For T, The New York Times Styles Magazine issue “The Greats,” Megan O’Grady profiles MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems, “perhaps our greatest living photographer” as the artist prepares for a trio of shows in Boston, Ithaca, and New York City.
O’Grady takes a look back at the works that made Weems’s reputation and gives a pulse on today’s art world amidst the culture shifts that Weems helped to usher in.
In one of the indelible images from “The Kitchen Table Series” — possibly the most famous picture Weems has ever taken — a young girl and her mother are looking in matching mirrors while applying lipstick. It’s the kind of effortless-seeming image that complexly plays with ideas of feminine subjectivity, recalling the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot’s 1875 painting “Woman at Her Toilette” in the way in which it shows a private act that anticipates public exposure. In Weems’s version, a young girl is also learning, perhaps unwittingly, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be looked at by men. “What do women give to one another? What do they pass on to one another?” says Weems, recalling the girl who modeled for the picture, whom she spotted in her neighborhood in Northampton, Mass., where she was living and teaching at the time. “I just thought she was the perfect echo of me as a young person. The same intensity and the same kind of hair.”
After her parents’ divorce, Weems moved with her mother and siblings into a large house owned by her grandfather. She would pirouette down the long wood-floored hallway and look out the attic windows, wearing her mother’s work smock, imagining she was a dancer or an actress. “I was simply becoming interested in this idea of being an artist in the world in some sort of way, not knowing really what the arts were,” she says. “I had these great, grand visions that I would move to New York City and that I would always arrive fabulously dressed, and I would always arrive late, and I would always leave early and everybody would want to know who I was. ‘Who is she?’ That was my fantasy.” After a visit from her drama teacher, her mother agreed to send her to a summer program in Shakespearean theater, freeing her from having to earn money by picking strawberries with the other kids in her neighborhood — giving her permission, essentially, to create. The program led her to other opportunities in theater and street performance, “dancing at the crossroads at night to bring up the gods,” she tells me.
We still live in a world in which the highest price ever paid for a work of art by a woman (in 2014) was Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” for $44.4 million, while dozens of male artists sell in the hundreds of millions. Of her own work, Weems tells me, “It is not embraced in the marketplace. And this is a sustained problem across the board, in the ways in which the work of women is valued and the work of men is valued. This is a real problem. And it’s worse for women of color, for sure. And I make a fine living.” Recently, her work was up for auction around the same time as the artist Kerry James Marshall’s. “And it was fascinating. My work sold for $67,000 and his sold for $21 million. Kerry Marshall and I became artists together, we were friends together, we were lovers together, we participated in this field together. On the social value scale, we’re equal. But not in the marketplace,” she says. The numbers are stark and shocking, but Weems’s real value is reflected in the vast scope of her influence, visible in the intimate photographs of Deana Lawson, the transhistorical portraits of Henry Taylor and the subdued longing of Kara Walker’s silhouetted paintings.