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Beth Van Hoesen’s Boots: A Feminist Inquiry
By Sally Deskins
Recently at the University of Wyoming Art Museum, viewers witnessed Beth Van Hoesen’s (American, 1926-2010) talent for technique and passion for her models through some of her animal prints alongside the work of John James Audubon (American, 1785-1851), and John Woodhouse Audubon (American, 1812-1862) in Audubon & Van Hoesen: Illustrating Animals. Still, Van Hoesen’s work goes beyond the animal, though many might be familiar with her domestic side, via commercialized calendars and notecards of cats. Though these surely exhibit her abilities and popularity, I write this article in response to high art culture, an experience of which gave light to those in the field who might overlook her breadth for these very reasons, and I hope to, even in a small way, reignite her authenticity as an artist.
Growing up, my mom had a book called Wonderful Things that sat in our tall wooden bookshelf amongst the other random gardening books, encyclopedias and novels. I would love to page through Wonderful Things, with art by Beth Van Hoesen, and awe at the tremendous detail and presence she brought to the prints and drawings by just using lines.
So when I overheard people dismissing one of her works as too simple, more or less, it came to great surprise; why such casual disregard for this remarkable artist? It was a conversation I had about Boots (Figure 1: 1985, color etching, 13 7/8” x 17”), in the collection of the West Virginia University Art Museum, that brought my attention to the lighthearted yet gendered dismissal of the truly skilled and esteemed artist that got me curious about Van Hoesen, and why there is not more scholarship about the artist.
The realistically rendered prints and drawings of animals and figures of Beth Van Hoesen (1926-2010) are held in 150 public collections nationwide and in Europe, from the Portland Art Museum to the Museum of Modern Art, the Honolulu Art Museum and the Art Museum of West Virginia, among many. Last year, The Art Museum at the University of Memphis and The Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, New York, held solo exhibitions of her work.
This article examines the multi-layered reasoning for such simple overlooking, to reify why the work is moreover so significant with the artist’s brilliant skill, individual style and personable intent. I hesitated to focus on the all-to-common story of the overlooked female artist, but wanted to understand why and dig further into her work instead of taking it at face value. There are several other ways of discussing the vast range of Van Hoesen and hopefully more will be ignited by this albeit short article. The development through her self-portraiture, or her unique style combining elements of Pop, realism, expressionism and perhaps even a subtle feminism, is definitely apt for further discourse.
Indeed, I heard Boots deemed carelessly as “cat art;” and the reasons for such dismissal are beyond the work of Van Hoesen. First, during the time period Van Hoesen was creating works of art, in 1940s and 1950s America, she was discriminated against for merely being a woman in terms of exhibition possibilities and critical reception. Second, and relatable to the first point, also during this time period, the popular artistic style of choice was Abstract Expressionism. This style was not only more widely accepted in terms of critical reception and marketability, the Abstract Expressionist movement also catered to males, and was centered in New York City. Van Hoesen resided in San Francisco during her art-making years, but even the Bay Area Figurative Movement was largely a male dominated group. While Van Hoesen was marginalized for merely being a woman artist, she was also marginalized for seemingly benign reasons, like her choice of media--print and watercolor, and for her subject matter--animals, dolls, flowers, and domestic scenes, which classified her as a minor artist, a women’s artist, or a feminine artist. It are these traditionally male-ascribed labels that rendered Van Hoesen’s work inherently less significant, and, consequently, of less monetary value.
Van Hoesen’s Boots is one of her later works. Van Hoesen was born in Boise, Idaho in 1926. She grew up in Orchard, Idaho; Greenwich, Connecticut; and Long Beach, California where she graduated from high school. The move from Connecticut to California was due to the loss of her mother’s job and property during the Great Depression. She enrolled at Stanford University in in 1944 to study fine arts. While attending Stanford, Van Hoesnen also attended painting classes at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura de la Escuela Esmeralda in Mexico City, and studied at California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, which is now San Francisco Art Institute. After graduating from Stanford with a Bachelor of Arts in 1948, she traveled to France and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Fontainbleau, and at the Académie Julian and Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris from 1948 to 1950. In 1951, she again enrolled at CSFA, where she studied under artists David Park (member of the Bay Area Figurative Painters) and Clyfford Still (abstract expressionist). While at CSFA she met Mark Adams, an artist, and glass and textile designer, and they married in 1953. In 1955, they went to St. Céré-Aubusson, France, where Adams had an apprenticeship with the contemporary tapestry artist, Jean Lurçat. In 1957, Van Hoesnen returned to San Francisco with Adams and enrolled in San Francisco State College. It was here where she began receiving recognition for her drawings and intaglio prints, and had a solo exhibition of her drypoints at Stanford Art Gallery at Stanford University in 1957. It is undetermined how, with the noted discrimination she received both regarding her work, and her inability to obtain exhibitions, that she came to have this show at Stanford; it might be assumed that they were supporting her as an alumnae.
