Exile in (artistic) Guyville: We gotta fight for our right to parity

Women-only art shows aren't helping the pursuit of gender justice in the art world. In some ways, they even hurt it

Published May 27, 2017 7:30PM (EDT)

The "Women of Abstract Expressionism" Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (Denver Art Museum)
The "Women of Abstract Expressionism" Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (Denver Art Museum)

 Why not just call it the ladies auxiliary art show? That’s what I think every time I see mention of “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” the year-long, magnificently curated traveling exhibit organized and opened by the Denver Art Museum that closes next week in Palm Springs. Featuring 51 works by 12 overlooked artists — all white women — from the hyper-macho Abstract Expressionism movement that rose in the mid-20th century, it is a stunning exhibit rich in quality of work. Yet when the women are all white and relegated to a room of their own, it hampers progress toward parity. Separate is still not equal.

Parity among the genders is the objective of forward thinking leaders in art, particularly with regard to the twin notions of economics and visibility. And yet, as Gwen Chanzit, who curated the original exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, said in an interview with Yale, “Exhibitions are important, but they’re ephemeral.” What changes institutionally after yet another special exhibit closes?

We need to refuse to delight in these women-only shows, which serve as continued marginalization. Despite some notable positives that come from them, women-only exhibits don't treat women like equals. If “Women in Abstract Expressionism” is a special show, then by default Abstract Expressionism is men. (Show like this one also reinforce an erroneous and exclusionary gender binary that negates and erases gender nonconforming people.) Women are not a novelty and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Complicating matters is the exhibit’s emphasis on white women. Only two of the 40 artists featured in the catalog that accompanies this show are artists of color — Alma Thomas, who is African-American; and Bernice Bing, who is Chinese-American. At the same time we fight the gender disparity, we must be fighting for inclusion of women of various races — as well as faiths, sexual orientations, gender identifications and abilities. Our feminist fights in the art world must be intersectional or else they are not feminist, and our victories won’t be either.

The entrenched sexism in the art world is well documented. According to Guerrilla Girls and a major look at sexism in 2015 published by ARTnews, as well as countless other sources, women too often get scrapped and get scraps. Women are underrepresented in the canon and get paltry media attention. Very little of public art is art by women. Work by women artists makes up only 3–5 percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. Only five women made the list of the top 100 artists by cumulative auction value between 2011 and 2016. Fewer than 4 percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76 percent of the nudes are female. Women-only shows—now in their third generation — are not changing the art world in a meaningful way.

In ARTnews’ long look at sexism, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes,” Maura Reilly lays out the depth and enormousness of the problem throughout the art world. The solution to the vast, gendered disparity in the art world is not to put women into a side room. Instead, the solutions, as laid out by Reilly and others, are rooted in operating from a loud, activist, broad, intersectional feminist framework. Change comes from speaking out and voicing outrage, from counting and disseminating the raw numbers around women in art, from holding museums and collectors accountable for purchasing and displaying women’s work, and from curating historical shows that are both feminist and contextual.

Looking at the paintings in the “Women of Abstract Expression” exhibit, I kept thinking of Grace Hartigan, whose 1950 work “The King Is Dead” is aptly on prominent display in the current exhibition. I’ve been an ardent admirer and student of her life and work since I briefly met her nearly 30 years ago. Hartigan was a brilliant artist. Her first sale to MoMA came in 1953 when she was 31 years old.  She was the only woman in MoMA’s famed 1956 exhibit, “Twelve Americans.” Abstract Expressionism was a movement defined by using abstraction to express the subjective emotion of the artist combined with spontaneous action. But the school is equally defined by its very maleness, and the behavior of its men. It is embodied by the swagger and hard-drinking and womanizing exploits exemplified by its standard bearer Jackson Pollock.

