Gallery Reboot: Body Language

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

Male artists controlled the representation of the female body through most of Western art history. During the feminist art movement in the 1960s and ’70s, women artists claimed ownership over visualization of the body, and artists today explore the expressive potential of the female form. Artists Daniela Rossell, Mickalene Thomas, and Magdalena Abakanowicz use the human body to communicate powerful messages.

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi- Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

In Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (1999) from the series “Ricas y Famosas,” Daniela Rossell (b. 1973) delves into the lives of Mexico’s elite families by emphasizing the way popular culture creates and disseminates female stereotypes. From a wealthy family herself, Rossell had access to some of the most affluent women in Mexico. Each subject constructs her own image by choosing her clothing, pose, and setting. Compared to other subjects in this series, Michelle is dressed in more casual clothing while perched atop a rooftop hot tub. Rossell’s model suggests a duality, shown with an over-sized rosary and subtly visible underwear and tattoo. The model’s confident posture and luxurious setting underscore her wealth and high social standing. Rossell’s works explore notions of purity, sexuality, and power in relation to the female body.

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates images of African American women as a way to scrutinize and disrupt popular notions of female beauty. Thomas pulls inspiration from art history as well as popular culture. Her works are as likely to reference 19th-century painting as 1970s Blaxploitation films. A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y (2009) re-creates a portrait of her model, Fran, from a photo booth picture. In Thomas’s work, Fran’s face materializes from carefully placed rhinestones against a flamingo-pink enamel background. Thomas compares her use of rhinestones to the lustrous lip gloss women wear as “another level of masking, of dressing up.” Her work challenges the perception of femininity.

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), a leader in the fiber arts movement, created a mold made from a real person, using burlap mixed with resin and glue for her work 4 Seated Figures (2002). Born in Poland, Abakanowicz witnessed her mother get shot after soldiers stormed into their home during World War II—an instant that that is reflected in these figures. The forms are presented as genderless, and they appear to have been stripped of revealing muscles, arteries, or cords suggestive of the nervous system. Although her figures were inspired from a personal event, the work encourages multiple interpretations and speaks broadly to the human experience. Abakanowicz said, “They are naked, exposed, and vulnerable, just as we all are.”

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Visit the museum to see these works in the third floor galleries. Can’t visit in person? Browse #GalleryReboot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more collection highlights.

Madeline Barnes was the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women Making Moves: Immigrant Artists in NMWA’s Collection

As life in Europe became increasingly dangerous during World War II, some artists sought new lives abroad. Burgeoning art movements springing from major cities in North America shifted the art world spotlight away from Europe. European-born artists Anni Albers, Eva Hesse, and Remedios Varo became prominent figures in their respective art movements after fleeing Europe for North America.

Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969; Serigraph on paper; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, NMWA

Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969; Serigraph on paper; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, NMWA

Anni Albers (1899–1994)

Anni Albers grew up in Germany and met her husband, fellow artist Josef Albers, at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Albers experimented with textiles, creating abstract woven wall hangings, and became Head of the Weaving Workshop in 1931—a senior position that was rare for a woman. In 1933, the Albers couple moved to the U.S. to escape the pressures of Nazi control. Both taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and exhibited work around the country. In 1949, she became the first weaver to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. Her contributions to both textile and printmaking traditions earned her honorary doctorates, lifetime achievement awards, a gold medal from the American Craft Council, and an induction into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London

Eva Hesse (1936–1970)

Eva Hesse was born into a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. When she was 3 years old, her parents moved the family to the U.S. to flee the Nazi regime. Hesse studied under Josef Albers at Yale before working as an artist in New York City in the 1960s. She exhibited watercolors and drawings in 1961, and continued working in this medium during the first half of the decade. In 1965, Hesse moved to Germany for one year, where she experimented with making abstract sculptures. Once back in New York, Hesse continued her sculpture practice and was featured in the exhibition Eccentric Abstraction at Fischbach Gallery. Tragically, Hesse died from cancer in 1969 after only ten years of art making—but her influence on contemporary sculpture continues.

