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What Does Pivotal Mean in Art?

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

What happens when we are in the zone, experiencing flow, and suddenly our work takes a turn to something greater, seemingly greater than ourselves?

The Oxford Dictionary defines pivotal as: 1. of crucial importance in relation to the development or success of something else; 2. a marked change.

In 2019, Natalie Alarcó, a Colombia University doctoral student, submitted her dissertation, A Reflective Investigation of Pivotal Moments That Open New Ways Of Thinking For Artists Leading To Creative Change. Alarcón's investigation was prompted by this question:  

Given that artists experience Pivotal Moments in the ongoing development of their work, what would the narrative accounts of three bi-cultural women painters reveal about:

  1. The moments that trigger their experiences of creative change or transformation,

  2. The nature of these pivotal moments, and

  3. How the moments coalesce within the dynamics of the creative act itself?

Inspired by Alarcó's dissertation, in 2022, Smithsonian art historian, Nancy G. Heller, led a series of talks, Leading to Creative Change, surrounding the life and works of four "pivotal" women artists: Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keefe, Louise Nevelson, and Cindy Sherman, who worked at different periods and in different media and styles. However, they did share one thing:

The desire to ignore society’s dictates and live and work according to their own.

Ms. Heller examined how these controversial women artists helped to ignite some of the most important and radical developments in modern and contemporary painting, sculpture, and photography. The course is long over, unfortunately, but WCADC shares highlights from the course below for inspiration and further study.

Mary Cassatt: A Pennsylvanian in Paris

The radical late 19th-century style known as impressionism was born, and focused, in Paris, yet one of its principal exponents was an American expatriate. Cassatt’s luscious landscapes and tender portraits of women and children exemplify the impressionists’ interest in fleeting images of everyday subjects, depicted as they were actually perceived by the human eye, not according to the strictures imposed by academic training.

Georgia O’Keeffe: More Than Just Flowers and Skulls

This iconic artist is best known today for the striking and colorful works she painted during her long residence in New Mexico. However, it was actually the Wisconsin-born artist’s astonishing early experiments with abstraction in the form of watercolors and charcoal drawings created between 1910 and 1920 that initially established her place in the history of American modernism.

Louise Nevelson: Grande Dame of Abstract Sculpture

As a Russian Jewish immigrant in rural Maine, Nevelson was an unlikely candidate for artistic superstardom. But her ability to identify the beauty in such humble materials as discarded scraps of wood, plus her remarkable sense of design and her carefully cultivated, highly theatrical persona, made this artist a major presence on the New York art scene for many decades. To this day Nevelson’s signature sculptures—monochromatic, wall-like assemblages—are still readily identifiable, and often imitated.

Cindy Sherman: Self-Portraits That Look Nothing Like Her

The most-prominent member of the so-called “Pictures Generation,” beginning in the early 1980s Sherman upended the venerable concept of self-portraiture by taking unrecognizable photographs of herself, her face and body obscured by elaborate makeup, wigs, costumes, and prosthetic devices. Sherman’s work, which rapidly achieved both commercial success and scholarly recognition, played a major role in establishing photography’s new identity as an art form equal in importance to painting and other, more traditional, techniques.



Pivotal: An Exploration of Art and Activism Artists have used their talents as a tool for activism for generations. From Faith Ringgold's painting The United States of Attica to Kara Walker's critiques on colonialism to Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's campaign against street harassment Stop Telling Women to Smile, women have continually used art to comment on the status quo. The Women's Caucus for Art of Greater Washington, DC (WCADC) presents PIVOTAL, an exploration of the intersection between art and activism. This is a national juried exhibition. WCADC invites women and women-identifying artists based in the United States to submit work that explores socio-political and economic protest, injustice, resistance, and activism, and how artists work to pivot us towards a more just society.

Deadline for entries: September 30, 2023.

Submit entries by clicking on the button below which will direct you to

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