The Female Gaze

A long overdue major museum exhibition of art by women

Review by Grady Harp

There are several approaches to evaluating this very well designed, well written, well documented, extravagantly illustrated book that serves as a catalogue for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition of art by women. Some will shout ‘Bravo! – it is about time women artists were honored in such a manner, others will say that other museums in this country and in Europe have already curated such an exhibition, others will say that too many important artists were not included, and still others would say that presenting the art by women artists makes them appear as a subgroup of real art – that women and men together in an exhibition that perhaps honors women’s role in the arts would be more dignified. And each stance deserves respect and credibility.

But there is an important factor in this exhibition and catalogue THE FEMALE GAZE. The actual exhibition honors an inspired addition to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ venerable holdings. Collector, philanthropist, and artist Linda Lee Alter has donated over 500 works in every style and medium imaginable. Alter began collecting art by women in the mid 1980s after finding a dearth of female artists represented in museums and galleries. She collected a variety of art in different styles and media. This collection, along with PAFA’s existing collection, which many critics have praised as having a 200-year history of justly exhibiting art by women, makes this exhibition of rather singular importance. The works in this exhibition catalogue may be all by women artists but the label ends there: the art here includes works from the schools as follows: abstract, representational, conceptual; personal and political; militant and conventional; academic and outsider.

The book opens with an erudite introduction by Robert Cozzolino, Senior Curator an Curator of Modern Art, an informative essay by Diane Burko about the artist and donor Linda Lee Alter, an extended conversation between Cozzolino and Alter, and essays by Anna Havermann, Janine Mileaf, Melanie Anne Herzog, Anna C. Chave, Joanna Garner-Huggett, Jodi Throckmorton, Glenn Adamson, Michele Wallace and more by Robert Cozzolino. These very readable and informative essays cover the many aspects of women in art including feminism, breaking racial barriers and gender barriers, and in general, a solid history of art In America which now finally includes, automatically, art by women!

Then the feast begins. Included on this succulent volume are the works of well-known women artists as well as women artists too early forgotten and those yet to gain international acclaim. The effect is staggering in the way the book is designed and with the high quality of color reproductions of the art on display. Each artist in this collection is honored with a brief biography and image assembled by Mey-Yen Moriuchi. The front cover of the book is a reproduction of Judith Taylor’s mysterious `Conversation and Laments: Promenade’ and the back cover is a luminous reproduction of the immensely gifted painter Jacquelyn McBain – `St. Joan of Arc Burned as a Witch and Herbalist’. These two works set the tone for this very rich book on the importance of women in art. While there are artists of great importance, other women artists who are not included, the representation here is an investment in ideology and history, and the book itself is an artwork!

Grady Harp, May 2013

TITLE: THE FEMALE GAZE: Women Artists Making Their World
ISBN: 9781555953898

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