Director’s Desk: Illuminating Frida Kahlo

We are fortunate to have an important Frida Kahlo (b. 1907) painting in our collection, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937). It is the only Kahlo in a public collection in Washington, D.C. One of the most fascinating artists of the 20th century, Kahlo created intense and revealing self-portraits that chronicle her challenging relationship with her husband Diego Rivera, leader of the Mexican Muralists; her struggles with her broken body; her identity as a bisexual person; her devotion to Mexicanidad; and her involvement with the worldwide Communist Revolution.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; NMWA, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, Kahlo is framed between two curtains—a new Madonna of the people—wearing traditional Tehuana attire. She holds a letter that is both a declaration of political allegiance and personal affection for the exiled Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky, with whom she had developed a close friendship and had a brief affair. You can explore the painting in detail on Google Arts & Culture.

Upon arriving in Mexico in January 1937, and under Rivera’s protection, Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova lived in Casa Azul, Frida’s family home, for two years. Frida enshrined their relationship in this portrait, which she gave to Trotsky on his 60th birthday. It hung in his private study in Casa Azul until the Trotskys moved to a new safe house in 1939.

While much has been written about Kahlo since the groundbreaking 1983 biography by art historian Hayden Herrera, my favorite book featuring the artist—Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna (2009)—covers this particular period. My favorite chapters follow the book’s protagonist as he begins working for Rivera as a mural plasterer; becomes the family cook, friend, and confidant to Kahlo; and serves as Trotsky’s personal secretary just prior to his assassination. It is thrilling to me that NMWA’s painting figures into the story.

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As Kingsolver said, “I didn’t initially plan to write about Kahlo….But she grew on me. I read all the biographies, then went to Mexico City to see artworks, archives, and the Rivera and Trotsky homes….Frida was everywhere: her doodles even cover the margins of Diego’s financial ledgers. I felt her poking at my shoulder, saying, ‘Muchacha, you’re ignoring me.’ I began to understand her not as a martyred icon but as a roguish, complicated person. She was a natural for drawing out my reclusive protagonist, they had excellent chemistry.”

At NMWA, you can explore primary source material on Kahlo in the Nix-Huber archive, which includes letters between Kahlo and her mother, exchanged during Kahlo’s travels in the United States in the 1930s. These letters are quoted extensively in Celia Stahr’s new book, Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist (2020). Now that I have a bit more time to read about Kahlo, it’s on my list. I hope that you and yours stay well and find new ways to immerse yourself in the stories of great women artists.

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

Director’s Desk: Celebrating Mother’s Day Through Distinct Artistic Visions

I recently learned that Anna Maria Jarvis (1864–1948), the social activist who led the U.S. movement to commemorate Mother’s Day, did so in honor of her mother, but she was not a mother herself. Given Jarvis’s progressive views, I believe she would be proud to see how Mother’s Day has come to embody a broader, richer definition of motherhood—one that embraces all women who offer unconditional love and support.

NMWA’s collection features many depictions of women and their families by artists, expressing varied perspectives and inspirations. Here are five I selected to share with you today.

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1891; Soft-ground etching with aquatint and drypoint on paper, 12 3/8 x 9 5/8 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Most famous are intimate images of mothers and children by Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Cassatt’s approach to her subject reflected the renewed cultural interest in motherhood and childcare in the 19th century. Breaking from idealized and stoic family portraits, Cassatt represented contemporary mothers engaged in tender moments with their lively, playful children. Her sensitive portrayals of adolescents reference her deep affection toward her nieces and nephews as a loving aunt.

Imagery by Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) drew upon her experience as an African American woman raised in an era of widespread segregation. Her mothers, like all the women she depicts, are strong, self-possessed figures. Two Generations (1987), a lithograph in NMWA’s collection, celebrates the important roles of grandmothers. An expert draftswoman, Catlett uses dramatic light and shadow to evoke the nurturing psychological connection between the woman and her grandchild.

In photographs of 20th-century Mexican life by Lola Álvarez Bravo (1907–1993), moments of human interaction often feel iconic. In De generación en generación (ca. 1950), a woman’s back is turned as she holds a young child who gazes intensely at the viewer from the safety of her mother’s arms. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful and down-to-earth interpretation of the classic Madonna and Child than this carefully composed photograph.

Lola Álvarez Bravo, De Generación en Generación, ca. 1950; Gelatin silver print, 18 3/4 x 14 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; © 1995 Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

For Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), motherhood was a topic fraught with themes of childhood memory, trauma, and personal loss. Bourgeois adopted the spider as the symbolic embodiment of her mother, who ran the family tapestry restoration workshop. As Bourgeois said, “My mother would sit out in the sun and repair a tapestry or petit point. She really loved it. This sense of reparation is very deep within me.” For Bourgeois, the spider is a multi-dimensional maternal figure: fierce, protective, intelligent, patient, and industrious. Each of her now-iconic bronze spiders has its own personality and command, but they also feel vulnerable and, at times, fragile.

