Can you name five women artists? It’s not me who’s asking. It’s the Museum of Fine Arts, right there on the wall at the entry to “Women Take the Floor,” the museum’s kickoff exhibition of what’s shaping up to be a sesquicentennial year of self-recriminating atonement.
Anyway, among the 100-some woman artists that will circulate through the show over its 18-month run, here’s a currently-present starter quintet: Alice Neel , whose moody, forthright portraiture was largely ignored by the art world until she was well into her 70s; Louise Bourgeois, the French artist now seen as the grand-dame of proto-feminist art, barely acknowledged until she reached senior citizenship; Carmen Herrera , the great abstract painter whose first major museum retrospective came three years ago at the Whitney, shortly after her 101st birthday; Luchita Hurtado, whose lush, playful figurative and abstract works will be the subject of her first international retrospective next year, just as she turns 100; and Georgia O’Keeffe, who’s everywhere all the time and has been almost since the moment she arrived in New York more than a century ago.
Notice a theme? O’Keeffe notwithstanding, the best strategy for career success for woman artists appears to be to live long enough to see it. Though waiting — and waiting, and waiting — has never been much of a guarantee. One-for-five, in fact, is disproportionately generous.
Let’s move on to a little more complex math: 96 percent of all art sold at auction is by men. Forty-six percent of American artists are women, but 13 percent of American art museum holdings are by women.
And the MFA? Notably worse. Women account for only 8 percent of its collection. You might think it’s because of a largely historical collection, weighted toward eras — pretty much all of them — when art was deemed near-exclusively masculine territory. Well, yes, but: Of the almost 40,000 works acquired by the museum in the past decade — right here in the 21st century — more than 90 percent were by men.
You get the picture. Over centuries, women have been ignored, neglected, patronized, pushed aside, and outright discouraged, and we’re not only talking about art. With the #MeToo era’s surge in awareness came the realization that things aren’t much better here and now. As it prepares to turn 150 next year, the MFA seems determined to fix as much of its own place in that troubled history — and present — as quickly as it can.
“Women Take the Floor,” as a title, feels like only half the story. If not on the floor, where have they been? The stories in the show are many, but with a certain sameness in the end.
If it’s Lee Krasner or Elaine de Kooning, they were too busy propping up the men in their lives — Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, respectively — to build their own careers until much later. If it’s Joan Mitchell or Lois Mailou Jones, leaving the United States for France helped, though only to a point. If it’s Helen Torr, a friend to O’Keeffe — and better known in those heady early-American Modernist circles as Arthur Dove’s wife — she was hesitant to show her work in public, and even requested it all be destroyed after her death. (It wasn’t, hence the presence of “Evening Sounds,” her cool little abstract wonder, hung alongside O’Keeffe.)
Torr’s frustration was well founded. As she explained to The Guardian in 2010, a New York dealer (and a woman, at that) once told Herrera, “ ‘Carmen, you can paint circles around the men artists that I have but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.’ I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was.” Nevertheless, she persisted. Herrera never stopped painting and was finally “discovered” at 89.
For the curatorial team at the MFA, led by Nonie Gadsden, discovery, given the depths of exclusion over time, remains a real and urgent goal. “Women Take the Floor” is less a pinpointed venture than an open-pit mine. Among its many wonders is the great many artists you’re likely seeing for the first time.
The show is not gentle about its corrective measures. The entry gallery is a rupture in space, big blocks of wall tumbling into the gallery, girded by red frames. As an architectural metaphor, it works: The cool neutrality of the white cube is fractured every which way, a declarative gesture in physical space. This is not business as usual with words, works, and even the building itself.
One thing that becomes clear — over gallery after gallery after gallery — is that there’s a lot to make up for, and I wondered if maybe “Women Take the Floor” had set off in too many directions at once. That fractured gallery space hosts “Women Depicting Women,” one of seven pocket exhibitions that make up the greater whole. It, on its own, is a nod to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage — the right, finally, to vote — though it lays bare those imperfections too: The movement was dominated by white women, with women of color pushed to the margins.
“Women Depicting Women” takes on race as well as gender — Lorna Simpson’s blunt, eerie “She,” a five-part photographic portrait of a black woman in men’s clothes, her head cut off above the chin; Wendy Red Star’s “Apsaalooke Feminist #1,” a mother-daughter portrait in a suburban living room that could be described as Native-American contemporary; Andrea Bowers’s imposing portrait of black trans icon CeCe McDonald, with shimmering gown and black wings, as an avenging angel — and gallery to gallery, the corrections build and build.
From industrial design in the 1920s — a field from which women where actively discouraged — to craft to indigenous appropriation, the show points out that swaths of its textile and pottery collection was catalogued as ethnographic and not attributed, though the makers were almost surely women. The accretion of ills surely skirts the edge of overwhelming.
But really, why shouldn’t it? “Women Take the Floor,” as an apology, is holistic, voluminous, endlessly informative, and now and then kind of fun (I loved the fact the curators pointed out that the standard museum bench — chrome-framed, black-leather buttoned, scattered throughout the building — was designed by the legendary furniture maker, Florence Knoll). After a century and a half of doing far too little, is it even possible to do too much?
WOMEN TAKE THE FLOOR
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through May 3, 2021. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.