Miriam Schapiro (born 1923), Shrine (for R.K.) II, 1963. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 13/16 in. (73 x 93.5 cm). Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Kahn, 1978.45. © Miriam Schapiro

The importance of Miriam Schapiro’s paintings of the 1950s and ’60s has generally been obscured by the historic impact of the pioneering feminist art that she began making in the 1970s as well as her role in organizing, with Judy Chicago, the germinal Womanhouse exhibition in Los Angeles in 1972.

The daughter and wife of painters, Schapiro was never in any doubt about her artistic vocation. But while her husband, the talented and articulate painter Paul Brach, was quickly accepted in the downtown New York art world, Schapiro found herself relegated to the shadows—even as her canvases (the best among them gestural abstractions based on Old Master paintings) were being shown at major New York galleries.

As Schapiro moved toward recognizable subject matter, a metaphysical sense of emptiness began to haunt her work. The painting on view here belongs to a series of Shrines conveying the difficulties inherent in balancing the multiple roles of artist, wife, and mother. The topmost section of each Shrine is filled by a gold panel recalling early Renaissance altarpieces, the lowest section by a silver panel suggesting a mirror. The second shelf up invariably supports a giant egg, evoking maternal fertility and the experience of being enclosed in a shell, isolated from the world. The major difference between one Shrine and another lies in the objects found on the third ledge up—in the example on view here, a desolate still life. A few years later, Schapiro went on to redefine the role of woman artist, both for herself and for women everywhere.