Urgent Museum Notice

Built to Order: The Constructed World in NMWA’s Collection

Blog Category:  From the Collection
A color photograph of a young light skinned girl with light blonde hair. The girl peeks out from a fort made from a dark blue and purple comforter. A light pink and purple stuffed unicorn sits on a purple and white floral rug in front of the fort. A purple, blue, white, and black paper butterfly-shaped kite hangs on the wall above the fort.

NMWA’s collection—more than 5,500 works of art created from the sixteenth century to the present—features numerous works in which artists investigate architecture and human-built spaces. This summer, visitors thinking of the museum’s upcoming renovation may be especially curious about the museum’s thematic “Built to Order” gallery, which features these works. Learn more about selected works from this gallery, and plan your visit to see them in person before the museum’s building closes on August 9.

A square sculpture made out of planks of wood is hung against a white wall. The planks are hung vertically next to one another and come in differing widths. There are a few horizontal planks hung at the top and bottom of the piece, mimicking a border.
Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), ca. 1970s; Wood, 42 x 36 in.; NMWA, Gift of Camille Ann Brewer in honor and memory of Mildred Thompson; © The Mildred Thompson Estate; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sculptural Structures

Women artists working in large-scale sculpture—which often combines feats of engineering and physical exertion—upend gender assumptions while constructing complex forms. Mildred Thompson (1936–2003) struggled to find artistic acceptance or critical attention in the United States due to prevalent sexism and racism. She moved to Europe, where she began to explore abstraction. In Untitled (Wood Picture) (ca. 1970s), the artist constructed a geometric, rectangular structure with segments of salvaged wood. Thompson’s paint­ings are known for their vibrant hues, but in this work she chose to leave the wood unpainted, allowing its natural grain, knots, and gaps to propel the composition. The sharp, linear edges contrast with the soft curves of the wood’s grain. Her imposition of structural rigidity on organic patterns demonstrates how human intervention can transform natural material.

A color photograph of a young light skinned girl with light blonde hair. The girl peeks out from a fort made from a dark blue and purple comforter. A light pink and purple stuffed unicorn sits on a purple and white floral rug in front of the fort. A purple, blue, white, and black paper butterfly-shaped kite hangs on the wall above the fort.
Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Fort), 2006; Chromogenic color print, 40 x 50 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Hiding Places

Photographers use scale and framing to reveal surprising perspectives on familiar environments—both the public structures that help us live communally and the private spaces we create for ourselves. Angela Strassheim (b. 1969) meticulously stages scenes of daily life, often set in the suburbs of the American Midwest, where she grew up. Through these invented scenarios she investigates childhood, domesticity, and family relation­ships. In Untitled (Fort) (2006) a young girl peers out of a gap in a fort created from bedsheets. The light inside her hiding spot illuminates her face, while her room—decorated with stuffed animals, a butterfly kite, and a feather boa—is cast in a purple glow. She peers out at the viewer from within a sanctuary of her own making, defending the privacy of her space.

A large, abstract painting features a black/dark grey background atop which geometric forms, arranged in repeating patterns, are painted in silver paint.
Valerie Jaudon, Avalon, 1976; Oil and metallic paint on canvas, 72 x 108 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Valerie Jaudon/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Paint the Town

In the 1960s and ’70s, many painters expanded on the tech­niques of abstraction that had been popularized in the previous decades, using gestural brushstrokes and repeating geomet­ric forms to depict landscapes or architecture. As part of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, Valerie Jaudon (b. 1945) challenged the view that dec­orative and craft-based art, often associated with women’s artistic production, lacked the sophistication of other art forms. In Avalon (1976), she overlays geomet­ric forms, painted in a deep silver ground from aluminum pigment, ivory black oil paint, and cold-pressed linseed oil, onto horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and circular grids. The multi-tiered grid system and symmetrical pattern evoke architecture, calligraphy, and hieroglyphs. Jaudon often titled her paintings for cities and towns in her home state of Mississippi (Avalon is an unincorporated community in Carroll County, Mississippi, known as the birthplace of African American blues musician John Hurt).

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