In our collection of artists’ books, the “women’s work” of weaving is once again taken up in a mother-daughter collaboration between artist Baila Goldenthal (1925–2011) and poet Maurya Simon (b. 1950). In Weavers, Simon composed 16 poems in response to Goldenthal’s paintings that use Gothic- and Romanesque-style imagery, techniques, and formats as she imagines the inner lives of women.

When I consider these images among others in the collection, I can truly visualize the search for and value of family connection with which we honor caregivers each Mother’s Day.

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

Director’s Desk: Fresh Talks Bridge Art & Science

All of us at the National Museum of Women in the Arts hope you are safe and well. This week I want to share inspiring talks by the talented, passionate speakers from our Fresh Talk series, the signature program of our Women, Arts, and Social Change public programs initiative. These dynamic conversations provide a platform for women to share creative ideas and solutions that address today’s social issues. Over the past five seasons, we have brought prominent women in the arts together with individuals in other fields for 25 creative conversations on gender, equity, art, the environment, identity, social and economic opportunity, and more. All Fresh Talks are recorded so that you can enjoy them at your leisure.

A blonde woman stands at the podium in NMWA's performance hall, speaking in front of a packed audience. On the pull-down screen to her left, a slide with the word "MUTUALISM" in all caps in displayed.

Fresh Talk speaker Natalie Jerejimenko speaks about the mutualistic relationship between humans and the natural world.

At this moment, I’m reflecting on talks that explore the intersection of art, science, and the environment. In March 2016, Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist, engineer, and program director of the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, helped us consider the question, “Can an artist use science and technology to heal the environment?” Jeremijenko bridges art and science by “prescribing” creative health solutions for the environment, working to redesign our relationship to Earth’s natural systems.

In May 2017, we convened a group of women representing environmental and arts-based organizations to answer the question, “How can the arts inspire environmental advocacy?” Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, emphasized the power of photography and video in telling the stories of vulnerable communities living in the shadows of oil refineries, drinking contaminated water, and navigating food deserts. Miranda Massie, director of the Climate Museum, discussed how museums can use the power of art to evoke emotions, engage new audiences, and reframe the conversation about climate change to focus on hope.

Most recently, in September 2019, we hosted iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago and renowned philosopher and professor Martha C. Nussbaum on the occasion of Chicago’s newest exhibition, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction. In a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the emotional intensity of Chicago’s artistic contemplation of her own death—and the deaths of entire animal and plant species at the hands of humans. Chicago reflected on people’s disregard for the complexity of Earth’s ecosystems and “lack of awareness about the consequences of human actions in terms of disrupting this miracle of life.”

Five diverse women pose happily in NMWA's performance hall, in front of a projected slide that says "How can the arts inspire environmental advocacy?" They smile wide, one woman points happily at the camera, and another throws up a peace sign.

Fresh Talk moderator Kari Fulton (far left) and speakers Laura Turner Seydel, Miranda Massie, Jacqui Patterson, and Amy Lipton pose after their grounding, hopeful talk about the arts and environmental advocacy.

All of these Fresh Talks demonstrate how artists can be agents of conscience in the world. During this time at home, I hope that you will find ways to immerse yourself in the arts and their ability to address the current issues we face. Please add your voices via social media using #FreshTalk4Change and tagging @WomenInTheArts. We look forward to gathering with you at the museum again, one day soon, where we can experience the power of the arts together.

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

Director’s Desk: A Letter From Susan Fisher Sterling

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.; NMWA, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to fix the world right now. The museum is now nearly two weeks into an unprecedented closure—public health requires that museums, along with performance halls, movie theaters, and sports arenas join together to close our doors and slow the spread of coronavirus. During this unsettling period of isolation, though, we need to connect with one another more than ever, and I believe that the arts can provide that bridge.

In that spirit, I wanted to reach out to say that NMWA is here for you. We hope that in the days ahead, the museum and its art will become welcome resources as we face the impact of this coronavirus.

We realize that art is best experienced in person—it offers powerful ways for us to visualize our shared humanity, and museums have often served as places of refuge and solace. It is truly unprecedented and paradoxical that now, when we need it most, we are unable to physically come together to experience all that great art has to offer. Thank goodness so many of us have the capacity to share digitally…and share we shall!

Although NMWA is temporarily closed, we stand with our communities—both here and around the world. We are available online with artists, objects, and stories to lift the spirit, inspire the soul, and champion women artists.