In 1959, the couple purchased a 1910 firehouse in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood where they worked and lived for the next 46 years. In 2005, they moved from the Firehouse to the Sequoias in San Francisco, where she was living at the time of her death in 2010.
Van Hoesen’s legacy is mostly defined by her portraiture of animals (such as the renowned Sally, 1979), various figures (such as Dima, 1979), including nude men (such as H. Seated, 1965), self-portraits (such as the early St. Tropez, 1950), and tattooed people (such as Steve, 1990; much of which was criticized simply because it was a woman who pursued these subjects). She also ventured into dolls, flowers, food and even architecture. Considering many critics and theorists of descriptive portraiture viewed it as an empty pursuit, Van Hoesen remained steadfast, taking on ventures fraught with criticism, and did so with homage to traditional methods with contemporary flare, with extreme (and criticized) attention to detail, and with patience for understanding and grasping the subjects, whether they be animal, plant, or human.
The Boots’ cat is displayed with expressive line quality along the edge of the pure black fur, and a completely white background. This technique causes the viewer’s attention to waver between recognizing the image as a cat, and seeing it as only a color field on flat paper. Moreover, the cat, as a symbol of primarily domestic, feminine, and cultural American iconography, is neither romanticized nor idealized, but confronts viewers squarely, reflecting intellect and feeling, even complexity. The two different colored eyes, moreover, indicate a complex inner self, a method Van Hoesen also used when making self-portraits. She was known to not dictate the pose, but allowed the subjects the freedom to pose themselves, thus allowing them to speak for themselves without implying or assuming gender or eroticism. She aimed to “behold, not to possess.”
A highly valuable advantage of Van Hoesen’s descriptive method is its potential accessibility to the broader public. As Celeste Connor writes: “…varieties of realist representation can also fulfill a vital social role by fixing form and rendering it accessible to the apparatus of our common visual sense.”
In recent years, Van Hoesen’s work has been praised for its meticulous craft and imagination, her ability to capture her subjects, and her variety of subject. She was presented with awards, exhibitions, and collections at several major art institutions. The curator of the Portland Art Museum, the repository for Van Hoesen’s print archive, described Van Hoesen as, “Going beyond merely observing and recording, she interprets what she sees, bringing out her subject’s uniqueness. One feels the psychological connection that she establishes with her subjects as she penetrates intuitively beneath the surface to suggest a sense of interiority that endows them with a sentient presence both visual and palpable.”
Nancy Dodds Gallery in Carmel, California, is now the only commercial gallery now selling her work. Dodds noted the continuous popularity of Van Hoesen’s work in an email: “I’ve been showing Beth’s works since 1991. I absolutely love her work. I own at least six myself. They are addictive. And I love helping my clients pick out their favorites. They are becoming increasing rare. So I always encourage my clients to get what they like while they still can. Beth’s works are truly lovely.”
Even so, prints like Boots can still being overlooked by some as seemingly simplistic. It is unknown whether the idea is a product of a long-held and deeply engrained art historically, male-ascribed feminine, or the subject of the cat as inferior, or the idea of the woman artist as inferior, or just ignorance of the artist’s breadth of work and ability that aids in making these assumptions. However, even a brief study into the technique and span of Van Hoesen’s oeuvre enlightens with understanding and appreciation of the high quality, complexity, beauty, detail and vast contribution of her work. Perusing her work in Beth Van Hoesen: Catalogue Raisonne of Limited Edition Prints, Books and Portfolios (Hudson Hills Press, 2011) is an overwhelming delight, each page introducing a work better than the next. This book provides necessary tribute to the artist; hopefully a retrospective at a major museum and more widely read scholarship will follow.
Audubon & Van Hoesen: Illustrating Animals is on view at University of Wyoming Art Museum through November 5, 2016. http://www.uwyo.edu/artmuseum/exhibitions/
Illustrations from and with permission of Beth Van Hoesen estate by Anne Kohs:
Boots, 1985, color etching, 13 7/8” x 17”.
