Artists Who Tie the Knot

During her five years of marriage to sculptor William King, the now 90 year-old painter Lois Dodd said that she “got to do all the womanly stuff…I always thought Bill’s work was great, so I was happy to support his career,” which also was probably the womanly thing to say during the 1950s. 

She met King when the two were art students at Cooper Union and, well, you know how these things happen. With friends and school and ambitions in common, they became an item, and it probably is that way in every field, then and now. What may be different now is the willingness of one or the other spouse – let’s say it, the wife – to put her own career on the back burner while he gets to advance in his. (It still may take place, but not as comfortably as in decades back.)

It probably helps to talk about certain issues in advance of tying the knot. Do they plan to collaborate or have separate careers? Will each artist be supportive of the other when that person’s career and work appears to be receiving more or less attention, or will competition become a problem? If both are working at home, is it okay for one to just walk into the other’s studio, or should permission be sought? When is it okay (or is it ever okay) to offer comments and suggestions about each other’s work? Are household and childcare chores going to be shared?

There are a number of reasons that people marry or divorce but, sometimes, it is because they are both artists. Another artist will understand the art one is attempting to create, will accept the lifestyle and serve as an in-house supporter as well as an experienced eye. Another artist may also be in-house competition and one’s fiercest critic, resentful of one’s success and scornful in his or her own.

There are various ways that artists attempt to resolve the tensions of both spouses being artists, such as establishing separate studios (for instance, he gets the garage and she gets an out-building), never visiting each other’s studios without asking first, using different dealers and generally staying out of each other’s careers. On the home studio side, one has the example of the house that Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had built for himself and his painter wife Frida Kahlo. There were two separate buildings, containing two separate living units and art studios, connected by a bridge on the second floor level. That bridge was narrow and somewhat rickety, which undoubtedly made the 300-pound Rivera hesitant about barging in on his wife. There were problems in their marriage, but getting disrupted while working wasn’t one of them.

“Marriage, whatever you are doing, is a negotiation from the get-go,” said sculptor Marc Mellon, who has been married for 30 years to sculptor Babette Bloch. “If you decide to have children, as we did, you have to work out who does what when. Who changes the diapers and who gets to be the artist?”

Fair to say, they did not have those discussions before getting hitched, but the nitty-gritty of two artists living under the same roof wasn’t on their minds at that moment. “We both knew that if we didn’t do art we wouldn’t be happy. We were compelled to create. Also, we knew we wanted to have children and have a house outside of the city.” Good, good. So, who’s going to mow that lawn? Who takes on the 3:00 a.m. feeding?

Marc’s career was somewhat more advanced than Babette’s, which tended to decide these matters when they came up. “Our first child was born two years and two months after getting married” – it’s impressive in itself that he remembers such things – “and a lot of the early decisions had to do with how I could keep working and do the stuff that brings in money while the other things get taken care of” (that’s where Babette comes in). “With the second baby, I helped out somewhat more. It got better and easier for her as I became more engaged.”

Becoming engaged meant figuring out some household appliances. “For a number of years, I claimed to not know how the washing machine worked,” he said. “I told her that if I tried to work it, our clothes may not come out clean.” Eventually, Babette demonstrated the operation of the settings and when or if to put in bleach. “Babette let me slide on that for five years.”

Babette, he added, “is super-creative in the kitchen…and in the studio,” which also lets us know who’s been flipping the chops all these years. “Men need to evolve,” Mellon said. “If we are with strong, smart, contemporary women, we must understand that they have the same goals that men have.”

Undoubtedly, every marriage requires tolerance and a sense of humor, which would be brought to the marital negotiations over who does what. The changing role of women in and out of marriage make it incumbent upon men to reassess older assumptions. Painter Mimi Gross noted that “the role of women has changed a great deal” since the start of her 13-year marriage to multi-media artist Red Grooms back in 1963 (she did not wish to elaborate), and Emily Mason noted that she married fellow painter Wolf Kahn in 1957, “before the women’s movement really got going.” Still, Mason said that “we worked things out pretty early on. Before I got married, my mother wrote me on a postcard ‘Keep your head: art first,’” and managing both a career and a home life proved not to be overly difficult for her.

“I thought it was important that I was home at 3 p.m. when the kids came back from school, but between 9 a.m. when they went off to school and 3 p.m. when they came home I could get a lot done.” She might have taken a page from sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who told me some years ago, “You have children for 15 years, not for 80 years. It’s just one episode in your life. There’s a lot more to life than that.” A less happy remembrance for Mason was telling her friend, the artist Biala, that she was pregnant with her first child Cecily and being told by the twice-married artist “Good, there still is time to have an abortion.”

Sometimes, it is just overly difficult for two married artists to have their own careers, so one has to put (her) career on hold for decades or longer. Sally Avery’s career as a painter remained largely nascent until her husband Milton Avery died in 1965, and when she began exhibiting her own work after that she used her maiden name Sally Michel in order to establish her own identity. During their marriage, “I wasn’t trying to promote my own work,” she said. “I tried to promote his work, because I thought he was a better artist than me.” Similarly, Bernard Bryson Shahn shelved her painting career for much of her 34-year marriage to Ben Shahn, not because of pressure from her husband but just because. “The marriage contract was just like that back then,” she said. “It was never the intention of my husband to stop from me from painting – in fact, he always encouraged me and others to express ourselves, and he never felt that there was only one way, his way, to paint – but one has obligations as a wife. I never intended to hold off on my career, but I just found myself in that circumstance.” It wasn’t until three years after his death in 1969 that she took up her brushes again.

Some artist-wives, such as Helen Sloan (John Sloan) and Emma Bellows (George Bellows) to name a few, completely give up on their art, never to pursue it again. Jo Hopper, wife of painter Edward Hopper, never fully gave up but was unhappy for years at the art world’s lack of interest in her painting. Gail Levin, an art historian and former curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, noted that the museum “was given a number of her paintings along with the Edward Hopper bequest [in 1968], but most of her work was either given away or thrown out. Jo Hopper was not as good a painter as Edward Hopper, who was one of the greatest American artists ever, but she was as good as many a minor male painter who is currently in the Whitney’s collection. Edward Hopper’s fame was just too much for her career.”

That fame may have been a sore point throughout the Hopper marriage. Ben Shahn saw Jo Hopper as bitter and “rather jealous of her husband,” Bernarda Bryson Shahn said. “Ben used to complain that when he and others visited Edward Hopper, Jo was always trying to bring attention to herself and her work instead of his work. She was always bringing out her work into the middle of the room. I know of a lot of embittered wives of artists.”

Tensions are not necessarily lessened when an artist marries a nonartist. Janet Fish, a painter who first married and divorced an artist, then married and divorced a nonartist and currently lives with another artist, noted that “problems about being an artist are really symptomatic of other problems in the relationship. Men simply have more problems than women with competition. There is something in their upbringing that requires them to be the breadwinner. The bad relationships I’ve had have been when the man’s ego has been too tender.”

She added that “I know some women artists who say their husbands never come to their openings or to see their shows, as though they are trying to deny these careers exist.”

By Daniel Grant

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