Hartigan — who explored feminist themes in much of her work, pieces with titles like “Barbie,” “Marilyn” and her epic “Grand Street Brides,” which hangs at the Whitney — was known for her own carousing ways, rivaling Pollock in her audacious personal life. Her drinking was as legendary as her sexual adventures. She eschewed parenthood, saying that she “hated being a mother.” When her son was young, she gave him to her former in-laws to care for and never returned. She had numerous illegal abortions — referring to them in her diaries as “nightmares” — and cheated on each of her four husbands. In one diary entry from 1953 she mentions, “The pain of being without a lover is beginning to set in….” after a celibacy lasting five days. One of Abstract Expressionism's more prominent artists, Hartigan said repeatedly, “I’m a painter, not a woman painter. A painter.” Many of the other women within the movement — among them Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Jay DeFeo and Perle Fine — were equally outspoken about not wanting to be regarded as “women artists.” So it was jarring, disquieting and infuriating to consider their work explicitly as women artists in recent exhibit.

Looking at the huge “Women of Abstract Expressionism” sign gracing the entrance to the exhibit, I imagined Hartigan next to me, barking, “Get me out of here.” They might as well have had a flashing neon “Live Girls” sign, complete with a shapely, disembodied leg in a red high heel and black fishnet stockings, instead. Really, how much difference is there? This exhibit was selling women. Much like women in Los Angeles who strip onstage who find some benefits to stripping — good money, flexible schedule — on their way to a desired bigger and better career as models or singers or actors, the truth is few women make it from Jumbo’s Clown Room or any other strip joint to a successful career in Hollywood. Likewise, women-only exhibits — despite some increased exposure and sales for artists — have not proven to be a path for parity for women in art.

While there have been improvements in women’s visibility and status in the art world in the half-century since Hartigan and her peers established themselves, serious systemic problems persist. Exhibits of art created solely by women artists surged in the 1970s, slowed for the next 20 years, and have regained favor in this century. In recent years, numerous museums and galleries, including MoMA and MoCA in Los Angeles, have developed exhibitions that focus exclusively on women artists as a correction for their historic underrepresentation. To what end?

In the case of “Women in Abstract Expressionism,” the three living artists represented in the show are all delighted to be part of it, according to curator Gwen Chanzit when I interviewed her last week. But many artists who identify as feminists have also declined to participate in women-only shows. As curator and feminist historian Jenni Sorkin explained to the New York Times, “I think it has to do with an unsettled feeling that everything you’ve earned on your own could be undermined when you’re looked at through the prism of gender.” Georgia O’Keeffe famously objected to such designations, too. She refused to lend her work to women-only shows and is one of the most celebrated and highly valued artists, regardless of gender, of the last century.

While of course there are exceptions, women-only art exhibits can also inadvertently exploit women. They drive funds to museums that often don’t wind up significantly expanding their collection’s holding of art by women. In Denver, the exhibit attracted strong foundation funding, and attendance, according to Chanzit, was huge. “The exhibition received tremendous financial support; we were shocked at how much,” she said.

However, while DAM did acquire 10 pieces for its permanent collection by artists who were in the exhibit, only a few were purchased; the vast majority were gifts, therefore resulting in no direct financial gain for the artists or their estates.

Yes, the exhibits get a lot of attention and give the artists exposure. And we feel good about it. Women haven’t had any space at all! Now we have a show! And a catalog! But the attention can mislead people into thinking women now have an equal shot when we still do not. I don't begrudge the individual artists their exposure, but we all have to come up together; making it better for a few women does not make it better for all. Feminism is a revolution, not a reform. It’s parity, not a sideshow. And after the “women only” spectacle — no matter how momentarily great — things go back to the way they have been since Methuselah was a baby: Men get more of the money, the attention, the space and the shows.

Women-only exhibits — despite some increased exposure and sales for artists — have not proven to be a path for parity for women in art. While Maura Reilly, in her prescriptions for fixes, does advocate for women-only exhibitions, she places them in a broader context of feminist action: “Not only do we need to ensure that women’s work is purchased, we need to continue to curate women-only and feminist exhibitions as well as ones with gender parity.”

We must think bigger and demand more to go beyond women-only issues of magazines, women-only art exhibits, and other “safe spaces” for women. Women should have parity on the pages of the New Yorker, and in museums and at art auctions; the entire world needs to be safe for all women. This is what justice looks like, reads like and feels like.

One argument made in favor of women-only shows is the notion of cultural survival; that without these spaces curated for women’s art to be shown it won’t be shown at all. But just the opposite is true: The culture that survives is the culture in the main halls of the major institutions, not the side rooms. And yet “Women of Abstract Expressionism” just closed a run in the desert town of Palm Springs, California, prompting the LA Times to note, “The gentlemen are ensconced in the megalopolis, occupying prime museum real estate in one of the world’s leading art capitals, while the ladies are visiting a lovely little getaway resort nearby.”