Our new resource NMWA@Home is now up on our website, so please visit us. We are open online 24/7 with rich content that shares our collection and programming with audiences whenever and wherever they are ready to engage with us. NMWA’s staff is working to enhance our online offerings for children, students, families, and adults. We look forward to sharing new materials with you regularly in the coming days and weeks.

We value your participation and appreciate your comments and opinions, so please continue to share with us on social media. Connection is more important than ever.

Looking forward to hearing from you, and sending heartfelt wishes for your well-being.

Susan Fisher Sterling
The Alice West Director

Director’s Desk: Built to Order

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. My final post in this six-part series explores the theme “Built to Order.” Read about our other themes in the posts “Family Matters,” “Rebels with a Cause,” “Space Explorers,” “The Great Outdoors,” and “Roots to Routes.”

This photograph documents an abandoned military structure at Greenham Common, a former Royal Air Force station in Berkshire, England. Once a site conveying military strength, the scene captured by the artists offers a different perspective—one of decay and abandonment. The photograph’s otherworldly glow highlights the empty interior of the space.

Jane Wilson; Louise Wilson, Silo: Gamma, 1999 (printed 2007); Chromogenic color print, 63 x 106 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection

The artists in “Built to Order” investigate human intervention in the natural world, considering the impact of structures, cities, and societies. Sculptors explore the expressive potential of building materials, forming evocative arrangements of wood, rubber, and metal. Photographers focus on the splendor and scale of public spaces and the psychological tension inherent in secret or abandoned places.

Gallery Highlights:

One of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) imbued scrap wood with majestic properties. Inspired by Cubist art, she began making assemblages in the 1940s, painting them a single solid color. In White Column (from Dawn’s Wedding Feast) (1959), the artist references an architectural design element in a chapel. Although Nevelson often worked with black painted wood, her choice of white for this sculpture signaled a shift in perspective, referencing the color traditionally associated with matrimony and connecting the work more broadly to ethereal space.

The largest sculpture in our collection is Acid Rain (2001) by Chakaia Booker (b. 1953). Repurposing discarded tires, Booker slices, twists, weaves, and rivets them into radical new forms, converting industrial debris into art objects. She says, Acid Rain symbolizes both the destruction and the creative possibilities of our interaction with the environment.”

Louise Nevelson White Column

Louise Nevelson, White Column (from Dawn's Wedding Feast), 1959; Painted wood, 110 x 15 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of an anonymous donor; © 2012 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York

acid rain

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition Fund; © Chakaia Booker

Frida Baranek, "Untitled" 1991, iron, 43 x 39 x 75 in.; 1994.3

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; NMWA: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; © Frida Baranek / Galeria Raquel Arnaud, © Frida Baranek

Sculptures by Brazilian artist Frida Baranek (b. 1961) often fool the eye. Untitled (1991) appears from a distance to comprise natural, lightweight materials, but it is actually made from iron and weighs nearly 100 pounds. Despite this weight, Baranek’s structure appears surprisingly delicate. Similarly to Booker, she uses recycled metal to create objects that appear to come from the natural world—her work calls attention to issues of environmentalism, urbanization, and industrialization.

Twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson (b. 1967) are known for haunting video installations and photographs of deserted architectural spaces, particularly those representing institutional power. Silo: Gamma (1999; printed 2007) documents an abandoned military structure at Greenham Common, a former Royal Air Force station in Berkshire, England. Once a site conveying military strength, the scene captured by the artists offers a different perspective—one of decay and abandonment. The photograph’s otherworldly glow highlights the empty interior of the space. The Wilsons, and many other artists on view in this section of our galleries, demonstrate that women excel as both makers of complex forms and interpreters of built spaces.

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

Director’s Desk: Roots to Routes

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,” “Rebels with a Cause,” “Space Explorers” and “The Great Outdoors” themes, and stay tuned for more.

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) addresses topics of exile and nostalgia in her multimedia works. In On Guard (1998), Neshat photographs the hands of a woman clasping a microphone. Out of frame, the woman wears a chador, an enveloping black garment worn by some Iranian women to cover their heads and bodies in public. Neshat photographed the woman’s exposed hands and inscribed Farsi poetry directly onto the image, forming a veil-like screen over her subject’s skin.

Shirin Neshat, On Guard from the series “Turbulent,” 1996; Gelatin silver print with ink, 11 x 14 in.; NMWA, Gift of Tony Podesta Collection; © Shirin Neshat

Perhaps because of gendered, racial, and class-based expectations about a woman’s “place” in the world, many women artists examine the subjects of homelands and migration. Artists in this section convey the impact that cultural identity, living environments, and community have on people’s perceptions of themselves and others.

