Heavy Lifting: Behind the Scenes of The Contour of Feeling

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the first time. The poetic and expressive works, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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Gallery guards and educators hear a frequent question from visitors to the museum’s Ursula von Rydingsvard exhibition: how did you get these sculptures into the building? Many of the 26 cedar forms tower close to the ceiling and weigh hundreds of pounds. In fact, the sculpture Krypta I (2014), stands almost 11 feet high and weighs about 2,500 pounds. A conversation with NMWA Registrar Catherine Bade revealed the heavy lifting that occurred behind the scenes to bring The Contour of Feeling to life.

Road Trip

Most of the exhibition’s sculptures were sent on three large trucks from von Rydingsvard’s studio in Brooklyn, New York, to Washington, D.C. Timed to accommodate the museum’s public hours, its busy event schedule, and downtown D.C. street traffic, they arrived in the middle of the night and were carefully moved into the museum several weeks before the exhibition was scheduled to open.

Building Blocks

Due to their monumental size, the sculptures arrived disassembled into large sections in crates, and von Rydingsvard’s studio assistants came to help put them back together. Von Rydingsvard also includes a precise system of marks on the pieces themselves—some that are still visible on the finished sculptures—that help the installation team navigate assembly.

The Contour of Feeling Exhibition09

Installation view of Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling; Pictured left to right: For Natasha (2015), SCRATCH II (2015), Krypta I (2014), ten plates (2018) (back wall); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

For Natasha Install

Rigging equipment holds the final piece of For Natasha (2015); Photo by Neda Amouzadeh

Krypta Install + Natasha

Riggers work to install Krypta I (2014) and For Natasha (2015); Photo by Neda Amouzadeh

Ocean Floor_Unpacking

A section of Ocean Floor (1996) is unpacked in NMWA's Great Hall; Photo by Neda Amouzadeh

The Contour of Feeling Exhibition35

Installation view of Ocean Floor (1996), Zakopane (1987) (left), and little nothings (2000–15) (back wall); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

It Takes a Village

A team of 17 people, including NMWA’s registrars and exhibition designer, the registrar from the Fabric Workshop and Museum (organizers of the exhibition), fine art handlers, von Rydingsvard’s studio assistants, and the artist herself, worked approximately 100 hours to get the exhibition ready to open.

Wide Load

The biggest challenge of the installation was working with oversized pieces that were too big to fit into NMWA’s normal gallery space. To fit the wide, bowl-shaped Ocean Floor (1996), one of the gallery walls had to be cut back and getting it into the building’s freight elevator was a true feat of engineering.

An Art and a Science

Although von Rydingsvard’s sculptures look tough, their cedar wood and graphite materials are malleable, and the works—like all artworks—must be transported extremely carefully. “Rigging heavy sculptures is both an art and science,” Bade said. “Riggers can spend hours setting up the rigging and strapping the artwork before they actually move to install a piece.” They consider safety concerns specific to each sculpture, calculate the best angle for approach to the installation site, and test different lifts before final placement.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Mildred Thompson

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Mildred Thompson (1936–2003), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Citizen of the World

After graduating from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University in 1957, Thompson spent most of the 1960s and ’70s in Germany to escape the discrimination she faced in the United States, but she never forgot her roots. “I don’t really consider anyplace home…But when I’m asked where I’m from, I’m always from Jacksonville, [Florida].”

2. Taking Chances

In 1979, while living in Washington, D.C., Thompson met a French filmmaker and joined the crew as a photographer. They traveled to Paris, which remained her home base until she returned to the U.S. in 1985. She lived briefly in Los Angeles before settling in Atlanta for the rest of her life.

Mildred Thompson artist photo

Mildred Thompson; Photo courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, GA

magnetic fields

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1990; Oil on canvas, 62 x 48 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Georgia Committee and the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © The Mildred Thompson Estate; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

wood picture

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), ca. 1970s; Wood, 42 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, 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

3. Hopelessly Devoted

In the middle of her career, Thompson decided to produce only abstract art—in paintings, sculptures, or prints—going forward. Her dedication to abstraction and her choice not to reference politics, violence, or the Black experience challenged expectations of African American artists at the time.

