Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

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. Read about our “Family Matters” and “Rebels with a Cause” themes, and stay tuned for more.

Kirsten Justesen's Sculpture #2, a square cardboard box that features, on the top, a photo of the naked artist curled up inside of a box.

Kirsten Justesen, Sculpture #2, 1968/2010, Edition II, 1/5; Painted cardboard box and screened photograph, overall: 20 in x 24 in x 24 in.; Gift of Montana A/S

Spaces, both physical and metaphorical, often have strong gendered associations. Historically, conventional ideas about women’s purportedly delicate sensibilities led them to be regularly restricted to private, interior environments—sites of protection and confinement. Such isolation limited women’s active participation in the exterior, public realm directed by men.

Many women artists evaluate the complex interrelationships of inside/outside and the female body. Employing imagery and materials that frame, envelop, or reflect the body, they reconfigure our assumptions about personal space.

Gallery Highlights:

Body-art pioneer Kirsten Justesen subverts the conventional approach to sculpting the nude female figure. For centuries, artists positioned figurative sculptures atop a plinth in order to provide the viewer a 360-degree view. Justesen’s compelling Sculpture II (2010), a remake of an object she first created in 1968, upends this tradition. The piece comprises an open cardboard box that reveals a photograph of the artist’s own curled body. This image of a woman in a box disrupts the viewer’s voyeuristic perspective and, perhaps, provides commentary on social constraints imposed upon women.

Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene also depicts a woman in a confining situation. In her photograph Untitled (68) (1999), she positioned her model in a domestic space: hidden beneath the cushions of a living room sofa, like a child at play. The pillows envelop the woman, who rests with her eyes closed, and suggest both containment and comfort.

With her back to the viewer, the figure in Alison Saar’s print Mirror, Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II (2014) is also somewhat concealed, her face visible only through her reflection in the frying pan she holds. The figure and the print’s title evoke the fairy tale Snow White, which contains themes of female self-critique and a culturally narrow standard of beauty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (68), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 x 15 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Hellen van Meene, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Alison Saar, Mirror Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II, 2014; Woodcut on chind colle, 40 1/2 x 23 1/3 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Dean Emerita of Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; © Alison Saar; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Berthe Morisot, The Cage, 1885; Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 15 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Natalie with Birdcages, 1950; Gelatin silver print 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

Although she worked more than a century before these contemporary artists, impressionist Berthe Morisot created a deceptively serene view in her painting The Cage (1885). She applied paint in vigorous strokes on an unprimed canvas to depict a pair of caged love birds. Huddled close together and positioned beside an exuberant vase of flowers, the birds appear diminutive and vulnerable.

Decades later, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe also used the bird cage. Rejecting studio settings and mannequin-like poses, she brought a formal precision and an irreverent sense of humor to the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1958. Natalie with Bird Cages (1950) depicts a woman standing between two bird cages, seemingly at ease and assured—and by no means confined or caged herself.

These and other works in “Space Explorers” showcase how elements of architecture, mirrors, and other objects highlight the physical and psychological nuances of enclosure.

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

Director’s Desk: Family Matters

Marisol's The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini's The Stags (2008) in NMWA's Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Marisol’s The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini’s The Stags (2008) in NMWA’s Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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 current collection installation. Read about our “Rebels with a Cause” theme and stay tuned for more.

When selecting subjects, artists and their patrons often turn to those closest to them: spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, and pets. Artists from all periods have created tender, naturalistic renderings of loved ones meant to record important moments or emotions. Their imagery sometimes even focuses on other species to represent all living beings that seek companionship and protection.

Historically, images of families created by women artists have tended to be sober and refined, in keeping with the traditional idea that family portraiture is a space for presenting tranquil relationships. Today’s artists examine a broader range of familial experiences, expressively depicting the moments of humor, insecurity, rivalry, and joy that shape family connections.

Gallery Highlights:

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) is a South African artist and visual activist known for their self-portraits and documentation of LGBTQI lives in South Africa. Their portrait of two women, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007), expresses a sense of enchantment and happiness, defying the discrimination and violence often directed towards homosexuality in South Africa. By capturing their subjects in moments of intimacy and affection, Muholi emphasizes their humanity.

