Juliette Gordon

 

JULIETTE GORDON (b. 1934)

BIOGRAPHY

Juliette Gordon is a witty, perceptive, and highly intelligent artist. Her most iconic works are wickedly funny and sometimes highly political photocollages that were inspired by her involvement in the women’s movement of the early 1970s. At the time, she was exhibiting with the likes of Nancy Spero and May Stevens. Juliette Gordon was a trailblazer, an important member of the feminist art movement in New York, and a respected artist in the inner circles of radical anti-war politics.

Gordon’s position on the status of women artists was made explicit in her essay, First Feminist Manifesto of W.A.R. (Women Artists in Revolution): Women artists should be able to be women and wives, creative beings, colleagues, mothers and not find conflict between these roles. The present economic situation not only deprives the woman of her fulfillment as a total human being, but deprives society of the art of the total woman. We began to crack the traditional record of no hits in the art world during the last half century, but the female is still encased in a basically restricted image which needs to be changed both within the self and in society as both are mutually inter-dependent.

Unfetter the female genius and who knows where this will lead? Without present conflicts and barriers, she can be strongly committed to her chosen art and still be very much a woman.  What will the fiber of our life be then?

Juliette Gordon would have taken her rightful place among her more well-known feminist contemporaries, but her career and nearly her life were curtailed by a disastrous fire in 2003.

Born Juliette Shapiro, on April 12, 1934, in New York City, Juliette and her younger brother, Mitchell, were raised primarily in Connecticut, but the family spent time in Brooklyn and Manhattan as well. Her mother, Ruth Shapiro, had immigrated to the United States from Soviet Russia. She died as a result of a stroke when Juliette was only seventeen. She has very fond memories of her mother but her father was another matter. Unsupportive of his daughter’s artistic aspirations, he was much more enthusiastic about her younger brother’s pursuit of the law. Although he paid for his son’s education, he refused to pay for his daughter’s college. This was an early lesson in the unfairness of gender bias, and affected Gordon politically and personally throughout her life. As a result, she left home to put herself through art school.

Gordon received an excellent art education. Beginning in her teens, she studied at The American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Art Students League, and then the prestigious art college, Cooper Union.  She received her BA at Brooklyn College, where she subsequently taught, and later taught at The City University of New York and in the New York City Public School System.

Gordon’s past is rich and eventful, and her work reflects a life of study and adventure. During an early brief marriage, she traveled extensively throughout Europe, Mexico, and Russia with her husband, a pharmacist and photographer. She continued to travel throughout her life. After her marriage ended in divorce, Gordon drove with a boyfriend to the West Coast and lived with Janice Joplin and the Holding Company in Haight Ashbury. She returned to Manhattan in 1968 and opened The Juliette Gordon Gallery, a store-front space on East 73rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. She lived behind the gallery and showed a number of up-and-coming artists.

Gordon had broad appetites for aesthetic experience and a decades-long career of art-making in assemblage, collage, painting, drawing, and printmaking. Yoko Ono had a loft at 112 Chambers Street where Gordon made a great many large collages and assemblages in 1968. Her work was included in exhibitions of artists who were considered cutting-edge and important, such as Mod Donn Art: 11 Women Artists at the New York Shakespeare Public Theater.

In 1972, Gordon participated in a significant alternative exhibition phenomenon called Ten Downtown, where ten artists opened their studios to the public for four consecutive weekend afternoons once a year. In 1977, Ten Downtown was held at The Institute for Art & Urban Resources, celebrating the Ten Years of Ten Downtown. The installation was curated by Lawrence Alloway, a powerful force in the New York art scene, head of the art department at Stony Brook University, and a critic for the prestigious art magazine, Artforum. Gordon’s involvement in this exhibition proves her position of importance as a member of the art world’s avant-garde.

Gordon was a panelist at a discussion held as part of the International Women’s Arts Festival during the International Woman’s Year in 1975.  The other panelists for the event “Is there a Renaissance Woman?” were Ruth Chai Vodicka (Sculptor/Poet/Writer), Martha Edelheit, (Painter/Filmmaker), Shirley Fuerst (Painter/Printmaker), Donna Marxer (Painter/Writer/Ciommercial Artist), Nadine Valenti (Painter), and Alida Walsh (Sculptor/Filmmaker). The panel discussion was sponsored by and held at Artists Space.

In April 1971, Gordon and her partner, Sam Weinreb, had a son named Noah. Weinreb was a political activist, a silkscreen artist, and the head of the serigraphy department at Parsons. He built his new family a geodesic dome at the Gatehill Cooperative Community, known as “The Land,” a wooded part of upstate New York affiliated with Black Mountain College, where Buckminster Fuller was breaking ground in similar endeavors. Noah spent his early years in a yurt on “The Land” and then in the geodesic dome, as well as in Gordon’s New York apartment where she lived during the school year. Noah went back and forth between his parents’ homes. Even after they had separated as partners, they remained very close friends.

In the 1980s, Gordon bought a building on 24th Street in Manhattan to make a home for herself and her son. She rented out part of the building. On the first floor, she had a studio and a gallery, The Star Turtle Gallery, where she showed her own work.