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on Masonite, 32 1/2 x 28 x 2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift from Private Collection

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

Remedios Varo, originally from Spain, was forced to migrate as a result of war—twice. Varo moved to Paris to escape the Spanish Civil War, where she met and worked with the Surrealists who greatly influenced her work. Then, in 1941, the Nazi invasion forced Varo to flee again, this time to Mexico. Once there, she became a part of a community of artists, and continued working in a Surrealist style with her friend Leonora Carrington. After only a few years of having her work featured in solo exhibitions, Varo suffered a fatal heart attack in 1963. Her works have been shown in Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art and NMWA held a retrospective of more than 50 of her pieces in 2000. To further cement her impact on American culture, her work Los Amantes inspired imagery in Madonna’s 1995 music video for her song “Bedtime Story.”

Experience the legacy of these immigrant artists by visiting the museum in person or online today!

Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Amy Sherald

Impress your friends with five fast facts about painter Amy Sherald (b. 1973), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

1. Figure It Out

Sherald’s fascination with portraiture began at a young age when she explored art history through encyclopedias. Enthralled by the illustrations, she came to the conclusion that a great artist has the ability to expertly render the human form.

2. Make It Big

Sherald first visited a museum on a sixth grade field trip, and she still remembers the impact of seeing Bo Bartlett’s 10-by-14-foot Object Permanence (1986). This work sparked her desire to create large-scale figurative paintings.

3. Do What You Love

The daughter of a dentist, Sherald entered Clark-Atlanta University as a pre-med student, but her passion for painting was too strong to ignore. She switched majors in the middle of her junior year and began to focus on her art in earnest.

4. Model Behavior

The model featured in They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake (2009), in NMWA’s collection, also appears in another of work by Sherald, Well Prepared and Maladjusted (2008). According to the artist, “[The model] was tall and different looking, and she had this really awesome Afro bouff.”

5. Herstory

In 2016, Sherald became the first woman to win the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for her work Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013).

Want to meet the artist? Join us on May 9, 2017 for a special Artists in Conversation program featuring Amy Sherald. Reserve your spot online!

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Sonya Clark

Impress your friends with five fast facts about textile artist Sonya Clark (b. 1967), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Sonya Clark (b. 1967)

1. Hair’s to You!

Clark’s fascination with hair began at an early age, when neighborhood teenagers plaited her locks. She often uses human hair in her textile works because it’s a material loaded with meaning. Hair can serves as a portrait of an individual, a record of one’s ancestry, and an arena through which society negotiates race.

2. Picturing Pride

The artist alters a variety of familiar objects, like currency and combs, to create powerful portraits of prominent figures from American history. Her representations celebrate Abraham Lincoln for his role as an early civil rights leader, Barack Obama as the first black president, and Madame C.J. Walker as a civil rights activist and self-made millionaire.

3. “Bad” Hair Day

Prevailing social constructs have stigmatized black hair as “bad.” Clark addresses race-based valuations of hair in works like NAP (2011). By reclaiming and embracing a word that has traditionally held negative connotations, she calls into question assumptions that silky, straight, smooth hair is the only “good” hair out there.

4. Salon Style

The exhibition Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark, currently on view at the Taubman Museum of Art, includes works by Clark as well as a collaborative project. Richmond-area hairdressers contributed textiles inspired by black hairstyles to Clark’s The Hair Craft Project. “Hairdressers are my heroes,” says Clark.

5. Unraveling Racism

In Unraveling and Unraveled (2015), Clark painstakingly deconstructed, thread by thread, a Confederate flag. For many Americans, this symbol represents bigotry and oppression. With three quarters of the flag left intact Clark leaves the process unfinished, suggesting that the hard work of defeating racism is not done.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Recent Acquisitions at the LRC: Richenda Cunningham’s Letter

The next time you visit NMWA, come to the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) to see new books on art, as well as reference books, artists’ books, and more!