Alice Neel (1900–1984) depicts her boyfriend’s brother, Carlos Negrón, in T.B. Harlem (1940). Negrón had just moved to Spanish Harlem in New York from his native Puerto Rico. A bandage on his chest covers a wound from a treatment for tuberculosis, which spreads easily in densely populated neighborhoods. The archaic operation removed ribs to ease the effects of the disease. Radiating emotional intensity, Neel’s touching portrait of Negrón alludes to poverty as a social issue without sacrificing her subject’s dignity.

In the center of the room, the large-scale sculpture The Stags (2008), by Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965), presents two motor scooters transformed into futuristic creatures. They spar like male deer in the wild, evidently beyond human control. The Stags uses vehicle parts to evoke animal forms and the intimate relationships among these creatures.

zanele muholi, katlego

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007; Chromogenic print, 30 x 30 in.; Museum purchase: The Paul and Emily Singer Family Foundation with additional support from Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Zanele Muholi; Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

alice neel T.B. Harlem

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940; Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

Patricia Piccinini the stags

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 3/4 x 72 x 40 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Patricia Piccinini; Photo by Graham Baring

earl of gower Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman, The Family of the Earl Gower, 1772; Oil on canvas, 59 1/4 x 82 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), one of the most successful portraitists in the eighteenth century, became a sensation in London, captivating society and shaping European visual culture. The Family of the Earl Gower (1772) depicts the British politician Granville Leveson-Gower, his third wife, Lady Susannah, and their children dressed in lyrical costumes and interacting with marble busts, lyres, and period props. Her Neoclassical style communicated the family’s prominence.

Marisol (1930–2016) was one of the most respected and popular artists of the 1960s. Her carved wood sculptures blend Latin American folk art styling with the wit of Dada and Pop Art. The Large Family Group (1957) is one of the artist’s earliest works. It depicts a family with members who extend their arms outward in a welcoming gesture—a gesture that I hope also invites visitors to think about their own associations with the word “family.”

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of 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.

Director’s Desk: Women Museum Directors Conquer D.C.

Mark the date: March 11, 2019. It’s the day Kaywin Feldman becomes the fifth director of the National Gallery of Art. No woman has held the post before. In fact, she is only the second woman currently directing of one of our nation’s top encyclopedic art museums. Paving the way was Anne Pasternak, who was appointed director of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. Now women directors will lead two of our nation’s largest museums.

Kaywin Feldman gestures and speaks in front of a large painting of a nude woman in the galleries of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, while a group of attendees looks on with interest.

Kaywin Feldman discusses a painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Photo credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

With this move, Feldman, who is currently the director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), will oversee one of America’s great collections. I don’t know her well, but I believe that she is a rock star and an inspired and deserving choice. In addition to all Feldman has done for the museums where she has worked, she also has been a leader in the field as past president of the American Association of Museum Directors and past chair of the American Alliance of Museums. With her proven track record—she doubled attendance at Mia during her tenure—I am excited to see how she will transform the National Gallery of Art.

Feldman has spoken openly about the challenges of being a woman in the upper echelons of museums, and we anticipate she will be a strong ally for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I look forward to congratulating her in person and welcoming her to Washington, D.C.

A graphic detailing statistics of the ongoing gender gap in art museum directorships, published by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which shows that men hold most of the positions in contemporary, encyclopedic, and single artist museums, while women hold the majority of positions in college/university and culturally specific museums.

Graphic: “The Ongoing Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships” published in 2017 by the Association of Art Museum Directors

On the heels of this announcement comes the news that Anthea M. Hartig has been named as the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Women directors already in place at D.C. cultural institutions include Carla Hayden at the Library of Congress; Deborah Rutter at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Melissa Chiu at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Ellen Stofan at the National Air and Space Museum; Dorothy Kosinski at The Phillips Collection; Kim Sajet at the National Portrait Gallery; and Stephanie Stebich at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others.

