In her new publication “Renée Radell – Web of Circumstance,” Eleanor Heartney opens with this now-famous challenge by legendary art historian Linda Nochlin to explain the dearth of great women artists in an industry dominated by male-only support systems. Nochlin jolted the art world in her 1971 ArtNews article with this explicit provocation, setting the stage for a serious dialogue that resounds to this very day about barriers women artists face in an uneven playing field.
The subject of this beautifully composed classical monograph, Renée Radell, is an American figurative expressionist painter with roots in Detroit who first received critical acclaim in the 1960s for insightful perceptions of social unrest juxtaposed with unconventional images of American family life. Heartney finds ample material in Radell’s extensive oeuvre to re-discover schooled artistic integrity and to unearth complex philosophical subject matter that has become a compelling differentiating factor for this painter now in her ninth decade.
In her book review, Paula Henderson writes: “Heartney’s introduction to Radell highlighting Nochlin’s provocative statement is not only indicative of the challenging cultural nature of the era, but of an intention to explore the painter, her work and life as both artist and woman in an age of potential for radical change. Heartney allows the work to unravel in its own complexity, enabling the artist’s weaving of expressionism with allegory, realism with the existential, to become intriguingly unveiled.”
Heartney organizes her discussion by threads of recurring themes found in Radell’s work, ranging from life’s cycles, social hierarchies, political machinations, freedom and choice, community and isolation, hope and despair, religion and spirituality, and myth and allegory. Sometimes satirical, sometimes humorous, often tragic, yet always intellectually piercing, these powerful works demonstrate remarkable vitality and are increasingly germane to today’s society.
The book includes a full reprint from an article by T.S. Eliot biographer and political theorist Russell Kirk entitled “Renée Radell – She Paints Confusion in Search of Order,” first published in The Detroit News Sunday News Magazine in 1974. Therein, Kirk parallels imagery in Radell’s paintings with poetic metaphors from Eliot verse about “the permanent things” in the human circumstance.
Concluding her commentary, Heartney pens: “Radell is proof of Nochlin’s slyly unstated point: There are indeed great women artists. The history of art, like the concept of “genius”, needs to be readjusted to accommodate artistic paths, approaches and ways of thinking that do not follow the standard (male) trajectory. Radell’s unique synthesis of art history, philosophy, social observation and formal experimentation has yielded a body of work that will stand the test of time. Her lifelong dedication to the most profound questions of existence will continue to resonate for all who care about the human condition.”