4. Color-centric

Thompson did not sketch or pre-plan her works. However, she did select palettes that would run throughout a series. As she once said, “Magnetic fields are yellow. Radiation is blue.

5. It’s About Time

In 2017, 14 years after the artist’s death, Galerie Lelong & Co. of New York announced their representation of Thompson’s estate. This marks her first formal relationship with a gallery.

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

Images of Conflict: Ambreen Butt and Margaret Bourke-White

Conflict zones have historically been male-dominated spaces, for those participating in war and struggle as well as those documenting the events. Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and multimedia artist Ambreen Butt offer alternative perspectives to the field’s predominant male viewpoints. Though their work spans different mediums, times, and regions of the world, the two women are united by their incisive interpretations of conflict.

Margaret Bourke-White, Self Portrait with Camera, ca. 1933; Gelatin silver print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell

Margaret Bourke-White, Self Portrait with Camera, ca. 1933; Gelatin silver print, 13.625 x 9.5 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell

Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) began her career photographing architecture and documenting the poverty of the Dust Bowl as Life magazine’s first female photojournalist. During World War II, she became the first female war correspondent after initially being denied accreditation to accompany U.S. forces overseas. From the frontlines, she produced matter-of-fact photographs that documented Europe’s war-torn cities and the liberation of concentration camp survivors, among other important events.

Bourke-White’s self-confidence and conviction—two qualities necessary for the work she was doing—are evident in her own Self-Portrait (1933). Standing next to her camera, she gazes confidently into the distance. Here she presents herself as the subject: a professional photojournalist. Her wide-legged stance and androgynous clothing convey her defiance at being treated like a “girl,” which she often was during missions. Bourke-White crafts a very specific persona for her audience: a fearless, strong woman whose eye does not flinch at war, death, and destruction.

Differing from Bourke-White’s unflinching photographs are the layered and lyrical depictions of conflict from artist Ambreen Butt (b. 1969). Her mixed-media works are rendered in the tradition of Persian and Indian miniature painting, with collaged shredded text and systemic mark-making that show her contemporary art influences. They explore the relationships between beauty, violence, strength, and vulnerability, as Butt methodically layers images and processes her difficult subject matter. In all of her images, heroines—both historical and contemporary—are redefined through the gaze of a female artist.

In the series “Dirty Pretty” (2008), Butt portrays female Pakistani lawyers protesting the government’s suspension of the country’s Chief Justice in 2007. Instead of looking on as passive bystanders, the women demonstrate alongside their male counterparts as intrepid activists. Butt communicates their sorrow and horror—yet, above all, it is their act of resistance that stands out. Their faces are hand-stitched in a prominent red thread over layers of historical imagery, which appear like apparitions in the background.

Ambreen Butt, The Great Hunt I (from the series “Dirty Pretty”) (detail), 2008; Water-based pigments, white gouache, text, thread, and gold leaf on layers of mylar and tea stained paper, 45 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Massachusetts State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Ambreen Butt; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Ambreen Butt, The Great Hunt I (from the series “Dirty Pretty”) (detail), 2008; Water-based pigments, white gouache, text, thread, and gold leaf on layers of mylar and tea stained paper, 45 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Massachusetts State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Ambreen Butt; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

“My protagonist is not an idealized character; she is a mirror in which a million women see their faces,” Butt has said. This universality is also seen in Bourke-White’s work—her photographs and writings offer her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated society and profession, helping other women to see themselves and their own potential. Butt’s works center around heroines, while Bourke-White becomes a heroine herself. Ultimately, in both of their works, women are portrayed as active witnesses—they claim agency, and they make their marks on society.

Ambreen Butt: Mark My Words was on view at NMWA from December 7, 2018–April 14, 2019.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Contour of an Artist: Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Beginnings

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the first time. The poetic and expressive sculptures, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard was born in 1942 in Deensen, Germany, to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father—peasant farmers who worked in forced labor under the Nazis during World War II. After the war, the family spent five years in eight different refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 1950, where they settled in Connecticut. While von Rydingsvard resists autobiographical readings of her sculptures, their ambiguous subjects are often imbued with her life experiences.