Richenda Cunningham, Temple of Caius & Lucius Caesar, or Maison Carre (from the series "Nine Views Taken on the Continent"), ca. 1830; Lithograph on paper, 13 x 16 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Richenda Cunningham, Temple of Caius & Lucius Caesar, or Maison Carre (from the series “Nine Views Taken on the Continent”), ca. 1830; Lithograph on paper, 13 x 16 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

The LRC recently acquired an original letter from British printer Richenda (Gurney) Cunningham (1782–1855). Her lithographic portfolio of travel prints “Nine Views Taken on the Continent” (ca. 1830) resides in the museum’s collection and was on view in the 2011 exhibition The Art of Travel: Picturesque Views of Europe by Richenda Cunningham.

“Nine Views” consists of nine 13-by-16 inch prints that were drawn by Cunningham and produced by prominent English lithograph printer Charles Joseph Hullmandel. The series includes drawings of landscapes and tourist locales such as Provence and the Rhineland, which Cunningham visited when touring Europe in 1815.

Cunningham was greatly influenced by Romanticism, a pervasive movement sweeping England in the 18th and 19th centuries that encouraged a love of nature and travel. Cunningham’s “Nine Views” could be compared to other popular travelogue-style lithographs  from the time. The artist included visually enticing elements of rugged landscapes for embellishment. Her lithographs were likely produced in the 1820s and 1830s, before lithography became a more commercial practice in the mid-century.

Richenda Cunningham, Villar, Valley of Luzerne, Piedmont (from the series "Nine Views Taken on the Continent"), ca. 1830; Lithograph on paper, 13 x 16 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Richenda Cunningham, Villar, Valley of Luzerne, Piedmont (from the series “Nine Views Taken on the Continent”), ca. 1830; Lithograph on paper, 13 x 16 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Cunningham’s prints were in such high enough demand that they had to be re-printed several times, evident from the letter, which is a response to a request for more prints by a patron, Ms. Thompson. This letter shows Cunningham dealing with her own business transactions as a professional artist. In the letter Cunningham “takes the liberty of charging” Ms. Thompson with two more copies of her prints, then politely invites her to the artist’s home “should any circumstances lead [Ms. Thompson] into our neighborhood.” This letter is both a business record and a piece of personal correspondence, helping us to better understand the daily interactions of a woman artist in the 19th century.

Letter from Richenda Cunningham to Ms. Thompson. Dated September 21, 18--. Betty Boyd Library & Research Center, National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Letter from Richenda Cunningham to Ms. Thompson. Dated September 21, 18–. Betty Boyd Library and Research Center, National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The LRC is always thrilled to acquire primary source material concerning artists represented in the museum’s collection. This letter is particularly interesting because there is so little known about the details of Cunningham’s life.

All are welcome to view this letter in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. If you’re touring the museum’s exhibitions, the library is open to the public and makes a great starting point on the fourth floor. In addition to beautiful books and comfortable chairs, library visitors enjoy interesting exhibitions that feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artists’ books. Reference Desk staff members are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

—Lauren Redding is the spring 2017 intern in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Down to a Science: #5WomenArtists Spark #5WomenScientists

For Women’s History Month, NMWA posed the question, “Can you name five women artists?” While social media users shared stories of women artists with #5WomenArtists, other science museums and cultural institutions expanded the challenge by posting content about #5WomenScientists.

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from “Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam,” second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Art and science are two fields which seamlessly overlap. Both encourage close observation, experimentation, and innovation. Women are often overlooked and underrepresented in both fields. NMWA features a collection of works by women artist-scientists.

Because of their purported keen powers of observation, women artists historically were encouraged to render the natural world. After studying dried specimens of plants and animals that were popular with European collectors, botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) decided to study them in their natural habitats. At the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip, without a male chaperone, to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. She spent two years studying indigenous flora and fauna. Her book, the lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam, was published in 1705 and established Merian’s international reputation.

