NEW YORK — Paula Hays Harper, one of the first art historians to bring a feminist perspective to the study of painting and sculpture, and the coauthor of a major biography of Camille Pissarro, died June 3 in Miami. She was 81.
The cause was cancer, according to the University of Miami, where she taught from 1983 until her retirement last year.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Harper provided the creative spark for a project that became a milestone in women’s art. As a lecturer at the California Institute of the Arts, outside Los Angeles, where the first feminist art program at a major art school had just begun, Dr. Harper suggested that the 21 students in the original class collaborate on a project about what house, home, and domesticity meant to women.
The idea clicked, and working with the two artists who had founded the program, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, the students transformed a rundown mansion in Hollywood into ‘‘Womanhouse,’’ one of the biggest and most celebrated exhibitions of art by and about women ever assembled.
One performance piece in the show consisted of a woman who sat in front of a mirror, applying and removing makeup over and over again. Chicago’s ‘‘Menstruation Bathroom,’’ seen through gauze, had an overflowing wastebasket of used sanitary products and a shelf of feminine hygiene deodorants.
Not everyone thought this was art. But the show made it clear that women were going their own way in art and would no longer let their interests be dismissed by an art world in which the subjects and forms had largely been defined by men.
The show was part of a feminist art movement that ‘‘changed everything,’’ Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times in 2002. He added: ‘‘It gave a new content to painting, sculpture, and photography. It pushed performance, video, and installation art to the fore. It smashed the barrier between high art and low art, and it put folk art, outsider art, non-Western art, not to mention so-called women’s art (sewing, quilting, crafts of all kinds) center stage.’’
Back then, Chicago said in an interview, the major art-history textbooks mostly omitted female artists or mentioned them only as the students, wives, or mistresses of great men. ‘‘People would say with impunity, ‘There have never been any great women artists,’’’ Chicago said. ‘‘There were no books, no monographs, no shows, no role models.’’
As a lecturer in the program, Dr. Harper introduced the students to women whom the art world had ignored or forgotten. ‘‘She wanted to see women artists succeed and be restored to history,’’ Chicago said.
Dr. Harper collaborated with Ralph E. Shikes, a publisher and editor, on ‘‘Pissarro: His Life and Work’’ (1980), one of the first comprehensive biographies of the Impressionist painter. In their research the authors drew on interviews with surviving relatives, the artist’s letters, and unpublished material.
As an art critic, Dr. Harper wrote regularly for The Miami News from 1982 to 1987 and for the magazine Art in America. She also wrote catalogs for exhibitions and was a specialist on Christo’s fabric-wrapped environmental art. In 2007 the Solomon B. Guggenheim Museum in New York invited her to speak about his work at a symposium.
Paula Fish was born in Scituate, Mass., and grew up in Pennsylvania. As an adult she moved to New York, where she married and divorced twice (she had no children) and for a time worked as a dancer. She kept the names of her former husbands because she disliked her maiden name, according to several friends.
She did not finish college until she was well into her 30s, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in art history at Hunter College in New York and a PhD at Stanford. She later directed the Hunter College art gallery and taught contemporary art at the University of Miami. Donna E. Shalala, Miami’s president, said Dr. Harper had helped her select and acquire outdoor sculptures during the last decade as they turned the campus into a vast sculpture garden.
‘‘I have to give Paula credit for it,’’ Shalala said. ‘‘I was just her staff person, to implement her ideas.’’