Bronze limbs shaped as rustic geometric figures form an abstract construction that is darkened and firm, primitive and totem-like.
Gender doesn’t come into it, but if it did, assigning female to this sculpture would be unlikely. Certainly, a woman’s artwork is more organic, erratic, softer, and emotional.
That erroneous assertion is still common, even if it’s now voiced privately.
Prophets, by Dorothy Dehner, is one of 50 works the Norton Museum of Art recently drew from its collection to set the record straight. It would take this American artist many years to earn the attention her former husband, a sculptor, received. Collectors presumably admitted to her that buying the works of a woman was not practical.
By the time Prophets was made in 1965, however, Dehner was no longer under the radar and had developed thick skin. We can tell by the confidence and unwavering quality of her piece that she had grown comfortable in the role of creator, not muse or model or sidekick.
Female artists like her have always generated art as diverse, rich and audacious as that produced by her male counterparts. Representation is the part that lagged.
For the Record: Celebrating Art by Women, which runs through Oct. 3 at the Norton Museum of Art, aims to cure the deficiency with a selection of video installations, ceramics, paintings, sculptures, and photographs spanning more than a century. Five of the works are displayed for the first time, including a moving print titled Nike, by American artist Sarah Charlesworth, that features the famous winged Hellenistic statue floating in the center of the frame as she slowly fuses with the background. A stunning blue tint washes the entire dreamy scene.
Combined, the works frame the female artist as skilled, versatile, unpredictable, and daring. The plethora of styles, themes and media on view shouldn’t come as a shock and yet finding modern, refreshing takes in the way of sculpture and film somewhat surprise us.
Take Japanese artist Mariko Mori’s Butterfly fiberglass sculpture from 2013. The smooth silver body showcases its holographic quality as it twists and turns to form a figure 8. It’s clean, light and playful. The shadows cast on the pedestal interrupts the fun to add a touch of drama, but it’s not long before the eyes go back to racing up and down its curves.
Modus Operandi (2002), by French artist Kiki Seror, stars a woman applying eyeliner and eyeshadow for more than five minutes. The surveillance video captures the sequence of agile repetitive movements the endeavor requires. This is a labor-intensive moment extracted from what we deduce to be a larger routine. Precision is key.
Meanwhile, American artist Jennifer Steinkamp treats us to a relaxing video of swinging daisies playing on a giant screen. The wind sets things in motion in Daisy Chain 1 (2004) as it directs the colorful chains of flowers through a simple synchronized choreography.
By contrast, the economy of color paired with a restrain in shapes make of Dominoes a discreet, mute piece. Similarly to Dehner’s sculpture, Agnes Martin’s minimalist work does not scream femininity or sensuality. Its vertical direction and markings allude to the table game but it’s not the life of the party. It rests solely on the merit of quiet execution and self-control to stand out. Dating from 1960, Dominoes marks the year of a breakthrough that fueled the prevalence of a calm grid in Martin’s works. It’s not the life of the party because it doesn’t have to be.
For the Record does a brilliant job of updating incorrect assumptions that persist about the body of work put forth by women. For one, it confirms there is no exclusivity to the experiences and emotions orbiting creativity. Pain, loss, sadness, joy, love and many other universal emotions are endured by both, men and women. Secondly, it reminds us productivity was never the problem, lack of air time was.
According to a 2019 study by Artnet News, work by female artists represented only 11% of all acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 renowned museums in the United States between 2008 and 2018. African-American women represented 3.3% of the total number of female artists. Making matters worse is the fact that there wasn’t much emphasis on recording and tracking their trajectory due to underestimation of their work.
The Norton has clearly seized on the opportunity presented by recent events to further correct the gender imbalance that persists. It’s easy to align oneself with the right side of modern history when public opinion is applying pressure and there is a neon uppercase sign pointing to the right path. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing exhibition falls under a temporary strategy or a genuine commitment to helping close the equity gap in the art world. Only time will tell.
A snapshot of recent acquisitions made by the museum in the past two years does seem encouraging. Of 184 works purchased, 30.5% were produced by female artists. That’s an improvement over the 23.5% representative of women among acquisitions made between 2008 and 2018. Works by female artists appeared in 33.5% of exhibitions shown during that same period.
The museum seemed ahead of the game when it debuted the RAW (Recognition of Art by Women) program in 2011 to focus on living female artists; it has presented eight solo shows since then. Recent years have seen other institutions making bolder moves.
In 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sold a Mark Rothko for $50 million that facilitated the purchase of works by abstract and surrealist female painters. The year before, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold seven pieces, including by Andy Warhol, to buy its way out of the underrepresentation controversy and also buy contemporary art by women and artists of color. It went a step further and made women artists the sole focus of its 2020 program. And who can forget that $40-million sale of Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken, which Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts used to diversify its portfolio.
Equality might be today’s hot topic, but this is an old conversation turning bitter by the minute. Time is only making it harder to swallow. For the Record provides a sweet note and we really want to celebrate it, but its mere existence is also a reminder that equity still needs to be forced and staged because it refuses to be born naturally. Consider Peggy Guggenheim’s attempt at inducing the remedy with Exhibition by 31 Women more than 70 years ago. Her iconic show represented 16 nationalities and at the time stood among the first to feature only female artists. For the Record is not quite as diverse or revolutionary, but we’ll take what we can get. Patience is a virtue.
Just ask French artist Louise Bourgeois, whose gouache piece Happiness (done a year before her death) echoes the raw and brutal honesty of the words she shared with art critic Cindy Nemser in 1971: “A woman has no place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated.”
Proof that if at first you don’t succeed, you should skip the smiling/asking-nicely bit and use teeth instead.
For the Record: Celebrating Art by Women runs through Oct. 3 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Hours are 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed Wednesdays. Call 561-832-5196 or visit www.norton.org for more information.