With such a strong cadre of women directors, there is at last an opportunity for women to truly help shape the art and culture agenda of our nation’s capital—and the nation itself—for the betterment of all. Here’s a round of applause for all the women museum directors in Washington, D.C. And may 2019 be a year of continued growth for women in art and culture at all levels.

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

Director’s Desk: Women Artists Address Migration

At first glance, it might be difficult to identify common threads in works by Ingrid Mwangi, Jami Porter Lara, and Betsabeé Romero. Each artist uses vastly different materials—the female body, plastic water bottles, and recycled tires—to address the challenging subject of migration. Through their art, these women are engaging with topical and consequential issues.

Born to a Kenyan father and a German mother, Ingrid Mwangi of the collective Mwangi Hutter describes being seen as white while living in Africa, but seen as black after immigrating to Germany. She used her body to call attention to issues of migration and racism in her 2001 photo diptych Static Drift, featured in NMWA’s collection. Two photographs show her torso as a canvas. She used stencils and sunlight to create her subject: in one, darker skin surrounds the shape of Africa with the words “Bright Dark Continent,” while in the other, lighter skin surrounds the shape of Germany with the words “Burn Out Country.”

Mwangi Hutter, Static Drift, 2001; Two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 29 1/2 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Mwangi Hutter, Static Drift, 2001; Two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 29 1/2 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

While Porter Lara was exploring a remote stretch of the U.S.–Mexico border, she saw discarded plastic water bottles that had been carried by migrants. She also encountered the remains of similarly discarded items: pot shards from ancient cultures. This juxtaposition inspired Porter Lara, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to consider the distinction between artifact and trash. Her thinking about how the plastic bottle might be seen as a “contemporary artifact” led to the creation of her ceramic vessels, which were recently on view in the NMWA exhibition Border Crossing.

Mexico City-based Romero embraces materials and techniques related to popular culture. She frequently transforms automotive components because cars have a broad cultural appeal. Four newly commissioned works are now on view outside the museum in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, the only public art space in Washington, D.C., featuring rotating installations of contemporary work by women artists. Romero’s carved and painted tires symbolize humankind’s profound connection to cultural traditions, as well as a yearning to keep families safe and thriving. The car-based imagery and themes of migration and movement resonate with the hum of activity at this busy D.C. intersection.

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail), 2018; Four tires with engraving and gold leaf and steel support, approx. 192 1/2 x 86 5/8 x 9 3/4 in.; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio; Photo by Mara Kurlandsky, NMWA

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail), 2018; Four tires with engraving and gold leaf and steel support, approx. 192 1/2 x 86 5/8 x 9 3/4 in.; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio; Photo by Mara Kurlandsky, NMWA

Be it body, bottle, or tire, these three artists have found their artistic vehicles and used them to convey an intimate understanding of issues that affect our world. From migration to racism to identity, the symbolic content makes connections for viewers and elevates their work. They see a bigger picture outside themselves, and their powerful ideas implore viewers to ask questions.

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

Get to Know NMWA’s Director: Part 2

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling answers questions about art, equity, and travel. This is part two of a two-part questionnaire. Explore part one.

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

What do you consider your greatest achievements regarding women and the arts?

First, helping NMWA founder Wilhelmina Holladay and the board of trustees to build this museum. Second, having the privilege of working in contemporary art and being in the exciting position of introducing artists to the world.

What is your favorite museum outside of your own?

It could be the last one I’ve visited. The Science Gallery in Dublin is working in an innovative way. I have always loved the Musée Guimet in Paris and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich. I like museums that surprise me. There’s a real sense of discovery when you are at a smaller museum, and it becomes a jewel box experience.

What has been your most inspirational travel destination?

I traveled to Brazil in 1993 and saw phenomenally important work from the 1960s and 1970s that I had never seen, the flipside of what was happening in the U.S. at the time. I was one of the first curators in the U.S. to recognize that this work was missing from our lexicon of great contemporary art. As a result of the trip, we were able to show two exhibitions of work by Brazilian women artists at NMWA.