Many artists identify with a mother country, creating images that demonstrate their emotional connection to familiar locales and cultural customs. Others yearn for a sense of belonging, focusing on the experience of physical journeys or the complexities that arise with exile, migration, and hybrid identities. These works reveal our global culture, in which “home” is primarily a state of mind.

Gallery Highlights:

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) addresses topics of exile and nostalgia in her multimedia works. In On Guard (1998), Neshat photographs the hands of a woman clasping a microphone. Out of frame, the woman wears a chador, an enveloping black garment worn by some Iranian women to cover their heads and bodies in public. Neshat photographed the woman’s exposed hands and inscribed Farsi poetry directly onto the image, forming a veil-like screen over her subject’s skin. On Guard exemplifies some of the dichotomies that have shaped Iranian society: man and woman, communication and silence, freedom and oppression.

Faith Ringgold, American Collection #4: Jo Baker’s Bananas, 1997; Acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border, 80 1/2 x 76 in.; NMWA, Purchased with funds donated by the Estate of Barbara Bingham Moore, Olga V. Hargis Family Trusts, and the Members’ Acquisition Fund; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

The story quilt American Collection #4: Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997), by Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), pays homage to African American dancer Josephine Baker. Baker left the United States for Paris, where she rose to legendary status and lived until her final days. The “banana dance” that she performed in 1926 cemented her fame. Offstage, Baker supported the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and used her prominence to bolster support for the cause.

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.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

The richly layered painting Indian, Indio, Indigenous (1992) by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940) is influenced by her childhood on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The work criticizes the historical desecration of American Indian lands and continued injustices to native peoples and their cultures. She said, “My work comes from a visceral place—deep, deep as though my roots extend beyond the soles of my feet into sacred soils.”

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

Director’s Desk: The Great Outdoors

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,” “Rebels with a Cause,” and “Space Explorers” themes, and stay tuned for more.

A bronze sculpture of a spider.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Awed by nature’s beauty and complexity, generations of women artists have celebrated and interpreted the environment through art. In the 17th century, artists embraced botany and entomology, uniting science and aesthetics in meticulous illustrations of flowers and insects. Whether investigating familiar or far-flung regions, artists have responded to nature as an expression of their desire to expand human knowledge.

As a setting for human activity or a visualization of an artist’s memories and emotions, landscape imagery piques our curiosity and invites subjective responses. Other artists extend their vantage point beyond the horizon, inspired by the cosmos as a means of understanding the universe and our place in it.

Gallery Highlights:

Spider III (1995), a bronze sculpture by modern art legend Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), proves that natural beauty comes in all forms. Bourgeois, whose mother died when she was 21 years old, associated arachnids with maternal protectiveness. She frequently remarked that her mother shared the admirable attributes of spiders: patience, industriousness, and cleverness.

Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) celebrated an often-overlooked element in nature within her exuberant painting Sale Neige (1980). The work’s French title translates to “dirty snow,” alluding to the grit and grime that spoils the pristine white over time. Mitchell associated cold weather with silence and loneliness, yet her vigorous brushwork and blend of black, white, purple, and green pigments communicate an energetic, even joyous quality.

Joan Mitchell, "Sale Neige," 1980, oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in., 1986.220

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

justine kurland  grassland drifters

Justine Kurland, Grassland Drifters, 2001; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Justine Kurland, Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

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

2.2.2.x-collection-detail-ruysch_roses_convolvulus_poppies_and_other_flowers

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. late 1680s; Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Between 1997 and 2002, photographer Justine Kurland (b. 1969) focused her camera on landscapes as she drove across the United States. In her series “Girl Pictures,” Kurland staged teenage girls in various outdoor settings, creating a dreamlike, dystopian world where they “claim territory outside the margins of family and institutions,” as the artist has said. Her photographs are also on view in NMWA’s exhibition Live Dangerously (September 19–January 20, 2020).

“Magnetic Fields,” a series of intensely colored abstract paintings by Mildred Thompson (1936–2003) convey phenomena not visible to the naked eye, as well as the artist’s personal interest in quantum physics, cosmology, and theosophy. Through her art, Thompson sought to connect scientific knowledge and metaphysical philosophy.

Dutch still-life painter Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) was renowned during her lifetime. Over centuries, however, she was written out of art history because of her gender. Ruysch created works for an international circle of patrons and served as court painter to the Elector Palatine of Bavaria. With razor-sharp technical accuracy, her floral compositions artfully combine blooms from different seasons, many dotted with insects and spiders. More of Ruysch’s work is featured in NMWA’s exhibition Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age, opening October 11, 2019.

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

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.