She’s a Broadway legend and an Emmy-winning television actress (playing Jack Donaghy’s mama on 30 Rock) — and now Elaine Stritch is the subject of a vérité-style documentary, which looks back on her colorful career. The brassy 89-year-old actress (then 87) contemplates mortality, retirement, and her domination of the stage and screen in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. The Chiemi Karasawa documentary raises familiar questions about career longevity and the innate compulsion to create — all of which are surely on the minds of these incredibly creative women who are also octogenarians (and a few nonagenarians). They seem unstoppable, despite what their ages would have you believe.
Often called the mother or grandmother of French New Wave cinema, Agnès Varda shaped the face of the Nouvelle vague — pre-dating it, even, with her directorial debut, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, about life and relationships in a Mediterranean fishing village. The acclaimed filmmaker is known for her social realist portraits (The Gleaners and I), and she’s also established a career as an installation artist. Varda is an icon of art house cinema, but has gone through several career rediscoveries, despite her continuous creative output.
A few months ago, we told you about surrealist artist Sylvia Fein, whose work is currently the subject of a solo exhibition spanning the past 70 years (closing tomorrow, February 22). Robert Beier’s documentary short about the 94-year-old painter’s life and work is a great introduction to her career, which was influenced by the turmoil of World War II and “a feminine return to magical, natural power and sanctuary.”
Awarded the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 1993 Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison remains the most important living American writer in the eyes of many. “[Her] novels [are] characterized by visionary force and poetic import, [giving] life to an essential aspect of American reality,” the Nobel Foundation wrote of the author. We recently reflected on the diversity of her achievements in this essay.
A divisive pop culture figure and a celebrated experimental artist, who was a leading figure in New York’s avant-garde scene during the 1960s, Yoko Ono continues to make headlines. She has carried forward with her art career and a path of peace activism, but somehow finds time to record sparkly music videos and write books, too.
Feminist assemblage artist Betye Saar is “intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology.” Her work challenges African-American stereotypes by using African ritual objects, African-American folk symbols (as in the pictured piece, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima), and personal memorabilia. Saar continues to live and work in Los Angeles — a city that helped shape her art during the 1960s and ‘70s and has been described in relation to her work as “a site of geographic convergence of feminism, assemblage art, and black consciousness.”
Her comedic partnership with fellow writer-director Mike Nichols starting in the 1950s is the stuff of legend, but Elaine May is a celebrated entertainer in her own right. The playwright, screenwriter, director, and sometimes actress is a National Medal of Arts recipient and two-time Oscar nominee. Her one-act play George is Dead, starring Marlo Thomas, was a yearlong Broadway hit as part of the anthology Relatively Speaking, with Woody Allen and Ethan Coen, directed by John Turturro.
Harlem-born painter, textile artist, and children’s author Faith Ringgold has always explored the intersection of race, gender inequality, and activism. In 1970, she protested the Whitney Annual due to the minuscule inclusion of female artists (and artists of color). She co-founded the Where We At Black collective of African-American female artists in 1971, associated with the Black Arts Movement. Her painted story quilts illustrated African-American history and offered a feminist/female viewpoint of the Civil Rights Movement. Ringgold created the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Google Doodle featured on the website’s home page in 2012. She continues to exhibit her work.
In the past few years, pioneering comedic actress Betty White has seen a career revival, appearing in commercials, endless sitcoms (Community, My Name is Earl, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers), and just about every reunion special you can possibly think of (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). The 92-year-old Golden Girl shows no signs of slowing down (she even hosted WWE Raw just last week), and she continues to be lauded as one of the first women in television to take the reins on both sides of the camera.
Yayoi Kusama’s psychedelic palette and whimsical polka dot installations have often masked the dark and tragic aspects of her life, but she hasn’t let that hinder her work. Japan’s foremost contemporary artist started her decades-long career creating surrealist paintings, later joining the New York City avant-garde of the 1960s and showing work alongside giants such as Andy Warhol. Her experimental oeuvre continues. She’s collaborated with fashion icon Louis Vuitton, French luxury cosmetic house Lancôme, and she recently illustrated the Lewis Carroll classic children’s novel, Alice in Wonderland. Her work is currently the subject of the touring exhibition, A Dream I Dreamed.
“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” Cuban painter Carmen Herrera expressed about her desire to make art. “Herrera’s slow rise might say about the difficulties of being a woman artist, an immigrant artist or an artist ahead of her time, it is clearly a story of personal strength,” Julián Zugazagoitia, director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, said of the 98-year-old artist’s international late-career recognition.