Women Making History and Art

By Stuart Mitchner 

In Hillary Clinton’s What Happened (Simon and Schuster $30), published less than a year after her shocking defeat, she says of women: “We’re not the ones up there behind the podium rallying crowds…. It’s discordant to tune into a political rally and hear a woman’s voice booming (‘screaming,’ ‘screeching’) forth. Even the simple fact of a woman standing up and speaking to a crowd is relatively new.”

It’s as though she were setting the stage for the event celebrated in Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World (Dey Street Books $30), which chronicles and celebrates the historic uprising that took place on January 21, 2017. Compiled by Women’s March organizers, in partnership with Condé Nast and Glamour magazine Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive, the book features recollections from women who were there in “Voices from the March,” along with essays by Senator Tammy Duckworth (“Do Something”), Ashley Judd (“The Roar”), Valarie Kaur (“Revolutionary Love Is the Call of Our Times”), Jill Soloway (“To Go Or Not to Go”), Jia Tolentino (“The Beauty and Danger of the Women’s March”), and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (“Closing the Gap”), among others.

This amply illustrated, 323-page best-seller is dedicated to  “Women, documented and undocumented: the daughters, the mothers, the caregivers, the workers, the trans warriors, the witches, the artists, the refugees, the leaders. You are our light in the dark.”

The brightest, steadiest, most mind-altering light is the one beaming from artists like the women featured in the books mentioned here, whether performing, writing, singing, composing, or making photographic art.

“Lost in the Flood”

Laurie Anderson is nothing if not an artist. But a single word doesn’t do her justice. Covering one of her periodic appearances at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, in September 2008, Nassau Weekly’s Raymond Zhong refers to the “instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, visual artist, avant-gardist, poet, photographer, filmmaker, technologist, writer, and, most prevailingly, performance artist.” He pictures her as “sleek and skinny in dark grey and black, her hair tersely and intensely cut,” standing “with violin and synths in the center of the stage.”

Anderson’s concept of art and performance depends on an acute attention to the nuances of language. In her big new book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood (Rizzoli Electra $75), she writes, “The world is made of stories and as stories escalate and get shorter and shorter until they’re ten-word tweets and as our sense of reality continues to shred, we see that this is not a political situation, it’s an existential one.”

Explaining the existential challenge of performing, Anderson points out “the difference between spoken and written words; the influence of the audience; the use of first-, second-, and third-person voices; metaphor; politics-as-stories; codes; the difference between language in stories, dreams and songs; misunderstandings and new meanings.”

Besides recording numerous albums, Anderson has exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; the Musée d’art contemporain, Lyon, France; Fondazione Tramontano Arte, Naples; and the Park Avenue Armory in New York.  

“Something Unexpected”

The first time I saw the photography of Annie Leibovitz was in Rolling Stone, back in the days when it was still a tabloid focused mainly on rock and the counter culture, a decade before her most famous image, the January 22, 1981 cover shot of the late John Lennon, naked, in Yoko’s embrace. Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 (Phaidon Press $89.95), with an introduction by Alexandra Fuller, is her follow-up to Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, 1970-1990 and A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. While the new collection focuses on “the most influential and compelling figures of the last decade,” celebrity and status and “beautiful people” are not the whole story according to Oprah Winfrey: “Whether she’s photographing the famous and powerful—or simply the woman next door—Annie always captures something unexpected and deeply personal.”

The Daily Telegraph Magazine finds the book “formidable in its breadth, and its weight…. This is Leibovitz in excelsis: movie and music stars, politicians and power brokers … as well as a panoply of less familiar characters and still-lifes from her Pilgrimage series of objects and places with historical resonance. It is a record not only of Leibovitz’s life as a photographer over 11 years, but of American life.”

Leibovitz has been designated a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and her work is exhibited at museums around the world.

A Call to Action

The photograph of Patti Smith included among the portraits in Leibovitz’s new book, taken at Electric Lady studios in New York in 2007, has intimations of the Old West. In her black hat and black jacket, Smith could be a preacher or a bounty hunter, which is apparently not the impression Leibovitz had in mind, with her reference to “all those wonderful recording studio objects in the background.” On the occasion of this shoot, the photographer says Smith, “was just walking the streets and rang my studio door. She came up and I did a very simple portrait of her against gray paper. Patti understands photography so well—she is kind of like a photographer’s muse.”

Although at first I found it hard to accept the idea of the multi-talented Smith as “a photographer’s muse,” it makes sense when you consider her commitment to exploring the creative moment. How seriously she herself takes the term is shown by the emphasis and range she allows it in the preface to her latest book Devotion (Yale University Press $18), which begins, “Inspiration is the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.” For Smith the effect is cosmic: “The stars pulse. The muse seeks to be vivified. But the mind is also the muse,” seeking to “rewire such sources of inspiration…. Why does the creative spirit turn on itself? Why does the maker twist all drama? The pen is lifted, guided by the shattered muse.” The image that follows, the first in the book, is a photograph of two pages of handwritten manuscript captioned “Writing Desk, New York City.” Desk, pen, and paper is what it’s all about: the primal image.

In the final chapter of Devotion, which is part of Yale’s “Why I Write” series, Smith describes sitting at Albert Camus’s desk savoring the manuscript of his last book while his daughter Catherine looks on. Smith writes, “One could feel a sense of a focused mission and the racing heart propelling the last words of the final paragraph, the last he was to write.” At this point, she discerns “a familiar shift” in her concentration. She wants to write. “That is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action,” a call she believes she can answer. “What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels…. What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions.”

Writing in the Barnes & Noble Review, David Ulin observes that “as she has gotten older, Smith’s vision has expanded, framing her self-awareness not as self-absorption but rather a deep dive into everything, the exhilaration and the terror and the transcendence that we all share.” 

No one, male or female, shines a steadier, brighter light than Patti Smith, who never stops growing and learning and spreading the word about her heroes, muses, inspirations, notably Blake, Rimbaud, and Mishima, not to mention Simone Weil, Sylvia Plath, and Frida Kahlo, who take their place among the women “documented and undocumented” in the dedication of Together We Rise, “our light in the dark.”

Kate, Joni, Stevie, and Sarah

Speaking of shining lights, some recent books about some unique women are: Kate: Inside the Rainbow (Sphere $65), photographs and memories of Kate Bush from her brother John Carder Bush; Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe (Sarah Crichton Books $28); Stephen Davis’s biography of Stevie Nicks, Gold Dust Woman (St. Martins Press $27.99); and Elaine M. Hayes’s Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99).