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


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.

Art Fix Friday: October 28, 2016

The Museo del Prado in Madrid opens its first-ever exhibition dedicated to the work of a female artist. The Art of Clara Peeters includes 15 major works by the Flemish still-life painter, including Still Life of Fish and Cat on loan from NMWA.

The Art Newspaper, artnet, and Hyperallergic report more on the exhibition’s highlights and the significance of the show. Peeters is one of only 41 women represented in the museum—compared to its collection of works by more than 5,000 male artists.

Front-Page Femmes

NMWA artist Justine Kurland describes her photography practice, motherhood, and life on the road.

The Frick Collection selects Annabelle Selldorf’s architecture firm for their renovation.

Lauren Kalman’s installation at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) covers jewelry cases with more than 2,000 golden leaves.

In 1909, Pamela Colman Smith collaborated with occultist A. E. Waite on the most popular tarot deck of the 20th century.

For Now Be Here #2, 600 female and female-identifying artists convened at the Brooklyn Museum for a group portrait.

Hyperallergic interviews MacArthur Fellow Mary Reid Kelley about mythological creatures, sexual taboos, and video art.

As part of A. L. Steiner’s exhibition at Koenig & Clinton, gallery staff shortened their work hours to 20 hours per week for “a revolution of sorts.”

The New York Times explores the enduring influence of Carolee Schneemann’s interdisciplinary performances and films.

Hung Liu is named the Fresno Art Museum’s 2016 Council of 100 Distinguished Woman Artists.

Carrie Mae Weems says, “Our great American directors have rarely brought black actors into their imagining.”

The Huffington Post shares a list of eight radical feminist artists from the 1970s who shattered the male gaze.

Artist-activist and upcoming #FreshTalk4Change speaker Emma Sulkowicz talks about rape culture, activism, and her upcoming projects in an interview with Bust.

Crime fiction writer Carmen Amato guides NPR in a discussion of Latino noir.

Bustle shares that only 17 out of the 50 Man Booker literary prize winners have been women—only 34%.

Shows We Want to See

NMWA Total Art artist Pipilotti Rist will have her own retrospective at the New Museum, taking over the entire building. In an interview with the New York Times, Rist says, “I think it’s the most important job of the artist: to try not to just reach the converted.”

Marimekko, With Love will be on view at Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle. The exhibition explores how the textile industry “captured the power of design in everyday life.”

Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals is on view at the Brooklyn Museum. Artsy writes, “Her art takes the form of stone pedestals, bric-a-brac assemblages, funny poems, self-portraits, and sculptural shacks.”

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art features the work of Op artist Bridget Riley. The Saint writes that “rarely so is the eye treated to such a feast of color, pattern, and fun as Riley’s bold paintings allow.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Justine Kurland

Impress your friends with five fast facts about American photographer Justine Kurland (b. 1969), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.

Justine Kurland (b. 1969)

1. The Runaways

After “imagining a story, a film…that I wanted to be real,” Kurland began photographing young girls in spectacular landscapes. While creating her narrative of a teenage runaway, she was particularly interested in photographing within small, fringe areas of wilderness that remained between suburban and urban areas.

Justine Kurland, Raft Expedition, 2001; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Justine Kurland, courtesy Mitchell-Innes + Nash

Justine Kurland, Raft Expedition, 2001; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Justine Kurland, courtesy Mitchell-Innes + Nash

2. Girls in Uniform

Kurland continued working with adolescent girls while completing an artist residency in New Zealand.

She learned that students there wore uniforms whether they were in public or private school, and had the girls wear them in her photographs.

3. On the Open Road 

Eschewing the traditional studio, Kurland travels the country to create her images. Whether on her own or with her son, she packs up her camera equipment, steps into her van (which has a bed in the back), and lives on the road for several months.

4. Mama Babies

When exhibiting her mother and child images, Kurland borrowed the title “Of Woman Born,” from the 1978 essay on motherhood by the feminist poet Adrienne Rich. For Kurland, the series was a way for her to reimagine the idea of motherhood.

5. Artistic Beginnings

At a young age, Kurland cut out Victorian artist Arthur Rackham’s illustration, Always Plenty to Eat or Drink, from a book. The fantastical artwork resonated with Kurland. Even today, Kurland keeps the page with her. She feels that the work represents her world view.

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