THE BLOG

Love and Marriage, Artist Style

11/17/2010 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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.

It is not infrequent that artists marry each other, as the people they tend to meet in their art studies, at gallery openings or through their professional associations often are involved in the art world. Leon Golub and Jack Beal, for instance, met their wives (Nancy Spero and Sondra Freckelton, respectively) while attending the school of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite the real benefits for an artist of marrying (or living with) another artist, the identical careers -- regardless of how dissimilar their respective artwork may be -- create tensions for the two of them. Being an artist requires an ego of considerable size; two such people may find themselves clashing frequently, even if their disputes have nothing to do with their art or careers. Strong, unbending wills have destroyed more marriages than anything else.

Some artists approach these issues in advance by talking out a list of potential concerns. Jack Beal proposed to Sondra Freckelton three times before she finally accepted. "At first, he had the idea that I might be Madame Matisse, but I said 'no' to that. I didn't study art in order not to have a career on my own." The back of their 1953 marriage certificate includes a written "agreement of partnership" establishing that they are equal partners.

"Artists have to outline what the dangers are, could be, might have been," said Miriam Schapiro, a painter who has been married to another painter, Paul Brach, for over 40 years. "You have to discuss whether or not to have the same or separate friends, whether you want to be treated as a couple or as individuals, whether your careers allow you to have a family, where you want to live, whether you want to be in the same gallery or not. They're all difficult subjects, but married couples -- especially those with the same career -- have to be able to communicate."

Other artists attempt to resolve the tensions of both spouses being artists through establishing separate studios (sometimes never even visiting each other's studios), using different dealers and generally staying out of each other's careers. One example of this was 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.

Having two distinct studios, one for her in the garage and one for him away from the house, is "a physical manifestation of what is already going on," said Scott Prior of Northampton, Massachusetts, who is married to Nanette Vonnegut, both of whom are painters. "If we are too close, we sort of step on each other's toes. We do talk about each other's work, but there are times when Nanny would just as soon that I not say anything about her work because I can be disruptive."

It is relatively seldom that both artists in a marriage receive the same degree of attention and success in selling their work. At times, one artist's career is clearly on the rise while the other's has peaked, a scenario played out in the film A Star Is Born. Collectors, critics and dealers may come visit one artist's studio and not the other's, which can be especially painful when the two artists share the same space. Competition and anger may enter a relationship.

"When my wife's career is doing better than mine," Leon Golub stated, "I don't feel as good about myself and may develop resentment." Golub added, however, that he directs that resentment elsewhere -- at limited thinking in the art world, for instance -- and not at his wife.

Historically, in marriages between artists, it is the wife who has had to put work or career aspirations on hold. This has tended to be a common phenomenon in the art world where, except for the rare example of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz and a few other pairings, husband and wife artists seldom are accorded equal attention. New attention has been cast on the careers of Marguerite Zorach (painter wife of William Zorach, the American cubist sculptor) and Suzy Frelinghuysen (painter wife of George L.K. Morris, a painter and founder of the American Abstract Artists group) as well as on a number of other artists who happened to marry male artists. However, recognition does tend to come late -- often posthumously.

"I did a lot of wifely things in the 1940s," Louisiana painter Ida Kohlmeyer said, "accompanying my husband to Fort Bragg, where he was stationed during the war, and having two daughters." By 1950, however, she was also ready to devote some energy to making art, earning a Master of Fine Arts at Newcomb College of Tulane University where she later taught. "Having children required me to better organize my life, and I realized that there was no time to waste. I had grown up a lot during the war. I put aside the dilletantism that had been part of my life before the war and began to really dedicate myself to art -- as well as my children."

In 1963, she won a Ford fellowship for her art and briefly considered moving to New York City in order to further her career there, "but I had a family, and it might have broken up my family, so I stayed."

Finding the balance between raising children and pursuing one's art is no simple matter, and it is often complicated by the need to hold a job and have a supportive spouse. Still, the desire to make art remains, even if it must be deferred for a period of time. Both Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois, two of the most important women sculptors of the post-war era, took time off from their work to raise children -- an important full-time job in itself -- but they came back. "You have children for 15 years, not for 80 years," said Louise Bourgeois. "It's just one episode in your life. There's a lot more to life than that."

