“Why were there no great female artists?” is the question at the heart of an essay by Linda Nochlin of the same name, first published in ARTnews in 1971. In this article, Nochlin opposes the “insidious” answer that the question elicits: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.
The 50th anniversary of “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Last year, Andrea Karnes, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, Texas, revisited Nochlin’s essay. In her upcoming exhibition Women Painting Women, Karnes aims to make it clear that nothing – and everything – has changed.
“Alice Neel started painting the figure in the late 1920s, and no one paid attention to it for a long time. The same goes for Faith Ringgold and Emma Amos,” Karnes said. artists were considered important to many, but they generally fell just outside the canon of mainstream American institutions. Slowly, Neel, Ringgold and Amos began to gain wider recognition through retrospectives. According to Karnes, the question at the heart of the Nochlin’s essay no longer brings the same defensive attitude as it once did, because people can’t pass up major female personalities such as these. “Many of these women bravely did what they wanted to do even when it was unpopular or unnoticed,” Karnes added.
“Women Painting Women”, which opens on May 15, presents the work of 46 female and female portrait painters whose work has been divided into four main themes: “The body”, “Nature personified”, “Color as portrait and “Individuality.” Included are artists like Neel, Jenny Saville, Sylvia Sleigh and Lisa Yuskavage.
To prepare for the show, Karnes focused his attention on the concept of the male gaze, which was prominently featured in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Re-reading this essay, Karnes was struck—perhaps “naively,” she said—by the implicit whiteness of the female gaze that Mulvey and others championed.
“Including women of color in the show meant opening up the idea of what the female gaze is or could be,” Karnes said. To show as much, she included works by Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas, Arpita Singh and others.
When asked if there was an overarching female gaze guiding the art in ‘Women Painting Women’, Karnes said, “If I had to sum it up, I would say that women play with the notion of archetype more than male artists. There are women who work within the tropes of the sexy woman and there are women who work completely against it, but in some way all of them comment on the archetypal notion of woman.
Karnes cautioned that experimenting with tropes and archetypes is not always commentary on canon. On the contrary, it can be a starting point for something that serves to extend it. “Furthermore,” Karnes said, “every artist, male, female, of all colors, is still working with and against a story that has gone before them.”
Although Karnes said she primarily curated the show for local audiences, she also believes it will have universal appeal. “I wanted people to come to the exhibit and see themselves, either as the painter or as the person portrayed and be really emboldened by that,” she continued. “I think it’s important to give young female artists role models, and this exhibition will definitely have something for everyone.”