Vessels by Artist Kiki Smith – MOMA February 2023 | Image by Mary Carty

While in New York recently, I attended the Hopper exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art. It was incredible to see so many of his iconic works together. Much as I adore the storytelling and style of the man who is as synonymous with New York City as James Joyce is with Dublin, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly disappointed.

Where was her work?

The woman in question is Hopper’s lifelong partner, collaborator, muse, archivist, and wife. The artist Jo Hopper.

I had the same experience the day before at the Museum of Modern Art. Duchamp, Picasso, Man Ray, Warhol. Man after man after man, at a time when New York became the epicenter of the arts between two wars and set the tone for the world we would become. These artists did not do it alone. Where were the women?

Surely, in one of the world’s foremost art collections, the story of this pivotal era in history deserves to be told in technicolour. Not just the male lens.

Every photo I took that day was of women artists. Each time one appeared on the walls I relished documenting the fact. Coming at last to Vessels by KiKi Smith, the scale of the work felt like a monument, the very thing I was experiencing that day and I danced for joy.

Back at the Whitney, I imagined curating a show where the audience would interact with a conversation between husband and wife, Jo and Edward. A dialogue about New York through the eyes of a couple who loved the city as much as each other. Both artists documented the city in their own individual styles. Their changing fortunes, moves to larger apartments, their devotion to their practice, enthralled by the inconsequential and the lesser lauded vistas.

Standing in the Whitney, Jo Hopper gives us a tableau of their daily lives. Notebooks, sketches, and 230 theatre ticket stubs. The little things an artist knows will build the narrative of a practice. Fill in the broad strokes for future collectors and art historians, and shine a light on the values and concerns that drive a lifelong inquiry into life and art. The untold hours of collecting, filing, and curating. All that invisible labour. The labour of love and deep respect.

One must assume with an attention to detail so acute, surely Jo Hopper kept an archive of her own. Sadly, the only evidence of Jo’s artistic practice is less than a handful of works at the very end of the exhibit.

It reminded me yet again that women have always been footnotes to history. Acknowledged only by their relationships with the great man, hardly ever in her own right.

I wondered what would Jo Hopper have to say now. When will the archives of her story step out of the shadows? Could their story, Jo and Edward, be told with parity of esteem? The Hoppers of New York, side by side as they would have done each day, discussing the city in constant flux, navigating a changing world and changing tastes. The fallout with figurative painting and the adoption of abstraction. Holding fast to a visual language that was considered obsolete and the fortitude to stick with their vision.

I want to see that story. I want to tell that story.

Attending a Broadway show later that week, proved my point. Six the Musical is a retelling of the story of the six wives of Henry the 8th, who just like Hopper’s wife Jo, are known because of the man.

A musical, irreverent, fun, and deeply feminist playing to packed-out houses nightly from Broadway to London, Dublin, to New Zealand. For the youngest writer-director in Broadway history to be a 26-year-old gay woman from the UK, says a lot about the stories we want to hear now and the bravery it takes to tell them.

When the final applause rang around the theatre and I watched every person in attendance jump to their feet, I felt excited that maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning. As is often the case, artists and writers, and poets lead the way. They tell the stories that need to be told.

I was brought back to why I was in New York in the first place. Over St Brigid’s Day, we launched the Awaken Angels Fund in a packed-out room in downtown Manhattan. Bringing with us a new story of contemporary Ireland. Powerful women building companies that will change the trajectory of health care, sport, marketing, and media. And with it, the lives and fortunes of their families, friends, and communities.

In a room full of allies, supporters, and decision-makers, it felt like the sea change I wanted to lead my whole life. These are the rooms we belong in. It is time for us to tell our stories. To take up space. To stand tall.

Put women on the walls. Give them space in their own right. Take them out of the shadows. Collect them, exhibit them, fund them, pay them, and champion them.

Tell their stories because the world is thirsty for them.

P.S. If you work in MOMA or the Whitney, get in touch. There is an exhibition we can collaborate on.

By Mary Carty