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; © Frida Baranek / Galeria Raquel Arnaud, © Frida Baranek

What do women in leadership positions in the arts need more of?

According to the 2014 Association of American Art Museum Directors survey, there is a gender gap in salaries. We need more women in executive leadership positions and more women in board leadership positions. We also need to create more time for women to speak with experts from other fields, creating centers for relevant conversations about the future of our culture. And we need an influx of younger people who believe in what museums do.

What does gender equity mean to you?

Women need to be recognized both as sole producers and as part of a larger context of women. Equal representation has a ripple effect. Communities will support women if their work is valued. We need to focus on a wider world view including women of color.

What artistic talent would you most like to have?

It may not be an artistic talent, but I’ve always wanted to be able to see the future.

Tell us something we might not know about you.

I like science fiction—especially Star Trek and Westworld. I wonder what art would look like on another planet or galaxy.

Get to Know NMWA’s Director: Part 1

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling answers questions about art, equity, and travel. This is part two of a two-part questionnaire. Explore part two.

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling; Photo by Michele Mattei

Was there a pivotal moment that led you to working in the arts? If so, what was it?

From the time I was in fourth grade, I had the good fortune to take school field trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art. We went on Mondays when it was closed to the public so I always felt like it was a very special place. Since it’s an encyclopedic museum, you could see everything from early civilizations through to the early 20th century. The now-famous director Sherman E. Lee brought in Asian art that glowed on the walls. In high school I was able to have a one-day-a-week internship, working with Henry Hawley who was an expert on Fabergé eggs.

Which women artists do you admire most?

I admire the next artist I am about to see. But to narrow it down, right now I deeply appreciate great artists who are all about creating social awareness with intentions to incite social change. I am drawn to artists who are handling big topics, and creating art that makes you think about our world.

Which historical women artists would you like to invite to a dinner party?

I would like to dine with women artists from French society in the 18th century. There was a brief period when women held court in the salons of Paris before the French Revolution. It was the beginning of the modern age. At the table it would be great to see Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun—who became the court painter to Marie Antoinette—as well as Marguerite Gérard, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, and Anne Vallayer-Coster.

If you could change one thing in the art world, what would it be?

The reputation of women in the art world. In music, there are blind juries so the judges can’t see the gender or race of the person playing. Perhaps this needs to be considered more within visual art competitions.

What is the role of art in our society?

It’s central! Essential!

Director’s Desk: Amy Sherald Inspires

A few weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery, a two-year-old girl stood captivated in front of Michelle Obama’s new portrait by Amy Sherald, the artist who also won the gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. A snapshot of the girl enthralled by the painting circulated on Facebook, where it quickly went viral—as did so many of the photographs of the portrait of the former first lady.

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

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

The little girl’s mother told CNN, “As a female and as a girl of color, it’s really important that I show her people who look like her that are doing amazing things and are making history so that she knows she can do it.”

This statement echoed the former first lady’s remarks at the painting’s unveiling, “[Girls, and especially girls of color,] will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution. And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

It is extremely exciting for me to see the public interact with Sherald’s work in person and on social media. While the painting of Obama evoked a mixed reception from some who were unfamiliar with her stylized practice, it won high praise from many for its insightful take on a strong woman, inspiring people of all ages. In 2012—before Sherald’s name was widely known—the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) took notice of her work. You can see two paintings, They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake and It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, in our galleries.

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

The museum’s exterior; Photo: Traci Christensen, NMWA

Our Chief Curator Kathryn Wat says, “Sherald’s flamboyant palette and the gray-scale skin tones of her figures are part of what makes her work so engaging. The way she positions figures in her portraits—usually aimed straight forward and looking out with a neutral expression—is also arresting. I think she rejects the romantic idea that portraits ought to capture not just a likeness but the essence of a sitter’s character. Her work offers a much livelier take on portraiture—it suggests that people are never of a singular personality and much more complex than we might ever imagine.” Sherald explained that the way she portrays skin color is “a way of deconstructing race and asking that question about what race means to us as a people.”

