Our Bodies, Ourselves: elles@centrepompidou
Report from… Paris
elles@centrepompidou: Women Artists in the Collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne
May 27, 2010 to February 21, 2011
Place Georges Pompidou
75004 Paris, +33 (0)1 44 78 12 33
France has a long history of women artists and of organizations supporting their work. Partly as a result of that tradition, the National Museum of Modern Art owns works by more than 800 mostly European women artists. Approximately twenty-five percent of these are represented in elles@centrepompidou, an exhibition that runs through February of next year with occasional substitutions of additional works. Occupying the extensive fourth floor of the Pompidou Center, elles is divided into nine categories: “Pioneering Women,” “Fire at Will,” “The Body Slogan,” “Eccentric Abstraction,” “A Room of One’s Own,” “Words at Work,” “Immaterials,” “elles@design,” and “Architecture and Feminism?” This thematic approach enabled curator Camille Moreau to organize some 500 works in provocative groupings. Her purpose was “to present the public with a hanging that appears to offer a good history of twentieth-century art. The goal is to show that representation of women versus men is, ultimately, no longer important.” But she goes on to say, “Proving it is another matter.”
“Pioneering Women” encompasses the late 19th to the mid-20th century period. Often described as pre-feminist, these women nevertheless engaged the male-dominated art world with wit and determination. Lack of representation of these artists in galleries and museum collections was one of the issues prompting demonstrations and other actions by feminists during the 1960s and 1970s. Because of their longevity, several pioneering women were still working during those decades, notably Louise Bourgeois, Sonia Delaunay, Joan Mitchell, Maria-Elena Vieira da Silva, and Dorothea Tanning. In general, however, they did not identity themselves as feminists or participate in exhibitions open only to women artists.
Confrontational and deconstructionist approaches produced the dynamic pieces in “Fire at Will,” which includes print and video documentation of performance art by Valerie Export (exposed crotch and machine gun), Sigalit Landau (barded-wire hula hoop), and Charlotte Moorman (cello and camouflage uniform), along with Wendy Jacob’s eerie installation of inflated, animated blankets. In materials as well as subject matter, artists in this section attacked assumptions pertaining to art production. The violence of war, viewed as a male domain, prompted this theme. From Zineb Sedira’s nostalgic photograph of an Algerian ruin to Annette Messager’s skewered protest, these artists dealt with war-scarred landscapes and psyches. The female body as both canvas and subject in “The Body Slogan” addresses concepts of gender and identity, creating the most unified section of the exhibition. Jana Sterbak’s flesh dress of thinly sliced raw beef (completely dried by the time I saw it in June of 2010) resonates with the bloody visions of a nude Ana Mendieta holding a flapping, decapitated chicken. Marina Abramovic, Sonia Khurana, and Carolee Schneemann dance to their different drummers, while Tania Brugera, Louise Bourgeois, and Cindy Sherman consider the self-portrait as an exploratory genre.
“Eccentric Abstraction,” with its unmistakable reference to the 1966 New York gallery exhibition curated by Lucy Lippard using the same title, functions as the lynchpin of elles. If we consider that the final two sections of the show focus more on design than art per se, then “Eccentric Abstraction” can be seen as positioned near the center of the exhibition. Our opinion of everything that we see before these pieces and after them becomes enhanced or reduced by the “craft” materials and offbeat treatment of shape and space in this section. Besides the classically deviant sculpture of Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse, works here emphasize the power of repetition, both inside and outside the grid. The rhythm of marking, stacking, and stitching is claimed and perpetuated as essentially female within the context of this exhibition.
In “Immaterials,” eccentric abstraction morphs into post-minimalist dialectics, with light and white as recurring motifs. “A Room of One’s Own” strays from the rigorous curatorial focus in the rest of the show, with several works seemingly shoehorned into this category. While Louise Nevelson’s sculptural installation, for example, may look like a wall unit for storage and display, its title Reflections of a Waterfall I suggests that the artist’s thoughts were elsewhere. Although Mona Hatoum’s circular structure resembles a tiny room, the video seen on the floor invades and exposes the universal physicality of the human body. The most ironic “room” is experienced in the 1975 video of Martha Rosler’s kitchen. “Words at Work,” while conflating text and visual narrative, nevertheless emphasizes the crucial component of language and storytelling within feminist art. From the literal messages of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger to Eleanor Antin’s liberated black boots, we are reminded not only that women have stories to tell, but also that women tell them best.
On seeing an exhibition of this magnitude focusing exclusively on women’s art, it is very hard to imagine how its curator could suggest that the “representation of women versus men is, ultimately, no longer important.” Moreau’s show underscores the fact that museums have only just begun to demonstrate the advances in post-1960 women’s art, let alone to explore work by early women modernists that explores their differences from male pioneers.