In the 1970s, von Rydingsvard turned to art as a vehicle for expression. She attained a master’s degree in studio art from Columbia University and began working with cedar wood. Why cedar? One reason was that von Rydingsvard’s father was a woodcutter, so working with cedar felt like an extension of her ancestry and a connection to the past. Another was that as she came into her practice at the height of the Minimalist movement, von Rydingsvard disliked the genre’s machismo and detachment. The artist gravitated to cedar because she appreciated the wood’s softness, which enabled her to manipulate it into expressive forms.

Foreground: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (nine cones), 1976; Cedar, Nine elements, each approx. 42 in. high; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Background: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Droga, 2009; Cedar and graphite, 4 ft. 6 in. x 9 ft. 7 in. x 18 ft. 3 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Alicia Gregory, NMWA

Foreground: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (nine cones), 1976; Cedar, Nine elements, each approx. 42 in. high; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Background: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Droga, 2009; Cedar and graphite, 4 ft. 6 in. x 9 ft. 7 in. x 18 ft. 3 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Alicia Gregory, NMWA

Although she eschewed Minimalist characteristics, subtle influences are evident in at least one of her works. The nine wooden cones that comprise von Rydingsvard’s 1976 piece Untitled (nine cones), are arranged in a grid-like pattern and integrate “the industrial idealism” of Donald Judd into her own practice. Despite this influence, the artist’s sculptures are not polished or structured, but organic and distressed. Working in a male-dominated art world, von Rydingsvard created works that stood apart.

“I don’t care about precision. I just care about things that make you feel something,” the artist has said. What feelings does her work Ocean Floor (1996) evoke? The large-scale, bowl-shaped sculpture is reminiscent of the wooden bowls von Rydingsvard and her family ate from in refugee camps. Attached to the bowl are 50 pairs of dried and stuffed cow intestines, which, for many, evoke feelings of disgust and discomfort. Viewers, searching for meaning, may think about the hardships of people removed from their homes and living in the harsh conditions in refugee camps.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996; Cedar, graphite, and cow intestines, 3 x 13 x 11 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996; Cedar, graphite, and cow intestines, 3 x 13 x 11 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co

In her artistic manifesto, von Rydingsvard writes: “Why do I make Art? Mostly, to survive. To survive living and all of its implied layers. Because it’s a place to put my pain, my sadness. Because there’s a constant hope inside of me that this process will heal me, my family, and the world.” For Ursula von Rydingsvard, sculpture is personal—a way to heal and process her innermost feelings. But it is also a way to connect to the outside world, to engage people and to help them find meaning through her art.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Director’s Desk: Rebels with a Cause

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our most recent collection installation.

Eight diverse women museum visitors are scattered throughout the NMWA collection galleries browsing the art on the walls.

NMWA visitors browse the newly reinstalled collection galleries; Photo by Kevin Allen

Throughout Western art history, women artists have distinguished themselves by persistently and successfully working within a system that has tried to suppress them and/or devalue their efforts. Not to be dismissed, they charted their own courses, petitioned for admittance to all-male art schools and artists’ organizations, and developed their own networks.

Beginning in the 20th century, many women artists boldly engaged with social issues and embraced their roles as advocates. These visionaries demonstrate that revolution comes in many forms, and their voices are alternately gracious, shrewd, fierce, and funny. In our “Rebels with a Cause” gallery, these artists—and often the individuals they portray—demonstrate that women have blazed trails and propelled change for centuries.

Gallery Highlights:

Born in 1552, Italian Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) is regarded as the first professional woman artist in Western Europe. Not only did she work within the same sphere as her male counterparts, but her husband gave up his artistic ambitions to manage her career and their household. Through eleven pregnancies, Fontana produced vibrant, detailed works, and eventually became a portraitist at the courts of several popes in Rome.

What If Women Ruled the World (2016), the six-foot neon sculpture by Yael Bartana (b. 1970), raises questions around gender equity, national identity, and the fate of humanity. The piece is inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which a select group of powerful white men assemble to discuss options for survival in the face of an accidental nuclear Armageddon. Bartana’s piece proposes and proclaims a more peaceful alternative to this vision.

