in life seems to be to do everything at once apparently! I’m pregnant and I moved house last week as well! 

Kate on selecting the couples for the book..

In choosing who went into the book, I had to leave out lots of couples who I know in the art world. I had to be careful not to include too many of the ‘Little Wife’ as I didn’t want to write a book that was a sob story for women in the 20th century because I don’t think that is the only narrative. 

A relationship like Tim Noble and Sue Webster is so fundamental to their practice. They had been together since they were art graduates but then they split up and still had to make work together. It is such a fantastically potent, poignant subject. What do you do if your entire career is based on your romantic relationship? Everything they made is about relationships, human drama and love. They got married, got divorced, moved houses and separated studios; they had to extricate themselves emotionally but they are still in that working duo. It just had to be in the book. 

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I wanted to have different stories of women in relationship to men. There are a lot of stories of what I call the ‘Little Wife’ syndrome, which is where the guy is a big famous successful artist and the woman was also a practitioner but no one ever admired their work and maybe now, in the 21st century, we are coming to her. In my research I also came across loads of women artists who were absolutely killing it in the 20th century and doing better than their partners!

I came across this fantastic story of Maria Martins, a Brazilian sculptor, who was in a relationship with Duchamp. Of course, Duchamp was this hardcore conceptual artist who changed the face of the art world. He was this badass, conceptual, cynical, difficult and towering figure of art but then you read his love letters to Maria and he is so pathetic. He’s like this teenage boy who says I can’t live without you and so on! This is Duchamp - and Maria brought him to his knees! At this point, Maria was in a joint show with Piet Mondrian in New York, Piet Mondrian sold nothing and Maria Martins sold all of her work! That is a narrative you just don’t hear in the 1950s. She did so well that she bought Piet Mondrian’s painting ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ which is now in the MoMA because Maria donated it to the MoMA! We always think of women artists just not selling in the 20th century and men getting all the spotlight but this just bucks the trend. 

Kate on Frida kahlo and Diego rivera..

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I don’t want to reduce anyone down to their relationships or what happened in their life because art should be able to stand alone and is there for us to worship. At the same time, art is made by a person. We are in an age where we are fascinated by people and we want those stories. That’s why no one really cares about Diego Rivera but we all love Frida Kahlo. Frida just satiates our appetite for emotion and love and pain and horror; she is a living embodiment in her art of her life. It is ridiculous to try and separate Frida from her art, you almost do it a disservice by doing that. 

Diego Rivera was a politician, he was a spokesperson for the new Mexican Republic, he was a comrade, and he was a household name. Now, I think Frida is on the verge of becoming an international household name, even if you don’t really know her work, you know her face. It’s like Che Guevara. She stands for something liberal and forceful. In her lifetime, she had one solo show in Mexico. She is this enormous figure now but in her lifetime that just absolutely was not the case.  

Kate on Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock..

It’s very easy to read an entire book about Pollock and never hear Krasner’s name but if you don’t know about Krasner, you don’t really know about Pollock. You can’t really understand his practice. 

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Krasner picked Pollock up off the floor, she kept him sober for 3 years, she introduced him to all sorts of collectors, she introduced him to art history as he was not very well read. She really helped him progress his practice at the detriment of her own. She made the same sacrifice after he died. Pollock crashed his car drink driving with his lover and his lover’s friend. His lover’s friend sadly died, as did Pollock. Even despite that huge humiliation that Krasner suffered, she managed his estate with such diligence and care, making sure all of his paintings went to museums. She was not very financially fluid at that time and she had access to in today’s money millions of pounds but she refused to sell his paintings and liquidate them in that way.  

Krasner then became quite unliked in the art world because of this. She had to work against this and the fact she was Pollock’s widow. She does finally get recognition though and she had a show in Boston in ’84 which then travelled to the MoMA, which was her lifelong dream. Sadly she died 2 months before the show happened. That was the 1980s and it is now 2019 and we are finally getting a major retrospective of her in London. I mean, what is happening? 

It’s so easy to demonise the men and say Pollock’s such a bastard. Actually, he was pretty supportive of Krasner and her practice. One of the films at the Krasner exhibition at the Barbican shows an interview where Krasner talks about one of her pieces of work that includes ripped up Pollock paintings, and she describes the time that Pollock saw it in the gallery and she says he was proud as a peacock. You get the sense that these men were supportive, it’s just that the art world couldn’t get their head around it. 

Kate on whether she thinks the ‘little wife syndrome’ still exists today..

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I do think it is still happening, the statistics speak for themselves! For example, the prices that male artists charge compared to women artists, the number of galleries that have got equal representation of men and women is just a handful, if you are looking at auction results … forget about it! You will spend forever trying to find women artists. 

