Women Artists in Paris

A few weeks ago, I visited the Pompidou in Paris to see elles@centrepompidou, the major yearlong exhibition of women artists and the largest show of contemporary works by women to date. The exhibition, which runs through May 2010, highlights five hundred works by more then two hundred women artists from the twentieth century to today. Elles is drawn from the museum’s fifty thousand works—one of the world’s largest modern and contemporary art collections; only 17% of the artist represented are women. The Pompidou has dedicated 8,000 m2 (nearly half its floor space) to the show. Curated by Camille Morineau, elles includes reflections from artists, writers, philosophers, and historians; an interactive Web site; and an extensive catalogue. Morineau admits that this show would not have been possible five years ago because the Pompidou simply did not have enough works by women.

The breadth of the exhibition is staggering; it includes all the big names—Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Diane Arbus, and Frida Kahlo—but also works by important contemporary artists such as Ghada Amer, Valérie Belin, and Pipilotti Rist. The show is divided into themes—the body, story-telling, space, relationships—that are discussed through paintings, drawings, sculptures, performances, film, installation, text, prints, photographs, furniture, and even architectural models. Despite the varied backgrounds and time periods of the artists, the strength of the women reverberates throughout each room. These women defied the odds to fulfill their passion for art.

The “Wordworks” section includes works by Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.

Videos that provoke gut reactions like Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy balance the slow, contemplative videos of Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Sandy Skoglund’s fantastical photograph of radioactive cats overtaking a colorless kitchen was juxtaposed with Martha Rolser’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen, which was featured in NMWA’s WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution in 2007. My favorite room revolved around grids: Hungarian artist Vera Molnar started experimenting with computers in the 1960s and created intricate computer-generated geometric forms; Tara Donovan made a cube out of interlocking toothpicks; minimalist artist Agnes Martin constructed methodical grids of penciled lines; and Valérie Jouve photographed the seemingly endless rows of balconies and windows of an apartment building.

On the second floor of gallery space were additional works from the collection from 1906 to 1960. Important paintings by women, including Suzanne Valadon, Sonia Delauney, and Natalia Gontcharova, were interspersed with work by men to contextualize their role in the art world. Outside the Pompidou is Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely’s kinetic Stravinsky Fountain. This spring, four beautiful sculptures by Saint Phalle will be installed outside of NMWA.

I also took a short trip to the Musée de l’Orangerie on the corner of the Louvre’s Jardin des Tuileries, which featured the impressive modernist collection of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume. Among the Picassos, Matisses, and Renoirs, was a small gallery dedicated to French artist Marie Laurencin—one of few women cubist painters—who is known for her delicate paintings of women and children in airy pastel colors. It was exciting to see many of the women artists shown at NMWA being celebrated around the world.

–Vivian Djen is managing editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.