Paula Hays Harper, a recently retired University of Miami professor, Art in America magazine contributor and former Miami News art critic who was considered the first feminist art historian, died of cancer June 3.
One of that movement’s founding mothers, artist Judy Chicago, creator of the installation artwork The Dinner Party, said that in the early 1970s, Harper began “looking at the content of the masterpieces of great art’’ from a feminist perspective: “ What was painted was as important as how it was painted.’’
Harper joined the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts’ Feminist Art Program in 1971. She suggested that students turn the renovation of the program’s headquarters, a derelict property in Hollywood, into an art project.
The result: Womanhouse, which became known as the “cradle’’ of feminist art.
After the students overhauled the structure, they filled it with installations and performances that examined women’s roles in society. It remained intact for two years.
Harper, of Miami Beach, died at Mount Sinai Medical Center of complications of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, according to friends.
She was close to other well-known figures in Miami’s visual-arts community, including collector Martin Margulies, whose Warehouse anchors the Wynwood arts district, gallery owner Bernice Steinbaum, and retired Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen.
On his blog, former UM colleague Alfredo Triff said of Harper: “Art was her passion. Through the years, she worked hard to build an audience receptive to critical discourse. The fact that she could see behind fads and art-static was appreciated by many artists and art lovers who followed her reviews for the Miami News and Art in America.
“Dr. Harper specialized in feminist art, and was an expert on [Honore] Daumier’’ and Christo, the artist who surrounded several Biscayne Bay islands with pink fabric in 1983.
“She was a born teacher,’’ said friend Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, retired from Miami Dade College’s Department of Arts and Philosophy. “She’d volunteer to come to my classes to give these kids a taste of big-city art history. She was wonderful at eliciting the best in them.’’
She was petite and stylish, “an independent little creature [who] liked her privacy,’’ Gottlieb-Roberts said.
An only child from a Massachusetts Catholic family, born Paula Fish, she married and divorced twice, and had no children. She was 73, a fact that she would never have voluntarily disclosed, friends said.
“Her first career was as a dancer and [cabaret] singer,’’ said UM colleague Grace Barnes, the documentary filmmaker. “She had a very sweet, clear voice. After she injured herself dancing, she decided to study art’’ at New York’s Hunter College.
She later earned a doctorate at Stanford University, and taught at the University of New Mexico before joining the Cal Arts staff.
She came to South Florida in the early 1980s to work at UM, and soon after took on a project for Margulies.
The Miami art world “was very small in those days,’’ said Katherine Hinds, the Margulies collection’s curator. “Marty appreciated her scholarship and knowledge, and he read her book on [Camille] Pissarro,’’ the late 19th Century French Impressionist.
Margulies engaged her to write, and interview artists for, the first catalogue of his sculpture garden, she said.
“Those interviews are now very valuable,’’ Hinds said.
Triff, on his blog, said that Harper “had a gift for conversation. Five minutes with her and you felt an irresistible need to adopt this old, at times cranky, lady. ... Her laughter exhibited a Rabelaisian mix of wit and straightforwardness ...’’
She was also a slick poker player who “knew her baseball,’’ said Palm Beach Post writer John Lantigua, whose long-running game she joined about 10 years ago.
It was a standing joke among friends that Harper was lazy — untrue in her professional life — and so favored a poker variant called Pass the Trash, because it only required the dealer to deal one hand, Lantigua said.
“In the dictionary next to word ‘bright,’ you should see Paula’s picture,’’ he said. “She was super smart, with a sparkling wit. ... She had a beautiful sense of style and color.’’
Friends are planning a memorial service at noon July 20 at the Wolfsonian Museum of Decorative and Propaganda Art, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.