For Women Artists, the Art World Can Be a Minefield

The content of my paintings does not give you permission to harass me

Like many women, I’ve been following the harrowing stories about the systematic victimization of women by Harvey Weinstein and the power structures that enabled him and others in various industries from film to publishing to fashion. Recently, allegations of harassment have been leveled against men in the art world as well. Throughout my career, I’ve had run-ins with men in positions of power in that world who have behaved inappropriately, with impunity. While none of these rises to the level of what Weinstein’s subjects experienced, they have nevertheless made me feel small; they’ve frightened, degraded, and intimidated me.

Ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties and had just moved to New York, I wasn’t prepared for the male aggression I encountered. My experience with verbal abuse and intimidation from men in positions of power began when I was in graduate school. I had a studio visit from an older artist, a photographer who was then a hotshot having exhibitions at a major New York gallery. In my studio, he launched into a litany of comments preceded by the phrase “I can tell what kind of girl you are . . . ”, comments such as, I bet you like your boyfriend to tie you up, I bet you like it rough. He ended by leaning toward me and saying, “You know what you need, you need to be fucked up the ass.” He then asked for my notebook (I had not been taking notes) and wrote: 25 nude self-portraits by this date, and his email address. I didn’t know I could say, “Get out of my studio.” To this day, I wish I had. I was dumbfounded and silent. Shortly thereafter, I burst into tears.

I finished graduate school at a time when the market was hot and young artists’ work was in high demand. I was fortunate to be able to sell work and find a gallery and support myself. Just as I was about to have my first New York solo exhibition, art critic Charlie Finch, who had taken an interest in my work, wrote an article, published on Artnet, entitled “The Seduction of Natalie Frank.” Written using the royal we, the piece included suggestive phrases such as “a young, virginal star” and the following scene setting: “In the heat, Natalie sweated through acrylics and oils in a wife beater shirt for twelve hours at a time. At our direction, she would wipe away days of work in a flash to add a cascade of decaying flowers or some phallic armature.” At the time, one art blog compared the piece to a date rape. I felt disgusted, humiliated and objectified. Even long after this, I would go to an art opening and upon learning my name, someone would say, “Oh! You’re the wife beater girl.” Why was something like this published?

Other experiences range from the banal to the bizarre: an editor for a European art journal asked me over email if I would like to masturbate in a bathroom in Chelsea with him. At a dinner, the older, married gallery owner sitting next to me asked me in front of 15 people where I lived and would I like to go back to my house “and fuck.” I reported him and was told that, yes, he did this often. “We won’t seat him next to women next time,” they said.

On another occasion, a powerful, married filmmaker, a friend of my boss at the time, called to invite me to a sex club. When I asked why he thought he could ask me this, he responded: “your work.” This wouldn’t be the last time I heard this. Yes, I paint images of strong women who explore their own complex sexualities, and often depict them engaging in violence and theatricality. Yes, I have painted dominatrices and illustrated unsanitized fairy tales; I am working on drawings based on The Story of O. They once accused the artist Walter Sickert of being Jack the Ripper because of the imagery in his paintings—can one claim I am inviting harassment because of what I draw? I want my work to celebrate the permutations of women’s imaginations, and I have learned to assert my voice actively in my work: in drawing and painting, in the writing in books I’ve produced, and especially when I speak about my work publicly, to students.

Recently, I had a run-in with a curator from a powerful institution, whose work I truly admired. After a studio visit during which he dangled offers of acquisition, collector support, and introductions, we met for drinks, as planned, at a public bar. I inquired about his wife and small children, and we discussed our many mutual professional colleagues. I generally drink very little if at all in professional situations like this—I’m always careful to cover my arms, even, something most women I know are aware of having to do. Following a bottle of wine for him (sparkling water for me—I was on antibiotics), the evening ended up in a not-so-comic game of Pictionary, as he announced that he’d discovered a hidden image of a giant cock and balls in the marble fireplace. Time to go, I decided. After I left, he sent me text messages, including the word “Grrrrrrr!,” asking me to stay with him. No follow-up about my work, no appearance at my opening. I kept quiet, thinking, well, sometimes people drink too much; but then I learned that this wasn’t the first time he had done this. I have spoken to a member of the museum’s board, to outside legal counsel, and in a statement to the museum. I know I’m not alone; his reputation for impropriety is known, earning him the prefix “Grabbin” added to his name. Here’s hoping the institution will do the right thing.

I would rather have written here about the many women and men who have supported, mentored, and taught me along the way. I have had great experiences of deep friendship, unfettered respect, and cooperation in the art world—from both men and women—and am truly grateful for these. I am also happy to say that I’ve worked with formidable women dealers, and my work has been acquired by some exceptional individuals—women and men both. Friends and colleagues in the art world include activists, writers, and artists I greatly admire. I joined the Council for Feminist Art at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum a few years back; this is the kind of institution that I hope will proliferate. Let’s remember, we are only as strong as our community.


© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.