The blonde has been an iconic and highly influential ideal of feminine beauty in American culture since the mid-20th century. Yet beginning with American Pop Art in the early 1960s, the blonde has also become a touchstone for artistic representation and critical inquiry. In November, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis will present Beauty and the Blonde: An Exploration of American Art and Popular Culture, the first museum show to investigate the strategic use of the blonde in contemporary art.
Organized by Catharina Manchanda, Ph.D., curator of the Kemper Art Museum, Beauty and the Blonde will survey how artists have interpreted the blonde in a wide range of visual media, from prints, painting and sculpture to collage, film, video, photography and interactive web projects. Also featured will be a selection of advertisements, magazines, cartoons, film posters, album covers, Barbie imagery and other materials — mainly from the 1950s and 60s — that have helped to shape popular notions about the blonde.
Iconic Blonde, the first of three thematic sections, traces the recurring yet often ambiguous or ironic depiction of the blonde in American Pop Art, as well as her ability to function as a critique of traditional artistic genres such as portraiture and the nude. Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, which he began creating shortly after the star’s suicide in 1962, epitomize the artist’s lifelong fascination with the double-bind of celebrity and death. Robert Rauschenberg’s series Reels (B + C) (1968) — which appropriates frames from the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty — explores the blonde rebel through the depiction of violence in individual film stills. Roy Lichtenstein engages images of the blonde in comics while Duane Hanson, Tom Wesselmann and Mel Ramos emphasize the commercialization of sexuality.
Deconstructing the Blonde, the second section, surveys the ways in which artists of the 1970s and ’80s, informed by feminist thought and new conceptual approaches, began a more sharply critical investigation of the blonde ideal and its representation in popular media. Martha Rosler’s photomontage Bowl of Fruit (1966-72) questions two market-driven formulas — the blonde-as-pinup and the blonde-as-homemaker — while Laurie Simmons’ Pushing Lipstick (Full Profile) (1979) upends depictions of the non-erotic housewife by showing a toy doll inclining towards a gigantic phallic lipstick. Works by John Baldessari and William Wegman analyze how light and perspective can be complicit in bolstering blonde stereotypes. Dara Birnbaum’s video Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (1979) manipulates footage from the game show Hollywood Squares to explore the banal and sometimes bizarre gestures of male and female self-presentation.
Meanwhile performance artists such as Lynn Hershman Leeson and Pat Oleszko intervene in everyday life through fictitious characters and alter egos that question and satirize perceptions of the blonde. Performance strategies also underlie Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), in which the artist adopts the guise of a hypothetical film actress while duplicating various cinematic poses and practices. Sherman also explores the vulnerabilities of blonde beauty in Untitled # 188 (1989), a staged photograph of an inflatable blonde doll lying prone on a pile of debris.
The final section, Transforming the Blonde, looks at how artists of different racial and cultural backgrounds interpret the image of the blonde. The video Free, White, and 21 (1980), by the African-American artist Howardena Pindell, shows her conversing with a blonde white woman (actually Pindell in makeup and blonde wig) about questions of discrimination. For the photographic suite Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations) (1972/1997), the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta employed wigs, makeup, shampoo and nylon stockings to distort her own visage and create hybrids that elude racial expectations.
Millie Wilson’s White Girl (1995) consists of a seven-foot-tall mass of synthetic blonde hair decked-out with Native American tourist trinkets. Ellen Gallagher’s printed objects in Deluxe (2004-05) rework images and advertisements from mid-20th century African-American magazines, underscoring the constant challenge to define oneself amidst the cultural force field of positive and negative imagery, as well as the wealth of visual references that accumulate over time. Conversely, Nikki S. Lee’s The Ohio Project and The Hip Hop Project — in which the artist, of Korean descent, adopts Hip Hop style and dress — plays both with and against established norms, collapsing familiar boundaries and expectations.
MILDRED LANE KEMPER ART MUSEUM
The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is committed to furthering critical thinking and visual literacy through a vital program of exhibitions, publications and accompanying events. The museum dates back to 1881, making it the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi River. Today it boasts one of the finest university collections in the United States.
Beauty and the Blonde: An Exploration of American Art and Popular Culture will open with a panel discussion in Steinberg Hall Auditorium at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16. The panel will feature curator Catharina Manchanda as well as feminist scholar Maria Elena Buszek and artist Lynn Hershmann Leeson. A public reception will follow from 7 to 10 p.m. in the Kemper Art Museum.
The panel discussion, reception and exhibition are all free and open to the public. The Kemper Art Museum is located near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. Steinberg Hall is located immediately adjacent. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays.
For more information, call (314) 935-4523 or visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.
WHO: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
WHAT: Exhibition, Beauty and the Blonde: An Exploration of American Art and Popular Culture
WHEN: Nov. 16 to Jan. 28. Opening reception 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, following a panel discussion at 6 p.m.
WHERE: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, near the intersection of Forsyth and Skinker boulevards.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Tuesdays.
COST: Free and open to the public.
INFORMATION: (314) 935-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org