Urgent Museum Notice

Gallery Reboot: Body Language

Blog Category:  From the Collection
A slim, light-skinned woman wearing a long, emerald-green dress gazes up at the viewer from the foot of the bed, her bare feet near the headboard. Brown hair radiates from her head in 10 curled, snake-like segments. Her arms, bent at the elbows, extend from her body to form a W.

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 throughout most of Western art history. During the feminist art movement in the 1960s and ’70s, women artists claimed ownership over the 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.

A blonde woman in her twenties in a white tube top and a sheer white skirt perches on the edge of a hot tub and looks over her right shoulder. Around her shoulder hanging diagonally is a large wooden rosary. In the background, a cityscape is set against a blue cloudy sky.
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.

A mixed-media artwork renders the contours of an African American woman’s facial features, shoulders, and long, straight hair in black rhinestones on a glossy, bubble-gum pink panel. The woman faces forward, gazing outward. Some rhinestone facets glint with reflected light.
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 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 by 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.”

Four androgynous figures rendered in stiffened, brown burlap sit atop vertical, rectangular metal frames. They lack necks, heads, lower arms, and clothing, and their upper torsos slump slightly forward. The burlap’s color and bumpy texture evoke bark and mummy wrappings.
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.

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