The Museum of Modern Art is finally highlighting the work of female artists. Ariel Ramchandani considers the results ...


In 1970, a man in a sandwich board stood outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York, quizzing perplexed visitors on the Yoko Ono show. The visitors had a right to be confused: there was no Yoko Ono show. Ono recruited the man as part of a performance piece in protest against the museum, which refused to show her work and exhibited very few works by women in general. (Ono concluded her piece with a grand release of flies cloaked in her perfume in the museum's sculpture garden, and created an accompanying catalogue entitled "The Museum of Modern FArt".)

This gender bias at the museum has continued uncorrected for decades.  In 2007Jerry Saltz, an art critic, took aim at MoMA's permanent collection on the fourth and fifth floors of its grandly renovated midtown space: "there are 400 works of art on these floors," he wrote, "14 by women." He conceded that "Art history isn’t about fairness. Nevertheless—and this is a vital point—MoMA’s master narrative would not be disrupted if more women were placed on view. In fact, that narrative would come to life in ways it never has before, ways that would be revitalising, even revolutionary."

Saltz made an essential point. Exhibiting art made by women is not about quotas, but intellectual representation. Seeing Georgia O'Keefe alongside Arthur Dove at the Clark Art institute in Massachusetts last year illuminated for me the influence of one on the other, and changed my perspective of both. A great retrospective of Elizabeth Peyton's work at Manhattan's New Museum last year reinforced her brand of soft-focus pop art and helped to nudge it into the contemporary canon.

But back to MoMA. The museum is clearly trying to make up for lost time this summer by showering all sorts of attention on female artists. There is a small show of abstract work created by women, called "Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now", and a large photography show called "Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography". A retrospective devoted to Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, recently closed, and the museum recently released a new volume called "Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art", a "groundbreaking publication" that highlights the work of modern and contemporary women artists in the museum's collection.

Carrie Mae Weems workMoMA's lady offerings stack up brilliantly, especially the photography show. I was a bit apprehensive at first, unsure whether "female" was a legitimate organising principal for photography. Wouldn't these women have more in common with the men working at the same time and place than simply with other women? I also braced myself for a basic reading of "the female gaze" as a sort of flip-side of the male one.

Yet the show is full of nice surprises. It is a pleasure to see these six rooms of pictures by women, and notice similarities in the intimacy of their picture-making but also differences that defy categories. It was great to see artists such as Dorthea Lange given a whole wall, and to behold the work of photographers I'd never known before (such as Ilse Bing, pictured top). Carrie Mae Weems's work also stands out for its haunting, stunning quality (shown above). There is something powerful about seeing all of these images at MoMA in a single show, arranged in conjunction with the museum's impressive Henri-Cartier Bresson exhibition.

"Feminism is dead," declared an angry man to his far angrier girlfriend on a bus behind me recently. "You don't need it anymore." Sarah Palin's own embrace of the F-word may be saying something similar. Woman now make up more than half of the American work force for the first time this year, and boys are falling behind in school. In this month's Atlantic, Hannah Rosin wonders if it's "The End of Men". And Lady Gaga exists. How important is it for women to clamour for more representation in museums?

The lesson of a few rooms of photographs by women at MoMA is a good one. This show reveals that the issue is not about numbers, but about widening the field of view. It's about giving female viewers chance to experience the resonance of personal expression. "Museums are not tombs where people go to simply stare at objects," Saltz wrote in 2007. "They are places to participate—places where things you don’t understand change your life. Museums have to not only defend the canon but also delve into and question it." Through exposure to more work by more artists, women can learn more about ourselves, about how we understand the world and express our place within it.


(Ariel Ramchandani is a contributing editor to More Intelligent Life.)

Picture Credit: Ilse Bing (American, born Germany. 1899-1998), Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931, © 2010 The Ilse Bing Estate / Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery; Carrie Mae Weems (American, born 1953), From Here I Saw What Happened, 1995, © 2010 Carrie Mae Weems