Bernarda Bryson Shahn lived with success and greatness for most of her life. Unfortunately for her painting career, that greatness belonged to her husband, painter and graphic artist Ben Shahn, whose success overshadowed everything his wife could accomplish. Bryson Shahn created paintings, drawings, prints and illustrations throughout her 60-plus-year career. She is an artist who shared a home, family, and left-wing political ideas with her husband but never his style or subject matter. Nonetheless, Ben Shahn's renown has always colored the art world's perception of her and her work. "People tell me all the time -- I heard it again from a friend of the family just the other day -- how they see the influence of Ben Shahn in my work," Bryson Shahn said. "I think they just look for it and find it regardless of what it is in front of them. You couldn't possibly find any real resemblance to Ben's work in mine."

From 1936, when their first child was born, until 1972, three years after Ben Shahn's death, Bryson Shahn didn't paint. "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."

In 1972, Bryson Shahn brought herself to go into the studio of Ben Shahn, where she found a canvas he had stretched but never got around to painting. She painted it and, through considerable trial and error, worked herself back into the fine arts career that had been left off 36 years before.

The effort to be taken seriously has not been an easy one for her. Art dealers were always interested in representing her work in their galleries but rarely, she felt, because of a true liking for her paintings. "A dealer might want to take me on because he really wanted to represent Ben Shahn and thought he could get Ben by helping me," she stated. "It's been a rule with me not to be in the same gallery as my husband, and that has definitely hurt my career." That rule has even led her to call herself professionally Bernarda Bryson, but her current gallery pressed her to use her married name and she finally agreed to do so after her husband's death.

"I've often thought about what my career would have been like had I not married Ben Shahn," she said. "I might have been taken seriously sooner. Not that I'm complaining."

Lee Krasner (after her husband Jackson Pollock's death) and Elaine de Kooning (during her husband Willem de Kooning's life) also spent decades attempting to assert their own artistic vision. Sally Avery, widow of Milton Avery, claimed that she never let the attention paid to her husband's painting (and the concomitant lack of interest in her own) "bother me too much. I wasn't going after the same notoriety as my husband. I just went at my own pace and tried to ignore all the people who said 'Oh, pity the poor wife who can't get anyone to look at her work.'"

Avery added that her "career has flourished over the past 20 years" after her husband, Milton Avery, had died. While he was alive, "I wasn't trying to promote my own work. I tried to promote his work, because I thought he was a better artist than me."

Some artist-wives, such as Helen Sloan (John Sloan) and Emma Bellows (George Bellows) to name a few, completely give up on their art. 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."

While artists marrying artists has a certain logic, the history of art reveals many examples of artists prefering a caretaker. Almost the entire abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and '50s, for instance, was supported by the wives of the major artists. Barnett Newman's wife, Anna Lee, for example, was a typing instructor; Mark Rothko's wife worked as a model, and Adolph Gottlieb's wife, Esther, taught school. In Europe, it was a tradition for artists to marry "working girls." Goethe married his housekeeper, as did Pierre Bonnard and Marc Chagall -- when his first wife left him, Chagall married his next housekeeper. This kind of marriage (and this kind of support for male artists in general) has largely disappeared with the advent of the women's liberation movement. "There have been a lot of bitter wives along the way," said Dore Ashton, critic and art historian and ex-wife of the late abstract expressionist Adja Yunkers.

Marriage, of course, isn't a professional decision but a personal one. The success rate of marriages is not necessarily improved when artists marry critics or dealers and, in many respects, the marriages of artists are no different than those of everyone else. The marriage of Robert Rauschenberg and painter Susan Weil did not last very long, but the experience didn't keep her from marrying another artist, the sculptor Bernard Kirschenbaum. Some artists get along well enough both personally and professionally that they, like Claes Oldenburg and Coosjie van Bruggen, Arakawa and Madeline Gins or Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, are able to collaborate on art projects. Others keep their marriage out of their careers as best they can and, in the worst case scenario of Carl Andre, an artist found himself on trial (later acquitted) for the murder of his artist spouse.

"I think it's hard to be an artist married to an artist. I think it's generally hard to be married and be an artist," painter Lois Dodd, who had once been married to sculptor William King, said. "When you're married, you have to think of another person, and art is a very selfish activity."