An exhibition like “For the Record: Celebrating Art by Women” feels overdue, because female-identifying artists still, in the enlightened 21st century, rarely receive that due. As the wall text for this Norton Museum exhibition explains, women constituted just 11 percent of overall museum acquisitions from 2008 to 2018 (the Norton fared well above average, at 23.5 percent), and just 2 percent of the global art auction market. For women of color, the gulf is even deeper.
These numbers are embarrassing, and certainly not limited to the visual arts. My favorite television series of 2020 was not a scripted drama or even a buzz-worthy docu-series but TCM’s “Women Make Film,” a 14-hour essay on the art and craft of cinema comprised 100-percent of clips from women-directed films. Its director, Mark Cousins (a man, but we won’t hold that against him), showed there is such richness in the giant pool of cinema by unsung women that one needn’t dip into patriarchal waters to explore the medium in its vast complexity.
The same can be said for “For the Record.” Curator J. Rachel Gustafson pored through the Norton’s immense collection to discover (or rediscover) works by women that rival or surpass the male giants in their field, from late-19th century modernism to surrealism to cutting-edge contemporary art; and from drawings to sculpture to photography to video.
For example, works of intellectual non-representation abound in “For the Record.” An untitled painting by Howardena Pindell, for instance, is as mysterious and rigorous as anything in the macho Abstract Expressionist canon of the ‘50s and ‘60s. A painting by Michelle Grabner, also untitled, brims with cosmic heft—offering an astral version of what the Big Bang might have looked like. Helen Frankenthaler’s “Offshore” is an unheralded (to me, anyway) masterpiece of color field painting; I saw animals and pistols and aliens and musical instruments amassing in the artist’s fluid, intuitive style.
There are occasional household names in “For the Record,” but Gustafson allows us to see them in a new context. The exhibition includes a vaunted pastel from Mary Cassatt, circa 1907, of mother and child, and the work struck me for its quiet fury as well its expected tenderness—manifest in the daring explosion of seemingly extraneous lines near the bottom of the canvas.
While some of these works are decidedly genderless, others trumpet a specific and important female worldview. Kiki Seror’s video “Modus Operandi” shows the artist, in extreme close-up surveillance video, applying makeup. In turning this everyday practice into a kind of voyeuristic abstraction, Seror lingers on the work it takes for women to appear “presentable” in public and demystifies the labor from the final “product.” Deborah Kass’s “Chairman Ma” essentially subverts a subverter, creating three silkscreens of Gertrude Stein in a cheeky homage/send-up of Warhol.
I was especially taken with the Guerrilla Girls collective’s “Spy Mission Kit,” a work of participatory activism from 1998 that is just as relevant today. Playing off the exhibition’s central theme, it includes correspondence condemning museum directors and theaters’ artistic directors for their lack of representation of creative women.
But the works that may stick with viewers the longest are the large-scale installations, another medium associated with ambitious male artists. These include Viola Frey’s “Weeping Woman,” a titanic ceramic composed of 15 fragments of colorful material. An example of sculpture as a kind of 3D quilt or patchwork, it’s too touching—and, conversely, too intense in its construction—to be written off as kitsch. Mary Sibande’s blockbuster work “Of Prosperity,” a ravishing tribute to the humble domestic worker, features a sculpture cast from the artist’s body, her dress spilling gloriously in a circle across the gallery floor in all of its rich and endless sartorial beauty.
Then there’s Sylvie Fleury’s “Skin Crime 6,” consisting of a wrecked convertible bisected in the middle, its guts exposed—a morbidly compelling readymade enhanced by the artist’s added touch: a coating of glittery pink nail polish that covers every inch of it, as if Barbie had a rough trip. Warhol only wishes he could have thought this one up.
“For the Record: Celebrating Art By Women” runs through Oct. 3 at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Admission is $18 adults and $15 seniors. Masks and temperature scans are still required. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.