Museum  September 18, 2019  Megan D Robinson

"Women Take the Floor" Reframes Modern Art History at MFA Boston

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lorna Simpson (American, born in 1960), She, 1992. Photograph, dye-diffusion photographs (Polaroid prints), and plaque. Ellen Kelleran Gardner Fund. Reproduced with permission.

Female artists are taking over the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) in a new exhibition addressing the pernicious problem of underrepresentation in art museums. Currently on view, Women Take the Floor, “challenges the dominant history of American art by focusing on the overlooked and underrepresented work and stories of women artists.” With over 200 works by more than 100 female artists, Women Take the Floor has been carefully selected by a cross-departmental team of six curators and three research assistants and includes African American, Asian American, Latin American, and Indigenous artists. Works from well-known luminaries such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo are present, as well as artists who’ve previously lacked recognition.

© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Deer's Skull with Pedernal, 1936. Oil on canvas. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation.

Timed to coincide with the centennial anniversary of women's suffrage in the US, as well as the MFA’s 150th anniversary, this exhibition celebrates women’s strength and diversity while acknowledging that earlier feminist movements were not inclusive or immune from systemic racism. This exhibition seeks to redress past failures and advocates for increased diversity, inclusion, and gender equity in museums, the art world, and beyond. 

© Sheila Hicks. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sheila Hicks (American (lives and works in Paris), born in 1934), Bamian, 1968. Wool and acrylic yarns, wrapped. Charles Potter Kling Fund and partial gift of Sheila Hicks.

Drawn primarily from the MFA’s collection, the works are organized into seven thematic galleries, which showcase artists and designers of the 1920s and ’30s, landscapes, unorthodox fiber artists, entrepreneurial printmakers, avant-garde abstractionists, figurative painters, sculptors, jewelry designers, photographers and contemporary artists examining identity, gender, and politics.

© Andrea Bowers. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Andrea Bowers (American, born in 1965), Trans Liberation: Building a Movement (Cece McDonald), 2016. Archival pigment print. Towles Contemporary Art Fund.

The core space of the exhibition, Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice, presents women-created female portraiture. Encompassing a vast swath of history and cultures, the works explore the diverse social, political, and cultural contexts in which women depict one another. Photographer Andrea Bower’s stunning portrait of LGBTQ activist Cece McDonald, Trans Liberation: Building a Movement, stands out. McDonald bold figure rises above a field of grass with the cityscape behind her, wearing a Grecian style dress and gorgeous black feathered wings.

© 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954), Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), 1928. Oil on canvas. Charles H. Bayley Picture and Paintings Fund, William Francis Warden Fund, Sophie M. Friedman Fund, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund, Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, Gift of Jessie H. Wilkinson—Jessie H. Wilkinson Fund, and Robert M. Rosenberg Family Fund.

Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia) and Alice Neel’s Linda Nochlin and Daisy are both powerful portraits, painted in very different styles. Kahlo combines Renaissance esthetics with the bold, flat colors of Mexican folk art. Kahlo’s subjects stand with quiet dignity against a leafy background, evoking depictions of the Virgin Mary, thus giving these working-class Mexican women heroic stature. Neel’s very modern mother and daughter, groundbreaking feminist Art Historian Linda Nochlin and her daughter, Daisy, sit together on an ornate green couch. Neel captures the awkwardness and immediacy of posing. Sitting stiffly in brightly colored, wrinkled clothing, it feels as if they were caught in the middle of a conversation. Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice encourages community participation. Active programming includes a video poetry performance by Boston poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola, and quotes collected by local feminist collective The Cauldron.

© The Estate of Alice Neel Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Alice Neel (American, 1900–1984), Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973. Oil on canvas. Seth K. Sweetser Fund.

Women Take the Floor runs through May 3, 2021.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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