As tools for observation became more advanced, photography emerged as a new medium to explore, record, and interpret nature. Molecular biologist-turned-photographer Amy Lamb (b. 1944) continues the tradition of women artist-scientists by producing large-scale “portraits” of plants. For Lamb, observation is a vital part of her creative process. She grows most of the plants that she photographs, which allows her to become intimately familiar with their life cycles. Studying plant maturation repeatedly helps her anticipate when to have the camera ready.

Amy Lamb, “Magnolia,” 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Magnolia, 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

The influence of science is a common thread in NMWA’s collection. Floral still-life paintings by Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), cliché-verre prints by Maggie Foskett (1919–2014), and etchings by Monika E. de Vries Gohlke (b. 1940) engage with science and nature. Angela Strassheim (b. 1969), trained in forensic photography, lends a scientific eye to her oeuvre, while Michal Rovner (b. 1957) simulates the feeling of a laboratory through a video work involving petri dishes.

Continue exploring the stories of women artist-scientists. Browse a selection of #5WomenScientists posts from institutions ranging from the Field Museum, to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Franklin Institute, and the Science Museum, London.

—Madeline Barnes is the winter/spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Julie Roberts

Paintings by Julie Roberts (b. 1963, Fflint, Wales) are both realistic and otherworldly, often focusing on the restraint of the human body and the power structure of institutions. Roberts finds inspiration in works by various artists and thinkers, as well as in memories of her own childhood.

She cites French philosopher Michel Foucault as a major source of inspiration. Artists Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger also influence Roberts’s work, particularly in her exploration of the female body and womanhood. Evidence of the artist’s upbringing is visible in her oeuvre. As a child, Roberts often spent time in a former morgue or at the nursing home where her mother worked. Medical equipment and furniture often appear in her paintings.

Julie Roberts, Gynaecology Couch, 1992; Oil and acrylic ground on canvas, 83 7/8 x 72 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection

Julie Roberts, Gynaecology Couch, 1992; Oil and acrylic ground on canvas, 83 7/8 x 72 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Roberts’s unsettling works from the 1990s lack figures. Instead, symbols of institutional management of the body, such as a straightjacket, a gynecological chair, and a nightgown, seem to float in the center of the canvas. Backgrounds containing rich color fields and subtle vertical stripes produce an “optical kind of fizzle.” Roberts’s thickly-painted objects appear in a “frenzy” against the structured and controlled backgrounds. While they suggest the human body, they are never occupied by one.

Gynaecology Couch (1992) shows an empty seat with stirrups against a deep blue background. Isolated from figures or other objects, the couch conjures senses of sterilization and solitude often associated with hospital visits. With no light source and no cast shadow, the chair appears surrealistic. Upon closer examination, exquisite details in the couch pillow reveal a deep impression, as if someone was just sitting on it. Without visual context, viewers are left to speculate about the couch’s story and purpose.

Roberts’s more recent paintings represent an aesthetic departure from her earlier work. As her practice developed, she “slowly started creeping towards the edge of the canvas.” Dormitory (2011) exemplifies Roberts’s expressive and highly stylized application of paint featuring graphic circles and lines that form distinctive patterns. This painting recalls the exaggerated perspective Surrealists like Giorgio de Chirico used in 20th-century Europe.

Dormitory also reflects Roberts’s recent interest in displaced and orphaned children in Europe during the mid-20th century. The depiction of an orphanage dormitory includes an orderly rows of beds with crisp sheets, evoking a sense of sterilization and anonymity. The room does not look like that of a child. There are no toys, decorations, or traces of life, other than the beds themselves. Even the blinds have been drawn to precisely the same height. The detachment of children from their parents in an orphanage is mirrored by the separation of human from object in her paintings. Roberts, along with her siblings, spent brief periods in foster homes growing up. This body of work, she says, “doesn’t come from an ideology, it comes from the pit inside of me, somewhere in my soul.”