We live in a world where many people who have no problem rattling off countless male artists can’t name five women artists. The National Museum of Women in the Arts sponsors this awareness effort during every Women’s History Month (don’t get me started on that!) with the goal of getting people to be able to name some artists who are women. That’s how low the bar is right now. How much more awareness needs to be raised for things to change?

“This exhibition helps because it’s an eye-opener,” said Chanzit. “If nobody is paying attention you have to show them the quality of work they’ve missed in telling the story of art history.”

It’s doubtful that the curators at the Met and the Guggenheim and the Whitney and the Art Institute and at LACMA and the National Gallery need their eyes opened to the fact that there is an abundance of quality art by women not hanging on their walls. Just look at the huge quantity of art by women they have in their collections that is not on display. They are aware of its existence. They simply don’t care.

When asked for the percentage of work in DAM’s permanent collection created by women artists, Chanzit said, “I don’t do that kind of bean counting, but women artists are well represented.” A museum spokesperson affirmed that the institution has not quantified its collection according to gender. We should ask all museums to do so and release the numbers.

Enough with the “eye-openers” already. As Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, has said, “The only way you get diversity is to actually do it.” One of the most effective ways to push for meaningful change is to count. Count the staff at museums, count the board members, count the pieces of art on display, count the pieces in storage. Count every year, and display the results. Counting works, as we’ve seen again and again in social change situations.

Chanzit said her goal for the exhibit was to “broaden the canon and get greater inclusion” and to “spur people to continue the dialogue.” She disagrees that the ultimate goal of all in the art world should be parity of representation.

“Gender is a silly way to distinguish and I hope soon it will be a nonissue,” said Chanzit. “Museum curators should be choosing quality, and there is plenty of quality to select.”

That there are enough talented women artists to choose from isn’t in dispute. But does their inclusion in special exhibits get them closer to inclusion in the canon? It’s possible that women-only special exhibits serve primarily to create the feeling and appearance — the illusion — that women are getting their due.

“In a perfect world you wouldn't have shows limited by gender,” says Chanzit. Meanwhile, one of her goals is to “spur more shows like this one, until the disparity disappears and there is wide representation, routinely.”

“Women of Abstract Expressionism” is closing, but women-only shows are likely to keep proliferating. MoMA's "Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction," on exhibit until August 13, promises to spawn even more such shows. Meanwhile, Hartigan's breakthrough painting "Persian Jacket" is owned by MoMA, but not on display in the permanent collection. Not surprising from a museum that seems impervious to criticism about its famously male-dominated collection. So how do we build that perfect world, rather than wait for it?

Radical action is needed. I don’t want to literally burn down the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I want us to figuratively burn it down. Women need to fight for our right to parity. A new generation of female curators might be the key to leading the work to push museums — including boards and donors — to take necessary action.

What survives in culture shouldn’t only be the work of men, and it shouldn’t only be the work of white folks. But it isn’t going to be what’s on special exhibit down the hall to the elevator and up to the fourth floor. Let’s not settle for carving out a little piece for women; instead, let’s roll the patriarchy. Grace Hartigan was the only woman in the MoMA exhibit 61 years ago, but she was in the main event.

No more ladies’ auxiliary. We’re not here to draw crowds to the museum to make money for men to spend at auction buying more art by men to hang on the walls. Women aren’t just sexy props to make money for men.

I think about Hartigan and how she fought for parity at every step. How she worked her whole life to demystify what’s masculine and what’s feminine. How she inspired me to do the same. I don't think she would have wanted to be in that exhibit; I think she would have wanted to burn down those walls.

Me too. Let’s.

By Anna March

Anna March’s writing appears frequently here in Salon as well as in The New York Times' Modern Love column, New York Magazine and The Rumpus. She is the Publisher of the magazine Roar. Her essay collection, "Feminist Killjoy," and novel are forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter @annamarch or learn more about her at annamarch.com.

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Art Feminism Fine Art Gender Grace Hartigan Museums Women Women Of Abstract Expressionism