Gordon taught art for thirty years, traveling to the South Bronx, Washington Heights, and Brooklyn. As a role model for countless aspiring artists, she continued to mentor many of them well beyond graduation. What she gave her students was a taste of her great enthusiasm for the process of making art, as well as her enjoyment of the New York art scene. She lived a colorful life, riding her bicycle from art opening to art opening, gathering detritus for her assemblages, and celebrating the world of art. I love the image of her riding all over Manhattan on her bicycle, attending gallery openings and meetings of artists organizing alternative exhibition options, and generally rebelling against the established art systems which ignored great portions of the population of artists, including women and artists of color.

While her son was attending Reed College, Gordon traveled in Russia and continued her art career in New York. Things were good. She retired from teaching. She had a pension, she invested wisely, and there were rents from three floors of the building.

In 2001, while Noah was enrolled in a postgraduate theater program in California, his mother suffered a stroke. Noah came home immediately. The stroke left her with loss of mobility in her left arm, some loss of cognitive function, and a slight change in her personality. Noah cleared out the second floor of their building so that she could move back from an assisted living and rehabilitation residence in Washington Heights, where she had been recovering after her hospitalization. They bought a Macintosh computer and Gordon began making digital art as she recovered from the stroke.

Noah stayed with his Mother, living on the 5th floor, and in 2003 they had a terrible fire, caused by either an electrical or heater malfunction. Noah rescued his mother from the burning building. He had previously moved all of her artwork into a loft space, and when he went back to assess the damage, he saw that the fire had burned right up to her artwork and stopped! It was a miracle that her work was saved.

Gordon suffered serious burns on her forehead and body. She was put into an induced coma for six months so that she could heal and not experience the pain, but because of her age and the damage from the stroke, the doctors told Noah that there was only a fifty-percent chance of her coming out of the coma. Her brother, Mitchell Shapiro, became her legal guardian and she was moved to a nursing home in Rockland County, New York.

Noah initially put his mother’s art into a storage space in Manhattan. Later, it moved to Nyack, closer to where his mother was living. Noah’s father, Sam Weinreb, still lived in Nyack and began paying the rent on the unit where Gordon’s work was stored. Weinreb continued to visit Gordon until he died in April 2015. He loved her greatly and believed that her work deserved significant recognition. He was truly a warrior on her behalf!

In 2012, Mitchell Shapiro’s guardianship was replaced with that of Lee Hoffman.

I have gotten to know Juliette Gordon only late in her life. John Sammes Gardner, a great friend of Sam Weinreb, introduced me to both Sam and Juliette Gordon in 2013, and I was hooked. Since then, I have gotten to know Noah, her son, who saved her life and her art and continues to be a very important part of Gordon’s life.  He lives in Massachusettes and visits her as often as he can.

When I met Gordon, she had not been making art or talking much for ten years. Her left hand was damaged by her stroke and is unusable, and she has limited mobility in her wheelchair. She had retreated fairly far into her fantasy world. However, as I continued to visit her and talk with her about her art, she began to trust me and to respond more and more. She is still a rebel, with an acerbic wit and twinkle in her eyes, often surprising me with her wisdom.

Gordon’s work never achieved the level of acclaim it deserved because her career was cut short by the horrific fire. Although hardly touched by the fire, her work incurred considerable damage from the smoke. Her oeuvre was able to be salvaged but remained in storage for many years. Recently, her work has been cleaned, restored, and documented. It is time for Juliette Gordon’s work to receive the exposure and recognition it deserves.

Since the fire, Gordon has lived in rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes, and uses a wheelchair. Although her left hand does not function as the result of her stroke, the good news is that she is right handed! For the last three years, Gordon has been creating amazing new artworks! Her spirit has not diminished!

Gordon is now 84. I have had the honor of working with her for six years. During that time, I have studied her life’s work and assisted her in making her art. In the latter capacity, I am an extra pair of hands and an admiring comrade. She is the artist. I have been visiting her two or three times a week. My job is to offer her choices of media, purchase her art supplies, organize her supplies, open her markers, bring out and show her the various pieces she has begun to work on, and ask which she would like to continue to work on today. I do encourage her. Every artist has bouts of self-doubt. But I am not her teacher, nor do we collaborate on the work. Every decision is made by her. During the time I have been working with her, I have developed an increasingly profound admiration for Gordon’s courage and artistic integrity.

Juliette Gordon’s work needs to be seen, recognized, and preserved for future generations of artists. She made a significant mark on the feminist art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She fought for women, against war, and for artistic freedom. She exhibited with the most respected contemporary feminist artists of her time, including Nancy Spero and May Stevens.

Gordon’s work is sophisticated and rapturous. Her art and writing contributed significantly to the period in which she worked in New York, and the integrity of her message is unabashed.  Now that her oeuvre of over 1500 works has been rediscovered, resuscitated, and recorded, it is time to present it so that she can take her rightful place in the history of the art of her period. We are hoping for a retrospective of her work at some time.

Dr. Andrew Hottle, the art historian with a specialty in New York feminist art of the 1970s, has created an inventory catalogue of Gordon’s oeuvre. Dr. Hottle is Professor of Art History at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. Among other publications, he is the author of The Art of The Sister Chapel: Exemplary Women, Visionary Creators, and Feminist Collaboration (Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2014). In collaboration with Dr. Hottle, the Philadelphia-based professional photographer Karen Mauch has documented 747 of Gordon’s most significant works. 

Sharon Wybrants, Artist