Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Have there been no great women artists, NGA?

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It is — or should be — relatively easy for museums of modern and contemporary art to feature women as part of their exhibition programs. Less so historical art museums, whose purview covers centuries of human creation during which women were often excluded from traditional art-production systems.

As a result, a historical art museum’s commitment to showing women in its exhibition galleries offers what could be considered an unusually clear measure of that museum’s commitment to a diverse program.

I thought of this last week, when I realized that I couldn’t think of the last solo exhibition of a woman artist at the National Gallery of Art. Sure enough: A MAN analysis of recent exhibition histories reveals that over the last decade or so, no major American historical art museum has a worse track record of devoting solo shows to women than the National Gallery.

Depending on what counts as a ‘solo show’, the NGA has presented zero or one solo exhibition of a female artist since  it showed “Anna Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie Antoinette” nine years ago, in mid-2002. The Vallayer-Coster exhibition was organized by curator Eik Kahng for the Dallas Museum of Art. [Image above: Vallayer-Coster, A Vase of Flowers, 1775. Collection of The Fitzwilliam Museum.]

The NGA presented “Judith Leyster: 1609-1660,” in its Dutch cabinet galleries in 2009. The Arthur Wheelock and Frima Fox Hofrichter-curated exhibition featured 10 Leysters (out of fewer than 40 known to exist) and 15 paintings by Leyster’s male contemporaries, plus assorted ephemera such as musical instruments. The NGA’s exhibition website says it published a catalogue for the exhibition but all I could find was this pamphlet.

With that possible exception, the National Gallery has not solely originated a solo show of a female artist in almost 20 years, since it organized a Helen Frankenthaler prints show in 1993. (The NGA also organized a Kollwitz works on paper show in 1992. With the O’Keeffe Museum, it co-organized an O’Keeffe works on paper show in 2000.) There are no monographic exhibitions of a female artist on the NGA’s list of upcoming exhibitions, which runs through 2012.

Regardless of how one counts the Leyster show, the NGA’s peer institutions have done much better at presenting exhibitions devoted to female artists. Since the NGA’s 1992 Vallayer-Coster show, the Art Institute of Chicago has offered up more solo presentations of female artists than any other major American historical museum, including exhibitions devoted to Marlene Dumas, Roni Horn, Elizabeth Catlett, Maureen Gallace, Rebecca Warren and Uta Barth. [Image above, left: Celmins, Hand Holding a Firing Gun, 1964. The painting was included in “Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-66,” at both LACMA and the Menil Collection.]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has done next best, presenting seven such exhibitions. They’ve featured Diane Arbus, Kara Walker, Tara Donovan, Shigeyuki Kihara, Betty Woodman, Katrin  Sigurdardottir and fashion designer Coco Chanel.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has devoted solo shows to five women: Sarah Sze, Minagawa Makiko, Cecily Brown, Laura McPhee and Rachel Whiteread. (A 2002 Sophie Ristelhueber show missed my manufactured cut-off date by just a couple of months.). The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum have all presented solo shows of four women in this nine-year span. Philadelphia has exhibited Florence Knoll, Toshiko Takaezu, Linda Day Clark, Frida Kahlo and Lee Miller, and will devote a solo show to Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss early next year.

LACMA has presented exhibitions of Vija Celmins, Eleanor Antin, Catherine Opie and Arbus. At the Getty, exhibitions have spotlighted Dorothea Lange, Julia Margaret Cameron, Nicole Cohen and Graciela Iturbide. In addition, a 2008 presentation of science illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria falls just outside my rubric. [Image: Iturbide, The Sacrifice, la Mixteca, Oaxaca, 1992. Included in the exhibition “The Goat’s Dance: Photographs by Garciela Iturbide.”]

True: Many of these exhibitions, such as MFAB’s Sze installation and the Getty’s Cohen presentation were single-work installations. Others, such as the AIC’s Catlett show were single-gallery shows.

The NGA’s commitment to art made by men has been in the news before, most recently in the years since the museum re-installed its West Building American art galleries. In June I noted that all 169 works in those galleries were made by men and that up to 168 of them were made by white men. When the museum debuted its remodeled American galleries in 2009, only one work was by a woman. Shortly after the galleries were opened that work was removed from view.

The National Gallery of Art received $159 million from American taxpayers in the 2011 federal fiscal year.

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  1. Carole Laventhol, MFA says:

    There are amazing female artists, working all over our country. Most do not even try to market themselves, because they know of the bias that still pervades our society in 2011. Perhaps we should all be like George Sand, and take on male psuedonoms, so that we can be treated equally, and with merit.


