Can Women Have One-Man Shows?: Nina Yankowitz Paintings 1960s-1970s | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Can Women Have One-Man Shows?: Nina Yankowitz Paintings 1960s-1970s

Can Women Have One-Man Shows?: Nina Yankowitz Paintings 1960s-1970s
Nina Yankowitz

Eric Firestone Gallery
40 Great Jones Street, ground floor, New York, NY
September 9-October 22, 2022
Gallery website:

Reviewed by: 
Ellen Levy
November 2022

An artwork often bears traces of meaning in the early layers; sometimes its significance is only fully visible in retrospect. Nina Yankowitz’s exhibition, “Can Women Have One-Man Shows 1960s-1970s?” at the Eric Firestone Gallery (NYC), linked her inventive body of work created some 50 years earlier to recent modes of professional practice. Aided by imaginative leaps, courage, and an assortment of tools, Yankowitz’s 1967-1970 draped works reconceived surface and support in configuring her feminist art. She abandoned wooden stretcher supports, sprayed canvases with linear forms using a compressor, and then twisted the totality into amorphous shapes bearing the newly distorted forms. The paintings were then draped down walls as seen in her work, “Draped Impotent Square” (1969). She, along with installers who made decisions regarding the cascading of material on the wall, effectively sculpted canvas and linen. The initial show of these draped paintings took place in January 1970 at the Kornblee Gallery (NYC), marking the onset of a path from analog to digital. It is expected that an artist’s early works would inform those which came later; what is far less obvious are the ways that Yankowitz interleaves issues surrounding weaving, including labor, the body, and sound, viewing them as enmeshed and pointing to an interconnected sensorium.

Part of the aim of feminists was to provide women parity with men. Textiles became one weapon in the fight of feminist artists to protest exclusion from the mainstream art world and its male hegemony. Feminist artists, such as Yankowitz, valued weaving’s association with craft. Yankowitz wove personal concerns and interpretive scripts into the medium and questioned the designation of “high art” that had been granted primarily to traditional painting. Yankowitz’s 16 paintings from the late 1960s and 1970s exhibited at the Firestone Gallery along with “Dilated Grain Reading” works from 1973 and 1974 literally deflated the rigidity of abstract geometric form and support, favoring instead a sense of the organic and feminine. To place these works in context, the shift to an organic paradigm can be seen in works of the 1970s that sculpt the body, like Eleanor Antin’s documenting her body as it shed weight and in Carolee Schneemann’s provocative emphasis on the body’s sexuality as she unraveled a scroll from her vagina in 1975. Even earlier, iconic organic works by Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois focused on the female body. Early works of Mimi Shapiro in which she set aside her early Held-like geometric forms in favor of fans stress associations with the feminine. Such approaches were intended to transgress norms of formality and aesthetic structure. Among other insightful writings on the topic, I recommend a recent book by Judith Brodsky [1]

Yankowitz threads a trajectory of thinking/making from analog to digital that may also remind us of weaving’s associations with the computer. It is well known that the Jacquard Loom that punched cards to produce woven designs was the source of mathematician Ada Lovelace’s algorithms. Artists, such as Beryl Korot and Eve Laramee, have featured this association in their works. Yankowitz’s artwork called “Untitled” was a “Thread Reading” (included in the inaugural 1973 Whitney Biennale); it was made of glued cotton duck strings and paint rolled on the surface. Yankowitz relates that her process created a surface to “scan as visual scripts for people to read, perform, personalize, or re-arrange the abstract language composition.” [2] Her work, entitled “Dilated Grain Reading/Blue Pitches,” (1974) consisted of extruded acrylic/flash paint on tight or loosely woven linen paths to be “read” along the surface paint markings. This group of works serves as notated visual text sound scores that viewers could interpret individually. Yankowitz would transition to aesthetic production via computer programs as her own soft wears evolved into the software of electronic text and data base art.