In the wake of the Obama portrait’s unveiling, Sherald’s work is receiving widespread attention. She was recently awarded the 2018 David C. Driskell Prize from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which is presented to a person who has made a significant contribution to the conversation about the work of black artists.

In honor of Women’s History Month, our museum hung a banner featuring Sherald and the word “inspire” on the building. When a woman artist deserves praise, we don’t hesitate to shout it out.

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

Welcome!

Susan Fisher Sterling, Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Susan Fisher Sterling, Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

As the director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I welcome you to our new blog, Broad Strokes: NMWA’s Blog for the 21st Century! As NMWA enters its third decade, we’re excited to venture into the virtual realm and connect with our ever growing audience of art enthusiasts, NMWA members, and fans.

This blog will feature insiders’ perspectives from NMWA curators, educators, preparators, and other staff. We’ll share the inside scoop on upcoming exhibitions, education and public programs, as well as unknown tidbits about works in our collection. Most of all, we’re excited to read your comments, as they will energize our discussions, too. Let the dialogue begin!

In honor of Frida Kahlo’s birthday, (July 6), our first post spotlights one of the most prominent works in our collection and the only Kahlo painting on view in Washington, D.C.—her Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.

About the painting:

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky", 1937, Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in., Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky”, 1937, Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in., Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce

Did you know that this masterpiece was almost destroyed in a fit of violent rage? What’s more, can you guess who was almost responsible for this horrible deed?

Mexico, 1940: two women are visiting and chatting in an artist’s studio. One is Clare Boothe Luce, prominent American diplomat and one of the first women to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and the other is the now-legendary painter, Frida Kahlo. Sitting on an easel in the studio is one of Kahlo’s most recent works, a 30 x 24 in. painting titled Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky. In it, a traditionally-dressed Kahlo holds a letter addressed to the controversial Russian revolutionary. However, the painting is much more than a token of Kahlo’s political admiration for Trotsky, as Luce was soon to discover. A telephone ring interrupts the women’s conversation – Kahlo picks up, listens, and abruptly flies in frenzied panic. “I’m going to kill myself!” she shouts, as she picks up a knife and rushes towards the self-portrait, determined to destroy it.

The news Kahlo received that day was that Trotsky had been assassinated. Trotsky and Kahlo had engaged in a short-lived love affair while he and his wife were staying in Mexico with Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera. The romance never fully took off; Trotsky loved his wife deeply, and the political ramifications of such a romance would have been dire for Trotsky. Instead, he and Kahlo became good friends, and Kahlo sent the self-portrait to Trotsky as a gift on November 7th – his birthday, as well as the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The painting was exhibited in New York, but eventually found its way back to Kahlo’s studio where it had been abandoned by the Trotskys when they moved out in 1939.

Terrified by Kahlo’s outburst, Luce intervened. She implored Kahlo to spare the painting and sell it to her instead. Kahlo conceded, and the portrait survived, making its way one step closer to its final home at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Almost 50 years later in 1987, NMWA’s founder Wilhemina Holladay visited Luce at her Watergate apartment, where the frail, cancer-stricken woman calmly told her, “I’m going to die in two months. There are a few things of interest that I want you to have for your museum.” Kahlo’s self-portrait was one of these treasures. Boothe died later that year; the painting was added to NMWA’s collection in 1988 and has been the cornerstone of our museum ever since.

It’s ironic that one of NMWA’s most acclaimed works came into our collection through such a series of tragedies. Considering Frida’s tumultuous life story, however, perhaps it could be no other way. Its intriguing history adds a layer of mystique to the masterpiece, and offers us a glimpse into the passionate mind of one of the greatest artists of the last century.

Susan Fisher Sterling, Ph.D., Director

More about the Museum Director: Susan Fisher Sterling has been with NMWA for 20 years and has helped shape the museum into what it is today. She has her PhD in Art History from Princeton University and has curated a number of amazing exhibitions, including The Magic of Remedios Varo, 2000, and Alice Neel’s Women, 2005. She has also taken great strides in acquiring feminist art, contemporary photography, and abstract painting and sculpture for the museum’s collection.

nmwa.name.oneline