Leonora Carrington. Image via: Paint Large
Thanks to Jerry Saltz, I spent Monday morning combing through 500 plus comments and auxiliary wall posts facebook users posted on his status updates over the weekend. What are people talking about? According to Saltz, “Of the 383 works on the 4th & 5th flrs. of MoMA's perm. coll., only 19 are by women (4%).”
The ensuing discussion is probably the most engaged art conversation taking place on the web (barring the upcoming Venice Biennale), but like many comment threads, also the most tedious. Too frequently, the point of actionable change—that MoMA's exhibition space demands better curation than we're currently seeing—was lost in a sea of familiar gender bias conversation and throwaway statements. The discussion isn't without value, but it does put an unnecessary burden on the facebook reader, particularly when there are multiple conversations occurring at once on the page.
Amongst the more pertinent point made by readers, artist Mia Pearlman spoke to the subject of economics.
Again, follow the money, people. MoMA invests in art and a LOT of people, probably most of its board, think that art by women is a bad investment. Fix the value perception and you fix the problem. One way to do this is to integrate the permanent collection so that works by both are equal in status. The next is filling in the holes in the collection by artists that might be lesser known. The next is giving shows to living, working women and not just hot young ones either.
I doubt MoMA's board members consciously believe this, though I expect donations and acquisitions reflect this bias. Facebook commenters contested the point, though nobody seemed to be aware of Greg Allen's 2005 article for the New York Times, which actually provides specific examples of the how the value of art made by women sold at auction consistently sells for significantly less. Pair this with Jeffrey Deitch's recent observation that because contemporary evening auctions only have time to place about ten artists on the block from each decade, they create a de facto cannon of art, and certainly Perlman's points seem a little less contestable.
Meanwhile, speaking specifically to the issue of MoMA, Jerry Saltz made the following comments:
The Museum of Modern Art practices a form of gender-based apartheid. Of the 383 works currently installed on the 4th and 5th floors of the permanent collection, only 19 are by women; that's 4%. There are 135 different artists installed on these floors; only nine of them are women; that's 6%. MoMA is telling a story of modernism that only it believes. MoMA has declared itself a hostile witness. Why?
The programmatic exclusion of women is partly attributable to the art world’s being a self-replicating organism: It sees that the art that is shown and sold is made mainly by men, and therefore more art made by men is shown and sold. This is how the misidentification, what Adorno called a “negative system,” is perpetuated.
To those who have complained that installing the work of women will mean too much so-called “lesser” work will be on view. You can’t develop what Oscar Wilde called “the critical spirit” if you’re mainly seeing the story as it has always been told. Seeing only what's already been seen doesn’t tell you how good or bad this work may be. As André Malraux wrote, “We can feel only by comparison. The Greek genius is better understood by comparing a Greek statue to an Egyptian or Asiatic one than by acquaintance with a hundred Greek statues.”
Here is a list of 57 women artists already owned by MoMA, none of whom are on exhibit on the 4th & 5th flrs. perm. collection (work before 1970): Alice Neel, Georgia O'Keefe, Florine Stettheimer, Joan Mitchell, Hannah Hoch, Anni Albers, Louise Nevelson, Claude Cahan, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fine, Dora Maar, Lee Miller, Jo Baer, Elaine de Kooning, Romaine Brooks, Ree Morton, Howardena Pindell, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alma Thomas, Emma Kunz, Eileen Gray, Clementine Hunter, Adrian Piper, Dorthea Rockburne, Lee Lozano, Vija Celmins, Maria Lassnig, Gego, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Maya Deren, Pat Steir, Hedda Stern, Barbara Hepworth, Gwen John, Jay DeFeo, Jane Freiliecher, Minnie Evans, Merit Oppenheim, Betty Parsons, Bridget Riley, Claire Zeisler, Kay Sage, Grandma Moses, Sister Gertrude, Hilla AfKlimnt, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Dorothea Tanning, Janet Sobel, Atsuko Tanaka, Francoise Gilot, Anne Truitt, Ruth Vollmer, Jane Wilson, Sylvia Sleigh, Paula Rego, Marguerite Zorach.
The point is, when it comes to being artists, women can be as bad as men. The problem is that even now, decades after the onset of women’s liberation, women aren’t being allowed to demonstrate this. I doubt that there’s a conscious effort to keep women from showing, yet the percentage of women exhibiting in museum PERMANENT COLLECTIONS is grievously low.
I'm not sure the “women can be just as bad as men” argument is going to spark change on MoMA's fourth and fifth floors, though certainly the list of artists in the permanent collection not on display makes a more compelling case. Later, in an argument for a chronologically based show, Saltz issued a more powerful contrast to the vanilla curatorial vision. “Imagine seeing an Emma Kunz abstract drawing that was meant to heal Adolf Hitler in the May, 1942 section. Then a Henry Darger drawing of the Vivian Girls, then …the mouth waters.” To add to this, in a different room I'd suggest a Leonora Carrington next to the similarly surreal paintings of MATTA. Though, I'm not sure which works MoMA has in their collection, the Carrington MATTA pairing seems fairly obvious, and particularly relevant to contemporary artists. Certainly the wildly successful Inka Essenhigh must be familiar with both professionals.
These particular solutions were issued in a thread started by New York Times critic Ken Johnson asking which men should be eliminated to create space for women. (Saltz stated elsewhere he felt the answer was simply to move the education and administrative offices away from the main building.) I suppose Johnson's question is reasonable, but it seems likely to lead to responses like, “Pollock space shouldn't be reduced for a Krasner”—the art world equivalent of, “Our wait staff shouldn't have their wage reduced to pay the Mexican cooks fairly.”
In truth, I don't care how either professional world deals with inequality. I just want to see the field leveled.