Medium specificity was vaulted by 1970 critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. As opposed to neutral geometry, Yankowitz’s abstract works are rife with personality. Ebullient works, entitled “Goldie Lox” (1968), “Sagging Spiro” (1969) and “Breaking Bars,” (also 1969) reflect some of the political foment of the time, including civil unrest, the Viet Nam War, and Watergate. Yankowitz created a sense of aura based in tactility and presence, but with a difference. Instead of stressing only properties of the medium (Yankowitz established the works’ shapes through gravity), she favored translating one medium into other media and insinuating multiple sensory associations, such as sound, touch, and sight. Her “Pleated Paintings” became a forerunner to her “seeing sounds” works. As an actual synesthete, she notes that she used paint “to act as a visual notated score for performing ‘multiple internal voices’ and by ‘seeing sounds.’” These associations were exemplified in her early 1967 draped painting “Oh Say Can You See” and a 1968 audio collaboration with Ken Werner AKA Phil Harmonic, an early participant in Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Sound helped integrate different sensory elements in her installations. For her second show “The Acoustics of Space” at the Steffanotti Gallery (1981), Yankowitz stated in e-mail exchange with me that she used her National Endowment for the Arts Planning Grant to “create pieces making a correlation between the absorption of sound in architectural spaces and the absorption of color in paintings.”

Yankowitz’s use of material taps a rich aesthetic and political vein. Along with other artists, her art pointed to issues of class distinctions in addition to gender and the body. Her “Pleated Paintings” (early 1970s) were created by running lengths of canvas through pleating machines before spraying them with paint. Pleats are formed by doubling fabric back on itself and securing it in place. Tight pleats can cling or expand according to the body’s contours. In short, pleat makers sculpt clothing by creating a tight relationship between clothing and the body. The pleat originated in ancient Egyptian garments and graced tunics worn by the upper class. Stitching, too, indicated class differences. Yankowitz avoided typical 19th century sewing techniques, such as mending, knitting, crochet, and embroidery. Instead, she worked with sailboat makers to stich small color-threaded abstract shapes on the surface or to shirr the canvas to retain its “gathered” form. Perhaps it’s not too much to read into her choice of stitching Yankowitz’s refusal to be confined in a domestic context, instead embracing choices that reflect an individual’s life experiences.

Labor conditions have proved to be a fertile area for artistic critique. In recent years, artists Lisa Oppenheim and Cao Fei have examined the topic of women’s work in factories. The formation of labor unions was an important weapon of protest. Yankowitz forged a passage from the individual to the collective, marking her own entrance into the Heresies collective in which feminism develops a collective force that casts a critical eye on labor, social injustices, and the prevalent acceptance of a formal patriarchal approach to artmaking. In correspondence Yankowitz states in response that she “foresaw the future to be collaborative installations that can change over time in accordance with what is deemed as relevant at the time, defined by the people not by the patriarchy.”

Yankowitz’ work connects the gaps between separate sensory domains such as touch and vision, enhanced by her favoring verbs rather than nouns. For example, in her hands, cloth denotes actions like folding and hanging, and costumes become costuming. I view her work as forging a dialog with the exhibition, “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), in which the activity of the artist is a dominant theme. In the media trajectory from analog to digital, Yankowitz sows/sews a path from thread to threading, and she stretches sound to integrate it with stitching. Friedrich Kittler famously claimed that once everything is made binary, “any medium can be translated into any other,” [3] but that is not the complete story and certainly not as it relates to Yankowitz. Throughout her career Yankowitz melds data with personal experience, retaining the sensual appeal of multiple media. She indexes and categorizes data in recent decades but typically ties it to controversial issues (e.g., identity, religion, recognition). Yankowitz continues her feminist critique in works about women in science unrecognized for contributions during the time of their discoveries, using virtual reality and 3D surround video media. In one installation she digitally fashions the garments worn by the women scientists as what she designates as “ghosted shadows.”

During and following the 1960s, significant restructurings took place, particularly about art in relation to technology. Yankowitz was productively inspired by pivotal exhibitions such as “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” (MoMA, 1968-1969) and by the work by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and by engineers Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer who co-founded the nonprofit E.A.T. Its predecessor was "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" (1966), which was held that year in New York City.

Timing, of course, is everything. By chance, the synchronicity of Yankowitz’s exhibition at the Firestone gallery with curator Lilly Tuttle’s “Analog City: New York B.C. (Before Computers)” at the Museum of the City of New York, also highlights time’s arrow. Both exhibitions unearth early layers of technology, one of a city and one of a prescient art practice. Yankowitz’s art on view at the Eric Firestone Gallery, NYC, serves in essence, as a potent time capsule.


[1] Judith Brodsky, Dismantling the Male Patriarchy Bit by Bit (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2021).

[2] Comments made by Nina Yankowitz are designated by quotations. They are from our email correspondence.

[3] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Stanford 1999, p.1.