St. Tropez, 1950
Out in the Flowers (In the Flowers), 1958-59, etching and drypoint with roulette
Mark Seated (Seated Figure), 1955, etching, engraving, drypoint
H. Seated, 1965, aquatint and etching
Sally, 1979/81, aquatint, drypoint, etching with roulette
Steve, 1990, aquatint, background etching
 Celeste Connor. “Beth Van Hoesen: The Art of Beholding.” Women’s Studies, Vol. 22 (1992): 83-84.
 “Beth Van Hosen Biography.” The Annex Galleries, http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/2426/Van%20Hoesen/Beth. Accessed February 6, 2015.
 Seed, John. “David Park: A Painter’s Life.” Huffington Post, 2/28/12. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-seed/david-park-a-painters-life_b_1299560.html Accessed February 6, 2015.
 “Clyfford Still: Biography.” Phillips Collection. http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/still-bio.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015.
 “Prominent Artist/Printmaker Beth Van Hoesen, 84, Dies in San Francisco.” PR Web. http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/11/prweb4809004.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015.
 Steinberg, Steve. “Famed Artist Leaves Behind a Rich Tapestry of Color and Glass.“ The Noe Valley Voice. March, 2006. http://noevalleyvoice.com/2006/March/Mark.html. Accessed February 6, 2015.
 “Beth Van Hoesen: The Observant Eye.” Racine Art Museum, Racine, Wisconsin. Exhibition notes, 2012.
 Connor, 87-88.
 Laura J. Tuchman. “The artist as seen through examples of his work.” The Orange County Register, May 20, 1988: 55.
 Ibid., 96.
 Connor, 97.
 Schafranek, Annalee. “Sm[art]: Beth Van Hoesen’s Prints and Drawings.” Bitch Magazine. July 15, 2009. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/smart-beth-van-hoesens-prints-and-drawings. Accessed February 6, 2015.
“Beth Van Hoesen Biography.” The Annex Galleries, http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/2426/Van%20Hoesen/Beth. Accessed February 6, 2015.
“Beth Van Hoesen: The Observant Eye.” Racine Art Museum, Racine, Wisconsin. Exhibition notes, 2012.
“Clyfford Still: Biography.” Phillips Collection. http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/still-bio.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015.
Connor, Celeste. “Beth Van Hoesen: The Art of Beholding.” Women’s Studies, Vol. 22 (1992): 83-98.
Hicks, Bob. Beth Van Hoesen: Catalogue Raisonne of Limited-Edition Prints, Books and Portfolios. Oakland Museum of California; Racine Art Museum, Wisconsin; University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames: Hudson Hills Press, Manchester and New York (2011).
“Monterey Museum of Art hosts exhibition of works by prominent printmaker Beth Van Hoesen.” Artdaily, 2013. http://artdaily.com/section/lastweek/index.asp?int_sec=11&int_new=60476&int_modo=2#.VNSnZe83Njo accessed February 6, 2015.
Muller, Seth. “Magic in the process: NAU exhibit of Beth Van Hoesen’s work shows the power of printmaking and artistry.” Arizona Daily Sun. 1 June 2014. http://azdailysun.com/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/magic-in-the-process-nau- exhibit-of-beth-van-hoesen/article_fd43abda-e865-11e3-8ec1-001a4bcf887a.html Accessed February 6, 2015.
“Prominent Artist/Printmaker Beth Van Hoesen, 84, Dies in San Francisco.” PR Web. http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/11/prweb4809004.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015.
Schafranek, Annalee. “Sm[art]: Beth Van Hoesen’s Prints and Drawings.” Bitch Magazine. July 15, 2009. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/smart-beth-van-hoesens-prints-and-drawings. Accessed February 6, 2015.
Seed, John. “David Park: A Painter’s Life.” Huffington Post, 2/28/12. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-seed/david-park-a-painters-life_b_1299560.html Accessed February 6, 2015.
Steinberg, Steve. “Famed Artist Leaves Behind a Rich Tapestry of Color and Glass.“ The Noe Valley Voice. March, 2006. http://noevalleyvoice.com/2006/March/Mark.html. Accessed February 6, 2015.
Tuchman, Laura J. “The artist as seen through examples of his work.” The Orange County Register, May 20, 1988: 55.
Taylor, Sue. “Beth Van Hoesen at Portland Art Museum: A Review.” Art in America. November,2009: 202-203.