I do think this ‘little wife syndrome’ will persist because at the very top end of the market, people buying are still buying men. 

What is happening is that we have to wait for Phyllida Barlow to become the age she is now to celebrate her. She’s been making art for a very long time. I don’t want to fetishise women artists once they are 70+ because then there becomes this very cynical market trend that they are going to die soon so then their work will be valuable. We need to support younger women artists and make sure they are well represented and are in the company of other great women artists and also of male artists. We don’t want to ghettoise women artists. 

Kate on Christo and Jeanne-Claude…

They were working together collaboratively since 1964 and he only starts to credit her in 1994. The reason for that is that he thought the art world wouldn’t be able to handle a husband and wife duo, he didn’t think they would take them seriously. In the 1990s, they realised this was really unfair and they retroactively label all their work together. The reason the drawings only had his name on it was because only he made the drawings and they were very clear about that. They wrapped the Reichstag, it took 24 years for the project to come to fruition. They wrapped the coast line in Sydney. It was so unbelievable, just millions of yards of fabric wrapping an entire coastline for two weeks, it was so ephemeral. It was just artwork designed for the sheer audacity of the human spirit to underline how beautiful that coastline really was, to make you see it again. They don’t have any gallery representation or government funding, they did it all themselves. She was behind the scenes as this absolute force of nature. The main way they raise funds is by selling his drawings. 

They never got on planes together because they were so worried that if the plane went down both Christo and Jeanne-Claude would go. She passed away in 2009 but they still make the work as Jeanne-Claude and Christo. 

Kate on Marina Abramovic & Ulay..

I could have written about them endlessly. 12 years together just locked in artistic combat. It is an absolute sacrifice of life for art. They lived in a tiny Citroen van, they didn’t have any fixed residence or money and they made this mind-blowing performance art. 

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There is one performance where their faces were so close and they just screamed at each other. These feats of performance are unbelievable and it all happened within their marriage, they sacrificed everything for it.

Marina & Ulay did a work called Nightsea Crossing where they sat opposite each other, it was an early incarnation of ‘The Artist Is Present’ at the MoMA. Marina and Ulay sit at a table opposite each other, Ulay has a very fast metabolism and he can’t sit still so she’s got much better staying power, he eventually has to get up and leave. She can’t get her head around the fact that he can’t match her and that he just left the art work. 

Just as they orchestrated the beginning, they orchestrated the ending. They chose two fixed points 2,500 miles apart from each other, one in the desert somewhere and one in the Red Sea. They walked for 3 months, none of this was on Instagram, no-one was filming it or congratulating them. They just walked solidly solo for three months towards each other. They met on the Great Wall of China, and as they came close to each other on the Great Wall of China, they just walked past each other. That’s how they broke up after 12 years. 

There is a video of the moment in the MoMA when she was doing The Artist is Present, and she is sat there at the table and Ulay comes in. They have not seen each other since they broke up and she starts crying, he’s crying, everyone is crying. She reaches out and holds his hand. Then he sues the hell out of her because she has been making money for 20 years from their joint collaborations! … And now they’re friends again!

When I talk in the introduction about this thorny thing of biography and how art should stand alone.. You cannot talk about Marina or Ulay without talking about them as people or as a married couple. Without talking about what they sacrificed and how much of their love went into their art and how much of their hate. Marina said that we loved each other so much that when we broke up it had to turn into pure hate. All of that extraordinary creative magic became something quite toxic. They couldn’t look at each other afterwards even though they lived in a van for 12 years and made every single day a living work of art. It’s a sad story.

Kate on her favourite couple to write about in the book..

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One of the couples I really liked writing about was Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire. They were in Picasso’s circle in Paris in 1906, hanging round with Gertrude Stein. They were really entrenched in the Parisian art world. Yet, despite having been so successful, they were completely written out of art history because they committed the greatest sin of being both women and lesbians. They were just not recorded and their work is not properly preserved at all. Gertrude Stein actually writes a poem about them, she disguises their identity but she uses ‘gay’ to mean homosexual for the first time in the English language about those two women. It is absolutely fundamental to the identity of queer art. I’ve been trying to get hold of their work to buy it for Soho House and for myself and I just can’t get it anywhere. It is the thing that is unfinished for me. They were deeply entrenched in the Parisian art world and I want to to find them. They lived until their 80s, they practiced their entire lives and they died together in the South of France. 

Kate on the next step after ‘The Art of Love’..

There will be definitely another volume… but it might have to wait until after the baby! 

Photography by Luke Fullalove.