2.2.2.x-collection-detail-fontana-portrait_of_a_noblewoman

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580; Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Funding for the frame generously provided by the Texas State Committee; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016; Neon, 98 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016; Neon, 98 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

sherald_amy-redbone_strawberry_shortcake

Amy Sherald, They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009; Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the 25th Anniversary of NMWA; © Amy Sherald

sherald_amy-redbone_strawberry_shortcake

Guerrilla Girls, Do women Have to Be Naked update (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2"), 2005; Lithographic poster, 12 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com

Amy Sherald (b. 1973) reworks the traditional portrait format to reimagine the African American experience and challenge concepts of racial identity. Sherald’s haunting figures are expressionless and dressed in playful, costume-style clothing. In all of her works, including our painting They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather be Strawberry Shortcake (2009), Sherald paints her subjects in grayscale, metaphorically removing their skin color and helping viewers imagine a world without restrictive stereotypes.

No discussion of “Rebels with a Cause” would be complete without the Guerrilla Girls, a group of famous—but anonymous—activist-artists who began wearing gorilla masks to call out sexism and racism in the art world of the 1980s. Several of their broadsides are on view at NMWA, including the well-known poster Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (2005). Fortunately, as this and other works in this new themed gallery illustrate, women artists have found other ways to get their work noticed and their talent and ideas across.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening Friday: Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the first time. The poetic and expressive sculptures, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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On view March 22–July 28, 2019, The Contour of Feeling marks the most ambitious von Rydingsvard exhibition to date in the United States and her first solo exhibition in Washington, D.C. Featuring 26 sculptures, a wall installation, and nine works on paper, the exhibition is guest-curated by Mark Rosenthal, formerly curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, where it was on view from April 27 to August 26, 2018.

A woman stares up at a large and towering cedar sculpture that features a very tall base, perhaps 12 ft, with an extending smaller piece on the left that seems to hang down slightly, resembling the unevenness/organic makeup of a tree base.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, For Natasha, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 9 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 7 in. x 3 ft. 6 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The daughter of a woodcutter from a long line of peasant farmers, von Rydingsvard spent several of her early years in the wooden barracks of refugee camps in Germany at the end of World War II. While von Rydingsvard resists biographical readings of her works, she speaks of those critical years as woven into her subconscious or instinct, which in turn leaves an imprint on her art.

The Contour of Feeling centers on the creative flourishing of the artist’s recent career, anchored by a number of her early masterpieces. Among these is Untitled (nine cones) (1976), von Rydingsvard’s first major work in cedar and the earliest work on view in this exhibition. Subtle references to her family history are seen in Zakopane (1987), a wall installation of 22 fused vertical units with hollow vessels at the base. The sculpture commands the viewer’s attention with an altar-like presence that simultaneously recalls the tools used for labor by Polish peasants.

Von Rydingsvard’s oeuvre also includes smaller works on handmade linen paper which are infused with surprising materials like knotted silk from a red scarf, tangles of thread, paper pulp, hair, lace, graphite and pigment. The collaged materials extend the boundaries of the paper, giving the delicate two-dimensional works a sculptural presence. The more intimate side of von Rydingsvard’s art is also evident in a wall installation that features her little nothings (2000-15), small objects collected and created by the artist, including strands of her brother’s hair, fragments of cedar, knitting and linen, and personal photographs.

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Zakopane

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zakopane, 1987; Cedar and paint, 11 ft. 6 in. x 22 ft. x 3 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Scratch II

Ursula von Rydingsvard, SCRATCH II, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 10 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 3 in. x 4 ft. 11 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard - thread terror

Ursula von Rydingsvard, thread terror, 2016; Cedar and graphite, 8 ft. 10 in. x 8 ft. 5 in. x 1 ft. 1 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Jerry L. Thompson

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Red Wool

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled, 2016; Thread, wool, and pigment on linen handmade paper, 38 x 22 in.; Produced at Dieu Donné, New York; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Etienne Frossard

Ursula von Rydingsvard - little nothings

Ursula von Rydingsvard, little nothings, 2000–15; Items including cedar objects, drawings on paper, copper wires, photographs, tools, threads, and lace, dimensions variable; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

The Contour of Feeling illuminates the “interior Ursula,” as evidenced by the exhibition’s title, which was inspired by a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Fourth Duino Elegy”: “We don’t know the contour of feeling; we only know what molds it from without.” Like Rilke’s poem, von Rydingsvard’s art expresses a persistent search for deeper truths. In her relentless quest to visually render her emotions and feelings, von Rydingsvard states that she makes art to “get answers to questions for which I know there are no answers” and “mostly, to survive.”

