52 Artists Challenges the Meaning of “Women’s Art”

RIDGEFIELD, CT — There’s a wonderful quote tucked early in writer and curator Lucy Lippard’s essay for the 1971 Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum show she curated, Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists:

I have no clear picture of what, if anything, constitutes “women’s art,” although I am convinced that there is a latent difference in sensibility …. After selecting this show from hundreds of possibilities, I was aware of a strong personal identification with work by women, but as yet I hesitate to draw any conclusions from it…

It’s a thought that stayed with me as I walked through 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone, also at the Aldrich. Organized by the museum’s senior curator, Amy Smith-Stewart, along with Alexandra Schwartz and Caitlin Monachino, the exhibition reflects on and re-examines Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists. More than 50 years later, it represents most of the original artists, in many cases showing the same work as well as more recent pieces, along with 26 new artists. As a show in 1971 that exclusively featured women and that grew out of Lippard’s then-nascent feminist consciousness, it was a landmark. In this 2022 iteration, the additional artists are all female or nonbinary, and none have had major US solo museum exhibitions as of March 1, 2022 (echoing a similar constraint used in 1971).

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Maryam Hoseini, “Private Quarter (Midnight-Midday)” and “Private Quarter (Sunset-Sunrise)” (2021), acrylic, ink and pencil on panel, diptych

What’s notable about Lippard’s quote is her reluctance to proclaim any overarching commonalities among the artists she selected, or to define “women’s art.” Later in her essay, she articulates what other critics, historians, and artists were suggesting might be formal or conceptual similarities, but she remained noncommittal about aesthetics, instead pointing to the conditions under which women worked as a possible common thread, specifically noting the unpaid and unacknowledged labor many women engage in separate from their art and work where they might earn a wage — a clear expression of her political sensibilities.

The legacy of Lippard’s refusal to pigeonhole artists is very much felt in the 2022 exhibition. It also resonates with the ongoing tension between the ways we are identified and classified in society and the way we ourselves inhabit and/or refuse to inhabit those classifications. This show — both the original 1971 and the 2022 expansion — are fantastic meditations on that essential paradox.

Erin M. Riley, “Webcam 2” (2020), wool, cotton

Visitors could easily walk into each room at the Aldrich and pick out a common thread, only to have that commonality challenged. For instance, Loie Hollowell’s “Empty Belly” (2021), in the lobby, evokes the maternal breast and demands on the mothering body, and Cynthia Carlson’s “Untitled Inscape #1” (1970), even without using literal representations of the body, strongly conjures the constant experience of femme bodies being examined, explored, and pulled apart. Then, in a nearby gallery, works by Hannah Levy, Erin M. Riley, Anna Park, and Maryam Hoseini play with or directly reference flesh and sexuality, as well as pleasure and violence. Seeing these works, viewers might be tempted to develop a narrative about the body being central to the art in the show. 

Yet upstairs the works in one room forgo the figure entirely — chief among them an enormous, soft sculptural work by Howardena Pindell, “Untitled” (1968–1970), that teasingly responds to the centrality of the grid in the then-dominant (and male-dominated) minimalist movement. Yet another second-floor room includes work rife with a dark and playful humor, including sculptural installations like Amaryllis Dejesus Moleski’s “The Girl Has Teeth and Teeth Are Tired” (2022) and Pamela Council’s “Ringholders” (2016–ongoing).

Christine Kozlov, “Telegram addressed to Kynaston McShine” (1970), framed telegram signed by the artist

As with any exhibition that encompasses so many artists, and that draws on a particular history, there’s a lot of information to absorb. The Aldrich’s relatively small size works to its advantage in this case, helping to prevent what could become an overly sprawling survey, and a thoughtfully curated archival room with seating offers visitors the chance to take a break and flip through artists’ catalogues and historically important texts.

But what most stands out for me about the show is that sense of both engaging with and resisting categories. One work particularly embodies this tension: Lizania Cruz’s installation, comprised of her video work “Opening Statement” (2021) and “Evidence Shelf, Investigation of the Dominican Racial Imaginary” (2022). As Cruz walks around Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, she asks residents to tell her how they identify racially and to draw the dividing line between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola. An accompanying evidence shelf lets viewers see some of the results of this survey. Cruz is especially interested in the complex racial and cultural legacies present in the Dominican Republic, given both its indigenous history and the fact that it was the site of the first colony in the Americas where enslaved Africans were brought by the Spanish in the 1500s. Cruz highlights the latter point in particular by looking at how her respondents do and do not acknowledge African heritage. The work raises questions about who racial categories serve, what meanings and cultural traditions they do and do not carry forward, and how those categories shape the internal landscapes of individuals.

In the words of bell hooks in a 1996 interview from the feminist magazine On the Issues: “Contradiction is the stuff of revolutionary struggle. The point is not to deny the reality of contradiction but to utilize the space of contradiction to come to a greater understanding.”

Left to right: Amaryllis Dejesus Moleski, “The Girl Has Teeth and Teeth Are Tired” (2022); Shirley Pettibone “Untitled” (1970)
Pamela Council “Ringholders,” detail (2016–ongoing)
Lizania Cruz, “Opening Statement” (2021) and “Evidence Shelf, Investigation of the Dominican Racial Imaginary” (2022)
Sylvia Plimack Mangold, “Floor Corner” (1969), acrylic on canvas
Howardena Pindell, “Untitled” (1968-1970)

52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone continues at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Connecticut) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Aldrich Chief Curator Amy Smith-Stewart and independent curator Alexandra Schwartz, with Aldrich Curatorial and Publications Manager Caitlin Monachino.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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