  2. Sarah Smith says:

    @ Carole, that won’t help build female strength will it, thats completely affirmative of the bias in the art world towards men. I don’t know what the answer is, but its about the value form and not male characteristics or male names.

  3. Alex says:

    Good post. One quibble: MFA Boston had a solo show by photographer Laura McPhee in 2006.

  4. Ann S. Harris says:

    Almost all of the exhibitions mentioned were of women working in 20th C or later; sometimes the same show traveled but is listed in several locations as if separate shows (e.g. Celmins). Take away the most recent women artists and the picture is pretty bleak. Perhaps the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington deserves a mention . . . maybe the National Gallery thinks it can forget about earlier women artists because of the NMWA nearby. Good as it is, and it will certainly get bigger and better,it is a small,and small budget operation at present. I agree wholeheartedly with Tyler Green that the National Gallery needs to do much better both as regards work on display from the permanent collection and special focus shows that could easily emphasize women. Women were outstanding portrait and still-life painters by the 17th C in Europe . . . exhibitions that considered their emerging talents in these fields with contextual work by their male peers could tell those stories in ways that would draw a wide public and engage some lively debate about self-presentation, for example.

  5. Tyler Green says:

    Oops, sorry. Thanks. I had thought that was listed under the ‘museum school’ list, which is a bit different. But you’re right. I misread.

  6. This really is outrageous in this day and age. I wonder what their criteria is for choosing exhibitions? There are some incredible female artists throughout art history, but as you rightly point out more so within the last 150 years.

    Have you challenged the gallery directly? I think that drawing attention to the fact through blog posts like this is vital for trying to achieve equality in gallery space (I can hardly believe this still needs to be written – how depressing…), but also I think that by challenging them directly, they can’t ignore their omission.

    Great post and well said.

  7. Shannon says:

    Wouldn’t it be an awesome event, to have a silent auction, non~bias of sorts. With no artist representation present & having initial signatures on works, to mask the identity of the artists. Simply to let the art speak for itself. It would be interesting to see who the buyers and judges would choose. Not knowing who the artists was. but simply for the love of art:)

  8. Jason says:

    I agree with Ann Harris, there should have been mention of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The NMWA should be recognized and congratulated for their efforts in promoting women artists for their own merit. If a smaller museum such as the Miami University Art Museum in Oxford, Ohio, can organize a one-year, six exhibit presentation of women in art, it should be no problem for the NGA to organize a two or four month showing of women artists. In reading the new biography on Lee Krasner, it is evident that her experiences at Cooper Union were filled with bias due to gender. She was quite the rebel; being suspended for studying the nude which was prohibited for women. It is a shame that she did not garner the attention she deserved until after Pollock died. But, if not for pioneer women such as Betty Parsons, several women artists would never have achieved success. We should not forget women such as Parsons or for their perseverance as supporters of women artists.

  9. […] From while I was on vacation, Philip Kennicott reviews a major new Harry Callahan exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. I, for one, am stunned that the NGA is dedicating an exhibition to a white American male. […]

  10. […] false history of art in America. (I’ve also criticized the NGA’s worst-among-its-peers record of exhibiting female artists.) Acquiring the Duncanson is a mild improvement. (Next up: A hard-to-find Duncanson landscape, in […]

  11. And may I add that the NMWA will not correct my listing as just a painter. And they further commented that “the Library and Research Center CLARA database. Due to lack of staff and money, we are no longer creating detailed profiles for artists in our collection. The database is only being used as a finding aid for the artist’s files. (We are also limiting inclusion into the artist file registry due to load bearing and space restrictions; physical files are only accepted if the artist was included in an exhibition held at the museum).” Hmmm…and I thought they were there to help.If there is no archive you don’t exist. Why should I write about you? Why should I give you an exhibition? What to do? Write about men, exhibit men, curate exhibition about men, sell work by men: It looks like that is path that is open to women. I hate being this negative.

  12. […] I’d have expected that “Hide/Seek” would have pushed George Bellows scholarship in interesting new directions, but judging from Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post review of the NGA’s just-opened Bellows retrospective, nope. (Speaking of the NGA: Look, it’s doing another exhibition of a dead, white male!) […]

  13. […] The NGA’s exhibition record is even worse. The museum has not originated an exhibition of a female artist in almost 20 years. « Weekend roundup Blog Home Collections Pin It Tweet window.fbAsyncInit […]

  14. […] recent history as a museum intensely devoted to exhibiting the work of white American men – with one semi-exception, the NGA has not presented a solo exhibition of a female artist in nearly 20… – why is it re-visiting well-trod […]

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