ART REVIEW: "Women Take The Floor"
“Woman Take The Floor” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (“MFA”) is a broad-ranging exhibition that presents over 200 works by women artists, mostly drawn from the MFA's own collections. Its objective is to bring some recognition to art that has been under-appreciated due to systematic-gender discrimination.
As readers of this website know, my mother was a professional artist. (See Art By Valda section). Among my memories of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s are times when I would accompany her to art galleries and art exhibitions where she would seek to interest gallery owners and exhibition officials in her work. Sometimes she would find a receptive audience but all too often their was a note of condescension in the rejections she received.
I found this very difficult to understand. Everyone we knew raved about my mother's talent. Furthermore, she had the academic credentials with degrees in fine art and she had studied with some of the best known artists of that period at New York's Art Students League (“ALS”). Yet, while some of the men who were her fellow students at the ALS went on to achieve not only success but fame, the barriers to recognition by the art world seemed insurmountable.
Over time, it became clear that this was the result of two forms of discrimination. First, just as in the first half of the 20th century, the art establishment had scorned abstraction and made it difficult for abstract artists to succeed, by the mid-century, the art establishment had embraced abstraction and anyone doing figurative work was dismissed as old-fashioned and backward thinking. My mother's mentor at ALS was the painter and muralist Reginald Marsh and she had also studied under Robert Beverley Hale and so figurative work was her first love. Thus, she met with the art establishment's prejudice against figurative work.
While my mother's first love was figurative art, she also did abstract works ranging from Matisse-like images to geometrical abstraction. However, these works also met with rejection. Thus, there had to be something else going on here that was blocking the door.
My parents' relationship was very much a partnership of equals. Thus, it did not occur to me until I was in school that some people regarded women as inferior to men. But this prejudice was readily apparent in the dismissive condescension of the art establishment toward my mother. It was especially galling in that this prejudice was coming from people who regarded themselves as forward-thinking and liberal-minded.
At the entrance to this exhibition, the MFA presents some statistics that show that my mother's experience was far from unique. According to the MFA, 40 percent of the artists in America are women. Yet, only 13 percent of the art in the permanent collections of major museums are by female artists. Only 4 percent of the art sold at auction is made by women. Furthermore, women on average receive less for their art than men and authoritative art texts still devote more attention to men than women.
Thus, prejudice against women artists was and - - despite some progress in recent years - - remains real. The MFA concedes that it too has been guilty of this in the past. However, with this exhibition it hopes “to act as a catalyst for greater reform.”
The method it has chosen to do this is to present works showing the breadth of the contribution women have made to art history. Even though the MFA has devoted considerable space to this exhibition, it would be impossible to mount an exhibition that covered the contribution of women artists everywhere and throughout history. Therefore, the exhibition is limited to American artists so you do not see works by people like Elizabeth Vige Le Brun or by Berthe Morrisot. It is also limited to the period since 1920 when the Women's Suffrage Amendment was added to the United States Constitution. (Oddly, the exhibition essentially leaves out Mary Cassatt, one of the most famous women artists of all time, who was an American and who was active until her death in 1926. Indeed, she staged an exhibition in Philadelphia in 1918 in support of the Suffrage Amendment).
The exhibition is divided into seven sections, each devoted to a different topic. “Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice” presents a wide range of portraits of women differing in style and approach.
“Women on the Move: Art and Design” points out that women even after the Suffrage Amendment women confronted discrimination and that advances in transportation and communication created means for bypassing some of the obstacles.
“No Man’s Land” looks at various approaches women artists took to presenting landscape and r personal environments.
“Beyond the Loom: Fiber as Sculpture” looks at how some artists re-imagined making textiles, a task often regarded as “women's work.” and created large woven sculptures.
“Women of Action” considers the contributions of Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner and ceramicist Toshiko Takaezu to the formation and expansion of action painting in the mid-20th century.
Turning to prints, “Women Publish Women: The Print Boom” tells of three entrepreneurial women who established printmaking workshops in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As the title indicates,“Women and Abstraction at Midcentury” looks at the contributions of women who did abstract art in the middle of the 20th century.
Overall, there is a lot to take in in this exhibition on a diverse array of topics. However, given the importance of the issue, the exhibition had to be big. The MFA could have done a series of smaller, focused exhibitions on each of the topics covered under the umbrella of this exhibition. But then the overall breadth of the contribution of women artists would have been obscured.
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Above: Grace Hartigan "Masquerade."
Below: Polly Thayer "Self-Portrait: The Algerian Tunic".
Art review - Boston Museum of Fine Arts - Women Take the Floor