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.

“The Past is Palpably Present” on New York Avenue

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is now on view in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project!

At a celebration on September 30, curator and scholar Mary Jane Jacob, a renowned authority on the artist, gave a special lecture on Abakanowicz, including her body of work and her sculptures on view on New York Avenue. These pieces, including Walking Figures and abstracted birds in flight, represent some of the artist’s most iconic work.

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

During Jacob’s talk, she discussed Abakanowicz’s life story, particularly her youth and artistic training in Poland and her experiences during the Second World War. Jacob believes that “the past is palpably present” through the artist’s work. She talked about Agora, a large public installation in Chicago’s Grant Park that, like the Walking Figures on New York Avenue, features a group of larger-than-life, armless and headless human figures.

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Through this motif in her work, Jacob said, Abakanowicz shows that “Art is able to be a means of building links between distant societies” despite differences, due to commonalities and collective memory.

Jacob also described the artist’s abiding interest in nature: “Restoring nature became a theme for Magdalena Abakanowicz. She grew up in nature, and she understood that in war we not only kill others, but we kill the earth. She’s always been drawn to nature.”

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Abakanowicz is especially inspired by unrepeatability in nature—encountering a swarm of mosquitos, for example, the artist was fascinated by the conspicuous individual characteristics among them. Jacob said, “Among her most powerful works are her soaring birds, which take us back to nature, and to a way of thinking not just about how we exist within this natural form, but how natural form itself has amazing variety.”

These works will be on view through September 2015 outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Plan your visit soon to see work by this extraordinary artist both inside and outside the museum.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.