Responding to the above headline, and given our current political circumstances in the United States and England, I would have to say no–this is not an era for women artists if the Trump administration withdraws civil liberties from women (and people of color at the LGBTQ community) as expected. The article below by Sarah Boxer rehashes Linda Nochlin’s landmark 1971 essay “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?” and considers the many institutional group and solo exhibitions dedicated to women in 2016. Read Boxer in partial below, in full via The Atlantic.
In a 1971 article in artnews, Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, asked a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad question: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Her question has been ringing in our collective ears ever since. And it’s ringing especially loudly this year.
Here is Nochlin’s killer line: “The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.” She went on to explain why:
The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education … everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals.
Our very idea of greatness, of genius, she argued, is bound up with manliness.
Nearly half a century has passed since Nochlin posed her question. Now we face it again, because this year, 2016, is once again the year of the woman artist—it happens roughly every decade—although no one has formally declared it so.
The wave of all-women exhibitions in the United States hit first in Florida this past winter. The Contemporary Arts Foundation in Miami showed “NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists From the Rubell Family Collection” (now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.). The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach displayed “O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York.” By early summer, the wave had moved west. At the Denver Art Museum, “Women of Abstract Expressionism” opened in June. Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, a new gallery in Los Angeles, made its debut with “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016.” Sprüth Magers’s L.A. gallery showed the work of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel in an exhibit called “Eau de Cologne.” The summer wrapped up with “The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men,” at Cheim & Read in New York. (And I haven’t even counted up the solo exhibitions featuring women such as Diane Arbus, Cecily Brown, Carmen Herrera, Kruger, June Leaf, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Agnes Martin, Linn Meyers, Nasreen Mohamedi, Charlotte Moorman, Pipilotti Rist, Sherman, and Alma Thomas.)
But is this “woman artist” stuff a good thing? (Was Jackson Pollock a “man artist”?) Elaine de Kooning once recalled a party where she and another painter, Joan Mitchell, were asked, “What do you women artists think … ?” Mitchell interrupted, “Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.” That pretty much sums up some people’s feelings about all-women exhibitions. Let’s blow this ghetto! We can’t win here. Georgia O’Keeffe, by the way, once refused to participate in an all-women show co-curated by Nochlin. Still, there are plenty of people out there who think that women artists share certain qualities—and that this essence is worth capturing in a man-free exhibition.
Between these two positions lies a third one: the belief that all-women shows are like affirmative action, neither especially good nor bad in themselves but a necessary measure in a still-sexist art world. Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—who has recently rehung the museum’s permanent collection to redress various inequities (not just gender, but race too)—summed it up like this: “The only way you get diversity is to actually do it.” That means “some of the dudes don’t get shows.”
Whatever your position, the stakes are high this year. Because a lot of women artists, especially those of the past half century, are now getting a showcase, the burden of proof is pushed back onto them and their art. Nochlin’s question might be asked with a hostile edge today: If the galleries, the museums, and the attitudes have changed and there are still no great women artists, then what?
*Image of Louise Bourgeois’s “Maman” via Wikipedia