Making Space: Women Artists in Postwar Abstractionby Ann McCoy
The Museum of Modern Art | April 15 – August 13, 2017
Making Space: Women Artists in Postwar Abstraction has work by many of the same artists as its 1995 predecessor Elizabeth Murray, Modern Women (1914 – 73)—work by seventy women from the MoMA collection. Murray’s exhibition, which included figuration, was the first to display the museum’s collection according to gender. Making Space, with its old-fashioned Alfred Barr-inspired section labels—a bow to MoMA’s preferential hierarchy of abstraction—feels very safe; the viewer is not going to turn a corner and see Nancy Spero’s Torture of Woman (1976), which could provide a leitmotif for this exhibition. Works by Latin American women, gifted to the museum’s collection six years ago by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, provide the much-needed surprises. If only some equally inspired donor had given MoMA a substantial cache of Jackie Windsor, or Claire Falkenstein sculptures, to fill in giant gaps in the collection.
While it is always positive to see work by women at MoMA, the exhibition feels haunted by thoughts of neglected careers, occluded narratives, and token gestures. Only ten of the fifty women in the exhibition have had solo MoMA exhibitions: Helen Frankenthaler, Agnes Martin, Lee Bontecou, Lygia Clark, Anni Albers, Barbara Morgan, Anne Ryan, Louise Bourgeois, and Alina Szapocznikow.
During much of the postwar era that this exhibition covers, Dorothy Channing Miller, the celebrated doyenne and pioneer woman curator hired by Alfred Barr, ruled the roost. Sadly, Miller’s “great eye” was so blinded by male hero worship she excluded Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell from her American exhibitions, which stretched from 1942 through 1959, and vaulted many male artists into stardom. They included the work of 111 men and only ten women; only the toughest war-horse Grace Hartigan made the cut twice. Dorothy Dehner, Hedda Stern, and Lee Krasner did not make the cut, and were probably benched as Frauen der Künstler. It is hard to not think of the institution’s neglect of women artists when looking at this exhibition, which was cobbled together in a year and scheduled in an empty slot. It simply doesn’t do enough to atone for past sins. Seeing the exhibition’s selection of abstract sculpture, the viewer has to avoid the elephant in the room, namely the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel blockbuster Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947 – 2016. This was the caliber of exhibition MoMA needed for their penance. We can only dream, what if the money spent turning the museum into Planet Hollywood with Björk could have been spent on a women’s sculpture exhibition occupying both MoMA and PS1?
Making Space has many wonderful works; the Eleanore Mikus Tablet Number 84 (1964)—who we hope can earn a retrospective—and Agnes Martin’s The Tree (1964) are stunning. Will Mikus, who is eighty-nine, have to wait until she’s 102 years old like Carmen Herrera? Many others, like Hedda Stern, the only woman in the famous photograph of "The Irascibles," will be relegated to a posthumous retrospective as was Lee Krasner.
The exhibition’s truncated sectioning which defines the work by formal properties feels superficial and limits the narrative. Gertrude Altschule, Gego, Anni Albers, Gertrud Natzler, Mira Schendel, and Lucie Rie, might have been more rooted in the Bauhaus and European traditions fascism forced them to flee; we feel we are only getting part of the story. If only another donor had been found to gift some great additional examples of Bauhaus textiles and designs by women to give the “intersectional” gallery in the exhibition some real heft; it feels like an afterthought meant to appease the museum’s design department.
If anything, this exhibition illuminates and stresses the need to extend the precedent set by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. It is going to take an army of enlightened donors and a Swiss bank vault full of acquisition funds to do the job. Curatorial is also going to have to take a walk on the wild side and flee the safe constraints of the institution’s modernist canon. Carolee Schneemann (soon to be relegated to a PS1 exhibition and collected mostly in the film department), Judith Bernstein, Adrian Piper, and other cutting edge artists should be woven into the collection in a meaningful way. When MoMA finally acquired and exhibited a wall of Nancy Spero’s, it was a shock, long after the fact. Also, important pioneering artists like Eva Hesse, who is represented in the exhibition by an early piece, should have a more substantial array of works. The Los Angeles Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947 – 2016 demonstrated, women have often been the trailblazers, and MoMA could do some well-curated exhibitions to celebrate these occluded histories.
ANN MCCOY is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.