Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Seven Women Artists Expand Limits of What Is `Acceptable'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Seven Women Artists Expand Limits of What Is `Acceptable'

Article excerpt

THE Museum of Modern Art's show of new and recent work by seven female artists is at once limited and limitless. In the sense that it contains only 20 installations and sculptures, the exhibition is limited. Yet the works deny limits, asserting that anything goes by widening the scope of materials, subjects, and techniques considered suitable for art. It doesn't take long to go through the show, but what's there provides a lot to think about and leaves one wanting more.

With a nod to Jane Austen's novel, the title of the exhibition, "Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties," contrasts two recent art movements. "Sense" refers to male-dominated Minimalism of the 1960s to mid-'70s. With its impersonal, industrially fabricated geometric forms, often arranged in a grid, Minimalism stood for reason, order, and hands-off coolness. "Sensibility" denotes a personal, hands-on style called Post-Minimalism. It brings emotion and autobiography back into art while retaining Minimalist elements like repetition, the grid, and geometry.

Reacting against the excessive emotionalism and soul-searching gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism, Mini- malists like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre tried to efface all evidence of the artist's hand. Paring down sculpture to geometric abstractions, like unadorned sheets of metal, they emptied art of associative qualities.

Then along came Post-Minimalism, allied with the feminist movement, in the early '70s. Female Post-Minimalists like Eva Hesse reclaimed Expressionist tactics, incorporating feelings, idiosyncracies, and references to the body in sculpture. They used soft pliable materials as opposed to the hard-edged "masculinity" of galvanized steel.

Hesse, the unseen godmother of the exhibit, turned repetition into obsessiveness. She deflated the rigidity of Minimalism by using soft materials, like rubber, in handcrafted forms with erotic overtones. Before her death at age 34 in 1970, she broke the box of Minimalism, turning a macho movement inside out.

Now seven of her spiritual heirs, ranging in age from 29 to 42, are continuing to expand boundaries of acceptable art. In place of a fear of being labeled "feminine" and, therefore, inferior artists, they exploit characteristics that some would consider traditionally feminine, such as delicacy, sensuality, and intuition.

"Ghost" (1990) by British artist Rachel Whiteread is a huge plaster cast - like a frozen artifact - of an actual parlor from a demolished London building. The chosen medium alludes to death masks, especially in this case where the room no longer exists except in cast form. Yet plaster casts also connote healing. This ambiguity reminds us of women artists' dual status: invisible in the not-so-distant past, yet on the mend in the present as their work becomes acknowledged. …

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