5 Fast Facts: Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (1860–1961), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

Grandma Moses pictured in a 1953 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper

Grandma Moses pictured in a 1953 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper; Photo by newspaper staff photographer Roger Higgins. [Public domain]

1. Make it Work

As a self-taught artist working in rural New York, Moses lacked access to high-quality art materials in the early part of her career. Without any small brushes, she used matches and pins to paint details such as eyes and mouths.

2. What’s in a Name?

When Moses first began exhibiting her work, she was simply referred to as Mrs. Moses. An art critic noted in a 1940 New York Herald Tribune review that her neighbors called her Grandma Moses, and the name stuck. Moses had nine grandchildren and over thirty great-grandchildren.

3. Winter Wonderland

In many of her winter landscape paintings, Moses sprinkled glitter over the snow. Though some critics called her amateurish for using a nontraditional material, she refused to stop, as she thought glitter captured the appearance of snow shimmering in sunlight.

4. Moses Mania

Moses’s nostalgic depictions of rural America were widely reproduced. Her paintings were licensed by Hallmark, which sold 16 million greeting cards featuring her paintings in 1947 alone. One could buy fabric and plates printed with images of her paintings, and even a record called “The Grandma Moses Suite.”

A painting of a scenic rural landscape

Grandma Moses, Calhoun, 1955; Oil on pressed wood, 16 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Grandma Moses Properties

5. Telling Her Story

Moses published her autobiography My Life’s History in 1952 at 92 years old. In one chapter, she expressed her distaste for the restrictions placed on her because of her gender, writing, “Many a time I had to rock the cradle; I liked it, but I had rather been outdoors with my brothers.”

—Allison Burns was the summer 2018 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Magdalena Abakanowicz

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

A large red, circular, sculpture of textured cloth hangs from the ceiling of a gallery.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red, 1969, pictured in NMWA’s 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition; sisal weaving on metal support; Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich

1. The Horrors of War

When she was only nine years old, Abakanowicz’s beloved surroundings in Poland became a war zone under Nazi occupation during World War II. She witnessed her mother being shot in the arm by German soldiers. Throughout her career, she would be driven by a universal truth: “Humans could accomplish so much while also being responsible for their own fall.”

2. Breakthrough

After starting her career as a painter in the 1950s, Abakanowicz moved on to textiles, winning the Grand Prix of the São Paulo Biennial in 1965 for her first major body of work, Abakans (ca. 1960s)—large-scale, three-dimensional, soft sculptures. Using her memories of nature and war, Abakanowicz astonished her audiences with these “complicated, huge, magical forms.”

3. One with Nature

Natural elements, miniature and massive, inspired Abakanowicz. While making the gouache Fish (1955–56), she recalls being “provoked by an inexplicable inner process, a force only apparently understood.” Works like Bois-le-Duc (1970–71) evoke monumental tree trunks and may reflect her whimsical inquisitiveness as a youth exploring Polish forests.

4. Humanizing War

Continually influenced by the effects of war, Abakanowicz began scaling her work down to human proportions. In 4 Seated Figures (2002), part of NMWA’s collection, a row of androgynous figures appear hollow, exposed, and fragmented. Using rough burlap to portray a worn exterior, she evokes the vulnerability of victims of war.

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

5. Public Art 

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, a public art space featuring contemporary works by women artists, featured Abakanowicz’s figurative sculptures from September 2014 to September 2015. Her work Agora (2004–2006), an installation of 106 headless and armless iron sculptures, is on permanent loan in Chicago’s Grant Park from the Polish Ministry of Culture.

—Olivia Lussi was the fall 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b.1940), whose work Indian, Indio, Indigenous (1992) is on view in NMWA’s newly reinstalled collection galleries.

1. Cultural Arts Worker

Smith describes herself as a “cultural arts worker” and uses her art to raise awareness of the maltreatment of the Native American community, both historically and today. She uses a combination of traditional tribal motifs and contemporary symbols to call attention to issues regarding human rights, consumerism, and the environment.

