Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Community, Activism, and Design

A poster of white designs on a dark blue ground. The bottom half is entirely occupied by a grid that recedes toward a horizon line. Proceeding from the right foreground toward the left background is a line of screws resembling the female symbol, a circle with a small cross underneath. In the implied sky above are five circles, either full or partial, in which the same image of two women is repeated. A line of text just above the horizon begins: “Women in Design: The next decade—A conference.”

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Women in Design: The Next Decade, 1975. Diazotype. Courtesy Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

The first monographic exhibition on the renowned graphic designer, teacher, and artist

February 16–June 23, 2024

The Yale University Art Gallery is delighted to present Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Community, Activism, and Design, the first exhibition focused on the influential graphic designer, public artist, and educator Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (born 1940, M.F.A. 1964). De Bretteville, who has long championed principles of advocacy and inclusion through her community-based and politically informed work, is well known for her contributions to the field of feminist design and education. In 1971 she created the first women’s design program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and in 1973 she cofounded, with the artist Judy Chicago and the art historian Arlene Raven, the Feminist Studio Workshop and the Woman’s Building, a center in downtown Los Angeles dedicated to women’s culture.

The rich array of materials on view in the exhibition is drawn from de Bretteville’s personal archive and highlights pivotal moments in her multifaceted and trailblazing career. Included are early designs for promotional materials for Yale University Press and the Italian manufacturer Olivetti, posters and broadsheets that blend word and image to advance woman-focused initiatives, and photographs and models of public art installations, which have not been examined collectively until now. These public projects, which reflect not only her ongoing engagement with the feminist movement but also her commitment to such issues as immigration and racial equity, are located in New York, New Haven, Boston, and Los Angeles as well as in Hong Kong and Yekaterinburg, Russia.

The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections: “Defining a Professional Practice” charts de Bretteville’s relocation in 1969 to Los Angeles, where she worked as an in-house graphic designer for CalArts before joining the faculty. “Design and Feminism” explores de Bretteville’s deep engagement with second-wave feminism through her work at CalArts, including the Feminist Art Program that the artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro launched in 1971, and her long affiliation with the Woman’s Building. “Designer as Teacher” examines de Bretteville’s pedagogical approaches and support for her students at CalArts and the Yale School of Art, whose faculty she joined in 1990. “Design in the Public Realm” traces her national and international public art projects, including a mural in downtown Los Angeles honoring a nineteenth-century Black midwife named Biddy Mason, mosaic panels and tiles for the 207th Street station of the A train in New York City, and the revitalization of the entrance lobby of James Hillhouse High School in New Haven. The exhibition at the Gallery also includes a new, temporary installation by de Bretteville that celebrates the neighborhoods surrounding the museum.

De Bretteville served as director of Graduate Studies in Graphic Design at Yale from 1990 to 2022 and is the first woman in the Yale School of Art to be awarded tenure. This monographic exhibition reinforces her role as a quiet leader and visionary role model who has shaped a new generation of graphic design.

Exhibition Credits

Exhibition made possible by the John F. Wieland, Jr., B.A. 1988, Fund for Student Exhibitions and the Yale School of Art. Organized by Brooke Hodge, independent curator, and John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Curator of American Decorative Arts, Yale University Art Gallery, with the assistance of Pamela Hovland, Senior Critic, Graphic Design, Yale School of Art.