—Casey Betts was the summer 2016 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

An Artistic Tribute: Women Painting Women

Artists May Stevens and Faith Ringgold highlight other prominent women artists through paintings currently on display in the museum’s third-floor galleries. Stevens and Ringgold chose their subjects for their impact on the arts as well as broader social issues. Stevens’s SoHo Women Artists and Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas share common themes: women celebrating women, artists honoring artists, and women reclaiming their places in history.

May Stevens, Soho Women Artists, 1978; Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 142 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

May Stevens, SoHo Women Artists, 1978; Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 142 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

In SoHo Women Artists (1978), Stevens includes a self-portrait along with depictions of artist Miriam Schapiro and critic Lucy Lippard—two other members of the collective and feminist journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. In addition, Stevens depicts other friends and neighbors who helped shape the 1970s feminist art revolution in New York City, including artists Harmony Hammond, Joyce Kozloff, Louise Bourgeois, and Sarah Charlesworth.

Stevens’s frieze-like composition is reminiscent of traditional western history paintings, which praised important thinkers but often excluded women. Through depictions of her contemporaries, Stevens emphasizes her friends’ influential roles in advancing the feminist movement. Working from candid snapshots of her friends, Stevens captures their respective personalities. Although each figure is distinct, they are layered to form a cohesive unit. Overall, the monumental painting embodies a sense of collaboration, friendship, and celebration.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas; Photo: Madeline Barnes, NMWA

Installation view of Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas; Photo: Madeline Barnes, NMWA

Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997) honors the world-famous dancer Josephine Baker (1906–1975), who gained renown in her adoptive country of France during the 1920s. Ringgold captures Baker’s vivacious personality through five iterations. Each of the five portrayals shows Baker with a wide smile, expressive gestures, and costumed in her iconic skirt made up of artificial bananas. The overlapping, sequential arrangement of the figures across the canvas makes it seem as though Baker is in motion, performing one of her signature dances. Through these images, along with depictions of musicians, audience members, and boldly colored patterns, Ringgold creates an atmosphere of celebration.

Jo Baker’s Bananas references nostalgia for the jazz age, but also pays homage to Baker. Upon her return to the U.S., Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences and became a civil rights leader. Ringgold has portrayed Baker several times, including in the painting Jo Baker’s Birthday and the mosaic mural Flying Home Harlem Heroes and Heroines.

Because women artists have often been overlooked and ignored in the history of art, it is rewarding to see women artists celebrated by other women artists. May Stevens and Faith Ringgold recognize and praise the significant social and artistic contributions made by other great women.

—Madeline Barnes is the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Pillar Perfect: Louise Nevelson and Anne Truitt

Visitors exploring NMWA’s third-floor galleries may find themselves near two similarly shaped sculptures. Artists Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) and Anne Truitt (1921–2004) worked within different art movements but employed a similar column structure in their sculptures. Viewers can compare and contrast elements of the artists’ respective styles. While both works are abstract, it is interesting to investigate the progression from Louise Nevelson’s 1959 Abstract Expressionist work White Column (from Dawn’s Wedding Feast) to Anne Truitt’s 1971 Minimalist take on the column in Summer Dryad.

Louise Nevelson, White Column (from Dawn’s Wedding Feast), 1959; Painted wood, 110 x 15 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.; Gift of an anonymous donor; © 2012 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Louise Nevelson, White Column (from Dawn’s Wedding Feast), 1959; Painted wood, 110 x 15 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.; Gift of an anonymous donor; © 2012 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Both artists’ works set them apart in primarily male-dominated art movements. Nevelson (b. 1899, Kiev) rose to prominence as an Abstract Expressionist sculptor whose works also included a strong Cubist element. Nevelson developed her signature style of large, monochromatic assemblages to rival the scale of the canvases that many male Abstract Expressionists painted.

