Kate Millett: Artist, first and foremost
In my previous blog post, I introduced you to the life and work of artist Juliet Holland. Juliet Holland’s partner, Cortland Jessup, was the owner and operator of Cortland Jessup galleries in Provincetown, Massachusetts and New York City. Since January, Sheafer + King has continued to work with Holland’s son, local photographer Mark Nickerson, to bring attention to and sell works previously held in Jessup’s private collection. One such artist is the prominent American feminist artist and writer Kate Millett (1934-2017). She remains best known, much to her chagrin, for her 1970 feminist written work Sexual Politics. What began as her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University soon effectively initiated the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, more commonly known as second wave feminism.
While Kate Millett made a career of writing and teaching, she was first and foremost a self taught artist from St. Paul, Minnesota. Beginning in the early 1960s, Millett created works of Surrealist furniture-sculpture, which she termed “common objects”. (NYT 1967) From 1961-1963 she lived and showed her work at galleries in Japan. While living there, she met her husband, sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, who she was married to through 1985. Upon returning to the United States, Millett settled in the Bowery, and her found object works were shown at her first domestic solo show under the direction of Jon Hendricks of the Judson Gallery.
By 1966, Millett was the inaugural Chair of the Education Committee of the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1968, she authored “A Study of Women’s Higher Education in America”, published by NOW, that argued for educational equality between the sexes in higher education. (Women of the Hall) Sexual Politics, then, was a natural progression of the work that Millett practiced with NOW and through her artistic work. In the book, she outlines patriarchy as a socially constructed framework built upon the subjugation of women by men. The text helped to lay the groundwork for feminist theory since; though Millett was not comfortable being the face of a movement which she believed should not have leaders or celebrities. In August 1970, Millett refused to sit for a portrait for the cover of Time Magazine. In an emboldened breach of consent, Time commissioned a painting of her made from a composite of images, then used it as the cover anyway. (Brooklyn Rail)
Such mainstream press further catapulted Millett into a national spotlight and reinforced her growing desire for quiet community. In 1978, Millett used the advance money for her book to purchase a farm near LaGrange, New York with her partner, photojournalist Sophie Kier. The Women’s Art Colony Farm, better known simply as “The Farm”, offered “artist-in-residence accommodations and studio facilities to women artists from around the world.” (Women of the Hall). There, “bare-breasted women grew Christmas trees that Ms. Millett would sell on the Bowery each December”. (NYT 2017)
At The Farm, an expansive barn was dedicated primarily to screen printing. During this time, Millett created the majority of the works which have made their way to Sheafer + King by way of the Cortland Jessup Gallery.
Kate Millett and Cortland Jessup came together as a result of their shared identities as “women artists”, as well as their geographical proximity. From 1991-1999, Millett’s works on paper were shown at the gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts six times.
Our dated works from the Cortland Jessup collection range from 1980 to 1998. While all of the works are abstract, they employ a breadth of techniques and styles, colorways and movement.
One striking example is from Millett’s 1991 Frustration Series, which employs motifs made with single color sprays of ink, thrust across the page; one can imagine, with great energy. The paper must have been held vertically, to allow the excess ink to run down the page… like sweat, or tears. In addition to the unpredictable pattern, Millett adorns the work with a handwritten poem:
It happens in minutes
Even over the phone
We die of words
Tone of voice, inflexion (sic)
We can speculate that this work would have been shown in her 1991 “Freedom from Captivity” show, which drew upon Millett’s experiences as a bipolar person, and her encounters with involuntary psychiatric treatment. In 1980, Millett was detained in an Irish psychiatric facility. This experience, in conjunction with prior involuntary holds, served as the basis for her 1991 written work The Loony Bin Trip, and her lifelong advocacy for the rights of those living with mental illness.
Other works in the collection include signature abstracted nudes, often dedicated to Kate’s lovers throughout her lifetime, as well as screen prints of clothes that speak to queer womanhood.
Millett began showing her erotic paintings and prints as early as the mid-1970s, including 1977’s Naked Ladies at Los Angeles Women's Building in California, and The Lesbian Body at Chuck Levitan Gallery in New York.
Many of Millett’s Women in Love Series combine compositions of minimal breasts and scenes of the land on The Farm. Millett continued to revisit her erotic works and poetry through the end of the twentieth century. I am comforted by the fact that she was able to spend much of her life creating work that was explicitly queer and fueled by love.
Since her death of a heart attack in 2017, Millett’s artistic work has garnered renewed contemporary attention. The Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz hosted Life After the
Revolution: Kate Millett’s Art Colony for Women from September through December 2021. In early 2022, Salon94 hosted a showing of her common objects in New York City. Late curator Jenni Crain’s 2021 CCS Bard thesis show collaborated with Millett’s partner Sophia Keir to reinstall Millett’s 1972 installation, Terminal Piece.
Kate Millett’s life offers a guidebook for empathy; one which calls us to question the media’s treatment of women, the private experiences of those enduring psychiatric care, and the unique perspective of a queer, Midwestern woman at the forefront of a cultural movement.
KATE MILLETT WORKS AVAILABLE FROM SHEAFER + KING MODERN: https://sheaferking.com/collections/kate-millett
1970 Ph.D. Columbia University
1960 Brooklyn Museum School
1959 New School for Social Research
1958 B.A. St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University
1956 B.A. University of Minnesota
See Kate Millett’s CV, through Salon94 in New York City.
View the Salon94 Fantasy Furniture exhibition from early 2022.
The Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz show Life After the Revolution: Kate Millett’s Art Colony for Women.
Read about Curator Jenni Crain’s 2021 CCS Bard showing of Millett’s “Terminal Piece”.
Read more about the farm from Sisters of Jam, a group “founded in 2008 by artists Moa and Mikaela Krestesen. They work with interdisciplinary artistic research based projects using multiple media – photography, video, drawing, installation and text – in an ongoing investigation of community, sisterhood, historiography and continuity”.
Blog post by Destini Ross.