A large-scale collage including striped and polka-dotted fabrics; the masthead of Smith's reservation newspaper, Char-Koosta; parts of a U.S. map; and a comic strip. These collaged elements are juxtaposed with blocks of stained or roughly brushed and dripped paint.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Indian, Indio, Indigenous, 1992; Oil and collage on canvas, 60 x 100 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

2. Power in Numbers

Since the 1970s, Smith has curated exhibitions highlighting Native women artists to counteract art world gender imbalance. She recalled that “one woman… laid [an exhibition] catalog against her cheek and cried, she had no idea there were so many Native women artists out there and she no longer felt alone.”

A painted image of a bird with some stick figure faces drawn in the background, the words "Batteries Not Included" are typewritten vertically on the left side. The colors are terracotta neutrals -- brown, tan, red, and orange, with a bit of blue on the bird.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Four Directions, 1994; Lithograph with linocut collage, 48 1/4 x 34 x 1 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Anastasia Pfarr; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

3. Going Green

Smith has described her work as “Nomad Art,” which embodies the ideals of Nomadic life: take only what you need from the earth and respect the materials that you use. Many of her artworks include biodegradable materials like rice glue, charcoal, and rag paper.

4. Horse Power

Horses are a common motif in Smith’s works. This imagery was influenced by her father’s role as a horse trader and rodeo rider in the Pacific Northwest and California. Horses run through Smith’s works such as Trick Rider (1999) and War Horse in Babylon (2005).

5. Pioneering Change

As one of the first Native women to be recognized as a renowned modern and contemporary artist, Smith has stated that “[Her] generation is the first to break the ‘buckskin ceiling.’”

—Erin Allen is the winter/spring 2019 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard”: Barbara Kruger’s Imagery and Hollywood’s Gender Inequity

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin penned the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The now-famous piece interrogated the systematic obstacles that have prevented women from succeeding in the arts. This year, on the heels of the 2019 Oscar nominations—in which no women directors were nominated—a similar question arises: why have there been no great women directors? In 91 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won. The lack of recognition reveals the systematic gender bias prevalent in the film industry.

In a culture dominated by the white male viewpoint, films made by women offer an important, alternative perspective. In Mary Queen of Scots (2018), starring Saoirse Ronan and directed by Josie Rourke, Rourke revisits “history from a female perspective. We’ve not been telling the historical stories of women very well.” Indeed, the representation of women in film has historically been from a male perspective. Film theorist Laura Mulvey’s term “male gaze” reveals the dynamic: women are passive objects who are being looked at, while men are active, seeing subjects who construct the female image to please the male viewer.

Using Visual Culture to Challenge Visual Culture

In Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) (1992), currently on view at NMWA, Kruger plays with the gendered dichotomies of passivity and activity. The piece comprises a photograph printed on aluminum, overlaid with lines of text in white-on-red strips. The picture is cropped tightly on the face of a laughing woman. She holds what appears to be opera glasses and looks through them at the viewer. The statement, printed in bold letters, suggests that women want to be the makers of their own image.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard), 1992; Lithograph on embossed foil, 11 x 8 3/4 x 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Thirtieth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo: Courtesy of Derriere L’Etoile Studios

Artist Barbara Kruger
(b. 1945) has challenged dominant modes of representation in her work since the 1970s. By using found images and incorporating provocative slogans in bold letters, she draws attention to how visual culture shapes our perception of gender, and how it reinforces a binary gender system that objectifies women. In the context of the Oscars’ gender inequity, Kruger’s work can be seen as an amplification of the voices of women.

In Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) (1992), currently on view at NMWA, Kruger plays with the gendered dichotomies of passivity and activity. The piece comprises a photograph printed on aluminum, overlaid with lines of text in white-on-red strips. The picture is cropped tightly on the face of a laughing woman. She holds what appears to be opera glasses and looks through them at the viewer. The statement, printed in bold letters, suggests that women want to be the makers of their own image. “I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations, to displace the subject, and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men,” Kruger has said.

The white male viewpoint has historically defined Western visual culture: from painting to photography, to film. As the Oscars demonstrate, the only way to change the status quo is to let women author their own stories, and make their own images.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.