As Nevelson began to gain recognition, she was deemed unworthy of the attention by one critic, who stated, “We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm…otherwise we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns.” Nevelson continued to develop her practice, and as the scale of her sculptures grew, so did the respect of critics.

In a response to Abstract Expressionism, the 1960s saw the rise of Minimalism. Abstraction was pushed further into flatness and non-representation. Truitt (b. 1921, Maryland) created her sculptures with the geometric simplicity that characterized Minimalism.

Truitt made the style her own and separated herself from male artists through her use of expressive titles. Unlike most Minimalists, Truitt’s titles reference some level of iconography in her work, but she denies any direct representation, unlike Nevelson’s abstracted wedding figures.

Anne Truitt, Summer Dryad, 1971; Acrylic on wood; 76 x 13 x 8 inches; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Holladay Foundation; © Anne Truitt

Anne Truitt, Summer Dryad, 1971; Acrylic on wood; 76 x 13 x 8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Holladay Foundation; © Anne Truitt

Color plays a key role in each artist’s process. Both Nevelson and Truitt use color to evoke emotion and draw in viewers. However, the artists employ different palettes. Truitt’s works contain bright hues while Nevelson chose to envelop her works in matte shades of white or black.

Before coating Dawn’s Wedding Feast in a serene white, Nevelson primarily worked with black paint to communicate a feeling of enormity. White Column was created as one many sculptures meant to immerse the visitor in a white “wedding” in her installation Dawn’s Wedding Feast, part of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 exhibition 16 Americans.

Truitt applies multiple layers of paint to her geometric sculptures, creating clean, smooth surfaces. While her works vary in color, Summer Dryad’s bright green hue calls to mind elements of nature in the warmer seasons.

Visit NMWA and see these sculptures in the museum’s newly reinstalled collection galleries!

—Meghan Masius is the winter/spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Kiki Smith

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Kiki Smith (b. 1954), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Kiki Smith, Untitled (for David Wojnarowicz), 2000

Kiki Smith, Untitled (for David Wojnarowicz), 2000; Etching and engraving, with aquatint, spitbite, and sugarlift on Hahnemühle paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and her biographer, former NMWA Chief Curator Helaine Posner

Kiki Smith (b. 1954)

1. Spirited Away

Smith cites Catholicism’s focus on the human body as source material. “Catholicism is a body-fetishized religion. It’s always taking inanimate things and giving meaning to them.” Smith has based sculptures on Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, but uprooted traditional expectations.

2. Proof is in the Print

Although she is best-known as a sculptor, Smith has also worked in printmaking since the late 1970s. The “endlessly fascinating” printmaking process allows Smith to examine proofs at various stages, offering the artist the flexibility to experiment and re-work an image until she is satisfied with the result.

3. Poetic License

Smith’s work on view at NMWA highlights her interest in the relationship between women and nature. She illustrated Sampler, a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson, and assembled the drawings into one hand-colored and gilded layout. Smith’s imagery was inspired by embroidered samplers from the 18th and 19th centuries.

A visitor studies Kiki Smith’s Sampler, 2007 on view in NMWA’s collection galleries

A visitor studies Kiki Smith’s Sampler (2007), on view in NMWA’s collection galleries

4. Life and Death

Smith lost her father in 1980 and her sister, Beatrice, to AIDS, in 1988. These deaths prompted Smith to explore themes of ephemerality and mortality. In this vein, she has created death masks in homage to her family and friends. She also cited Gray’s Anatomy as inspiration and studied cadavers.

5. Matter of Opinion

Friends fuel Smith’s creative process. She explains that “you get the benefit of everyone’s opinions and so it’s not just about you in your you-dom.” Welcoming other perspectives, Smith says, “I’d rather make something that’s very open-ended that can have a meaning to me, but then it also can have a meaning to somebody else.”