By Kathleen Stone
Had the curatorial parameters been tighter in concept and more generous regarding the source of the work, the MFA might have produced a great, rather than just a good, exhibit.
Consider the goals behind the MFA’s current exhibition Women Take the Floor (through May, 2021) One is to showcase art made by women over the last hundred years, a redress of historic underrepresentation. A second is to exhibit art drawn mostly from the MFA’s own collection, one that is admittedly thin on women-made art. These parameters are both sprawling and constrained; neither offers much in the way of concrete aesthetic guidance. The result is an exhibit that contains some great pieces, but fails to offer much deep artistic insight about art made by women.
The exhibit is spread out among seven small galleries, each with a broadly defined theme. The first gallery, titled “The Female Gaze: Women Depicting Women,” is a potpourri. Offering a twist on the much-discussed male gaze, the presentation contains likenesses of women by women — portraits, explorations of female identity (expressed through religious or tribal garb), and homages to feminist icons such as Linda Nochlin, the art historian, or CeCe McDonald, the LGBTQ activist. Some pieces are remarkably good, such as Frida Kahlo’s portrait of two women and Lalla Essaydi’s photograph of women and girls in Islamic clothing. In a provocative juxtaposition, Laura McPhee’s photograph of a teenage girl holding a large, dead turkey hangs next to Loïs Mailou Jones’s painting of a girl in Cote d’Ivoire readying herself for an initiation ceremony. The photo undercuts gender norms, particularly if, as is implied, the girl shot the turkey herself, while the painting celebrates traditional gendered behavior. The text that accompanies this work is silent about the powerful contrast; there is no other commentary provided regarding how the pieces relate to one another. Visitors are left to reconcile for themselves the different takes on women’s roles.
Also in this first gallery is a podium where visitors can make speeches, either spontaneously or from printed sheets supplied by the museum. This opportunity to mount a soapbox feels forced; on neither of my two visits did I hear any rabble-rousing. Plus, if someone did want to make a comment, she would have to compete with the nearby audio track of Porsha Olayiwola loudly declaiming her poem “what is the suffrage movement to a blk womyn?” We’re approaching the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Yet there is no contextual material here to assist us in understanding suffrage or first wave feminism, particularly as it affected women artists. So the poem feels disconnected from the art on view.
Visually, much of what is shown in the remaining six galleries is strong. The gallery titled “Women in Action” focuses on action painters (aka Abstract Expressionists). Each piece is outstanding. For instance, in Chamonix Joan Mitchell’s canvas captures the vitality of a mountain peak. Elaine de Kooning’s Bacchus #46 exhibits a colorful, writhing form. These artists, plus the other four on display, richly deserve the spotlight, with the shadows of the men who were their colleagues, husbands, and rivals well out of sight. But this is a survey show that is not designed to provide in-depth examination of any one genre or school. One hopes that in the future the MFA will devote a more comprehensive show to one or more of these artists. (Ironically, in two other shows now up at the museum, Jackson Pollock’s sway over the mid-century art world is examined: “Collecting Stories: Mid-Century Experiments,” just one floor below this gallery, and “Mural: Jackson Pollock and Katharina Grosse.”)
In the “Women Publish Women” gallery, more ambitious, successful work is shown. Most of the prints were made at Universal Limited Art Editions, a print making shop started in 1957 by Tatyana Grossman, who encouraged experimentation. Here we see prints by artists such as Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg, Jane Hammond, Kiki Smith, Lee Bontecou, and Helen Frankenthaler. The latter’s prints are outstanding — they’re nuanced interpretations of her ideas about color, notions that she drew on in her painting that hangs in the “Women in Action” gallery. Unfortunately, neither label in either gallery directs the visitor’s attention to the other. You have to make the connection yourself and circle back, in order to study and compare her work in the two mediums.
Other galleries are less successful. The individual fiber sculptures are terrific, but overall they fail to cohere into a serious grasp of the form. There is much that could be said about the melding of “art” and textile, a traditional female “craft,” but there simply aren’t enough examples to help the visitor draw any substantial conclusions.
Another gallery, “Women on the Move,” shows some fine examples of textiles, a form where “art” and “commerce” often meet. In one example, Ruth Reeves uses indigenous Guatemalan designs as inspiration for printed linen dresses that became popular in the 1930s. Another instance presents a collaboration between painter Carmen Herrera and the fashion house of Akris. Her starkly geometric painting –long green triangles on a white field — dates from the 1960s. Forty-five years later, Akris used the pattern as the basis for a summer dress. The gallery also displays paintings, including several by Georgia O’Keefe and two by the relatively unknown Polly Thayer. Next to a colorfully innovative still life by Thayer, the wall text refers to the “historically feminized still-life genre.” The text doesn’t tell visitors why women often turned to the still-life genre (they were kept out of life drawing classes) nor does it explain why men embraced the genre, the Dutch masters of the 17th century and Cézanne among them. Overall, this gallery, like those remaining in Women Take the Floor, reflects a catch-all sensibility. The diverse pieces here are excellent individually, but don’t set up a real dialogue, either with each other or with their overarching historical contexts.
Heading to the exit door, one passes again through the first gallery. There, next to the door, is Alice Neel’s portrait of Linda Nochlin. The label alludes to Nochlin’s seminal essay from 1971 — “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” It’s the point, of course, of this exhibition to refute the title’s assumption — and it does. Masterful art was indeed made by females, as one sees in the galleries, even though women received inequitable and unjust treatment at the hands of art schools, critics, and gallerists. Ultimately, though, gender proves to be insufficient as a guiding vision for the show. Had the curatorial parameters been tighter in concept, and more generous regarding the source of the work, the MFA might have produced a great, rather than just a good, exhibit.
Kathleen Stone lives in Boston and writes critical reviews for The Arts Fuse. She co-hosts a literary salon known as Booklab and is at work on several long projects. She holds graduate degrees from the Bennington Writing Seminars and Boston University School of Law, and her website can be found here.