Andrea Geyer’s work is an act of feminist archaeology. Unearthing the hidden legacies of female artists, activists and other visionaries, ‘If I Told Her’ – the German-born, New York-based artist’s first solo exhibition at Hales Gallery – constructs a fascinating mosaic of missing pieces from the history of 20th-century modernism.
The walls are lined with a series of reworked photographs titled ‘Constellations’ (2017–ongoing), shown here for the first time. The black and white portraits, with their poised angles and dramatic lighting, capture a host of influential women who held court at bohemian 20th-century salons: vital, if largely forgotten, players in the birth of American modernism.
Yet, in Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein with Pepe and Basket (2018), we’re invited to observe a scene at odds with the fabled accounts of their artistically cross-pollinating soirées at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. The two women, in what appear to be matching floral dresses resembling bad curtains, are sat on a stone wall, cradling their dogs. Stein enigmatically squints through a half smile, while Toklas is tight-lipped and pensive.
Geyer overlays these portraits – discovered during the artist’s 2012–13 research fellowship at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – with abstract frames taken from Josef Albers’s cubist-esque ‘Structural Constellation’ drawings of the early 1950s. These superimposed optical illusions scramble perspective; the images metamorphose into broken kaleidoscopes, forcing us to look again at the distorting lens of mainstream narratives.
A’Lelia Walker (2018) captures the wealthy patron of the arts and daughter of one of the first black female millionaires in America, smiling quietly in a flowing kaftan and turban. Geyer’s eye seems drawn to the utopian energy of this milieu, and the way in which it freely crossed divisions of race and class in its melting pot of radical ideals.
The show’s titular work is a series of ladders carved from wood and delicately draped with horsehair (2017). Inspired by The Ladder, a magazine first published in 1956 by lesbian civil rights activists Daughters of Bilitis (named after a collection of poems by the Sappho-worshipping erotic writer, Pierre Louÿs), it’s a 3D reworking of the publication’s logo (a runged ladder ascending to the clouds). Geyer’s re-imagining plays with the idea of transcendence and ‘breaking through’, replicating the supportive network that the subjects of ‘Constellations’ offered other women on the margins.
This reshaping of domestic materials – turning feminine ‘softness’ into strength – is continued in ‘Collective Weave’ (2017): a series of fabrics patterned with silkscreen symbols and drawings from lesbian-feminist flyers and magazines, which are folded neatly over hangers. Lavender Woman / July 1976, v5 no 1 (Amy Sillman) features strewn pink body parts, like those of an artist’s mannequin, while The Ladder / May 1959, v3 no 8 (P.L., Paris, France) is decorated with a repeated motif of two women, face to face, a dog nestling between them. Geyer politicizes the conventionally female spheres of craft and fashion, stitching into innocuous surfaces a more charged and embattled history.
Finally, Time Tenderness (2015) is an eight-minute film projected onto a hanging screen. Shot on 16mm, it records a performance in the galleries of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, lending a vintage, found-footage feel to an abstract mime between two female dancers: one black, statuesque, nose pierced; the other white and hippy-ish, in a blue fringed dress and bandana. Interspersed are shots of the work of mostly male American heavyweights, such as Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning. The piece brings an embodied physical female presence to what is still largely a male-dominated space, imaging a new way of inhabiting both the art gallery and the world beyond it.
Main image: Andrea Geyer, Constellations (Hester Thrale after John Singleton Copley), 2018, (detail), collaged archival prints on paper, 99 x 77 cm. Courtesy: Hales Gallery, London