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.

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.

Artist Spotlight: Mildred Thompson

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Magnetic Fields (1991)

By: Mildred Thompson (b. 1936, Jacksonville, Florida; d. 2003, Atlanta)

“Each new creation presents a visual manifestation of the sum total of this lifelong investigation and serves as a reaffirmation of my commitment to the arts,” said Mildred Thompson. NMWA’s exhibition features four works by Thompson, including three wall sculptures made from found wood and painted white, and the expansive painting Magnetic Fields (1991), from which the exhibition takes its name.

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991; Oil on canvas, triptych, 70 1/2 x 150 in.; Courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; Art and photo © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia

Magnetic Fields exemplifies Thompson’s style. She often found inspiration in scientific theories and universal systems. The triptych contains a vibrant, buzzing palette of yellows and reds—as well as a combination of calligraphic brushstrokes and geographic shapes—to evoke Thompson’s visual interpretation of the invisible forces of magnetic energy. After receiving her BA in 1957 from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Thompson spent three years at the Hamburg Art Academy in Germany. She later moved to New York City, where the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum acquired her work—a significant recognition of her talents. However, feeling the effects of racial and gender discrimination in the U.S., Thompson moved to Europe for 13 years. She returned to the U.S. in 1986, and proceeded to create art as well as teach art history, art theory, and studio art, in Atlanta for the last 18 years of her life.

Installation view of Magnetic Fields; Photo: Katie Benz, NMWA

Over four decades, Thompson produced more than 5,000 works in painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and sculpture. Thompson was one of only a few black women artists trained in the European tradition of Abstract Expressionism, to which she devoted her life. Renowned for her lively abstract paintings and unique use of color, Thompson continuously worked to expand her abstract language and encouraged her students to search for new modes of artistic expression.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Katie Benz is the fall 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

American Abstraction—Expanded

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991; Oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 150 in.; Courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; art and photo © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia

NMWA hosts the exhibition Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, opening to the public on Friday, October 13, 2017.

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), ca. 1966; Found wood and acrylic, 39 3/8 x 27 1/8 x 2 3/8 in.; New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, Leah Chase Fund, 2016.51; Courtesy and copyright of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; Photo courtesy of New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana

Organized by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, Magnetic Fields is the first U.S. exhibition to place abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another.

Taking its title from a vibrant painting by Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields features work by 21 visionary women artists born between the years 1891 and 1981. The exhibition presents abstract art in a variety of artistic mediums, including printmaking, painting, sculpture, and drawing. These works—often incorporating unconventional materials or monumental scale—reveal the artists as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Thompson describes her work in the visual arts as “A continuous search for understanding. It is an expression of purpose and reflects a personal interpretation of the universe.” Similarly, artworks on view in Magnetic Fields celebrate each artist’s view of the universe through choices related to form, color, composition, and material exploration. Magnetic Fields re-contextualizes these works within the history of American abstraction.

Candida Alvarez, Puerto Rico, 25796, 2008; Watercolor, pencil, and marker on vellum, 12 x 9 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Chicago, Illinois; © Candida Alvarez; Photo by Tom van Eynde

Thompson’s works are featured alongside art by Candida Alvarez, Betty Blayton, Chakaia Booker, Lilian Thomas Burwell, Nanette Carter, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Deborah Dancy, Abigail DeVille, Maren Hassinger, Jennie C. Jones, Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery, Mary Lovelace O’Neal,  Howardena Pindell, Mavis Pusey, Shinique Smith, Gilda Snowden, Sylvia Snowden, Kianja Strobert, Alma Woodsey Thomas, and Brenna Youngblood. Together with the display of dynamic works by an inter-generational group of artists, an exhibition catalogue helps spark conversation about these artists and their place in history. Magnetic Fields represents a long-awaited milestone in honoring and recognizing the practitioners of abstraction.

Reserve your spot today for a first look at the exhibition during the opening party on October 12, from 7:30–9:30 p.m. Magnetic Fields is on view October 13, 2017–January 21, 2018. 

—Katie Benz is the fall 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.