The Resurgence of Women-Only Art Shows ; Curators and Gallerists Say Exhibitions Shine Light on Neglected Artists

By Sheets, Hilarie M | International New York Times, April 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Resurgence of Women-Only Art Shows ; Curators and Gallerists Say Exhibitions Shine Light on Neglected Artists


Sheets, Hilarie M, International New York Times


Curators and gallerists say these exhibitions are long overdue and can shine a light on neglected artists.

At the peak of her career in 1976, Georgia O'Keeffe refused to lend her work to a pivotal exhibition in Los Angeles, "Women Artists: 1550 to 1950." It was one of a wave of all-female shows that decade -- about 150 -- to spotlight artists largely ignored by major museums and galleries. But O'Keefe, the most famous female artist of her day, saw herself in a different category -- "one of the best painters," period.

The feminist art historian Linda Nochlin borrowed an O'Keeffe painting elsewhere and put her in the show anyway. Yet despite these exhibitions, neither O'Keeffe nor any other woman would break into "Janson's History of Art," the leading textbook, until 1987, and equality remained elusive.

While some artists are ambivalent about being viewed through the lens of gender, the all-women's group show, which fell out of favor in the 1980s and '90s, is flourishing again. At least a dozen galleries and museums are featuring women-themed surveys, a surge that curators and gallerists say is shining a light on neglected artists, resuscitating some careers and raising the commercial potential of others.

These shows are "playing catch-up after centuries of women's marginality and invisibility," said the artist Barbara Kruger, who has both declined and agreed to participate in all-women shows. Galleries looking for fresh names to promote and sell have more than altruism in mind: They are sensing opportunity "to cultivate a new market," Ms. Kruger said.

The most prominent spring show is "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women" at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, the inaugural exhibition of the gallery's new Los Angeles branch. It joins an all-women lineup at the Saatchi Gallery in London and at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, where there has been a 20 percent spike in attendance over last year and enthusiasm from families bringing their daughters to see the show "No Man's Land."

On the horizon are women-only group shows at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Denver Art Museum, and corporate sponsors are starting to get into the act: At the New Museum in New York the DKNY fashion house is underwriting the spring season, devoted to five solo exhibitions by women.

"They are curatorial correctives," said Maura Reilly, the founding curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and now interim director of the National Academy Museum in New York, who advocates for all-women exhibitions "to counterpoint the looked-overness."

In Ms. Reilly's 2015 Artnews article "Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures and Fixes," she showed statistically a vast gender imbalance in terms of museum exhibitions and permanent collections, prices, gallery representation and media coverage. Last year, just 7 percent of the artists on view in the New York Museum of Modern Art's collection galleries were women. "Obviously great women artists have emerged, but unfortunately those are still token achievers," Ms. Reilly said.

If these shows don't close the gender divide, they at least provide substantial investment and rigorous scholarship to illuminate narratives that have slipped from the art historical record. The intergenerational lineup of 34 sculptors at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel includes younger artists like Kaari Upson and Shinique Smith alongside modernist forerunners like Louise Bourgeois, Claire Falkenstein, Eva Hesse and Lynda Benglis.

"These feminist artists broke down the hierarchies of what is considered acceptable in the world of sculpture, whether it's the use of wire or cloth or yarns or foam or fiberglass," said Paul Schimmel, the former chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, who organized the gallery's show.

Mr. Schimmel argued that "the rising tide will raise the appreciation of all these artists across the board," but acknowledged that "there is still a huge gap" between the prices for high market performers like Hesse and Bourgeois and the vast majority of women artists. …

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