“Why have there been no great women artists?” is the question at the heart of a Linda Nochlin essay by the same name, first published in ARTnews in 1971. In that article, Nochlin argued against the “insidious” answer that the question provoked: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”
The 50th anniversary of “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” last year prompted Andrea Karnes, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, to revisit Nochlin’s essay. In her forthcoming show “Women Painting Women,” Karnes aims to make clear that nothing—and everything—has changed.
“Alice Neel started painting the figure in the late 1920s, and no one was paying attention for a long time. The same for Faith Ringgold and Emma Amos,” Karnes said. Until recently, those artists were considered important to many but had generally hovered just outside the canon of mainstream U.S. institutions. Slowly, Neel, Ringgold, and Amos are beginning to gain wider recognition through retrospectives. According to Karnes, the question at the heart of Nochlin’s essay does not bring with it the same defensiveness that it once did because people can no longer let major female figures such as these ones go unrecognized. “A lot of these women have just bravely done what they wanted to do even when it was unpopular or unnoticed,” Karnes added.
“Women Painting Women,” which opens on May 15, presents the work of 46 female and femme-identifying portraitists whose work has been divided into four main themes: “The Body,” “Nature Personified,” “Color as Portrait,” and “Selfhood.” Included are artists like Neel, Jenny Saville, Sylvia Sleigh, and Lisa Yuskavage.
In preparation for the show, Karnes focused on her attention on the concept of the male gaze, which was notably put forward in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Rereading that essay, Karnes was struck—perhaps “naively,” she said—by the implicit whiteness of the female gaze that Mulvey and others were arguing for.
“The inclusion of women of color in the show meant opening up the idea of what the female gaze is or could be,” said Karnes. To show as much, she’s included works by Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas, Arpita Singh, and others.
Asked if there was an overarching female gaze guiding the art in “Women Painting Women,” Karnes said, “If I were to boil it down, I would say that women play with the notion of the archetype more than male artists. There are women who work within the tropes of the sexy female and there are women who work completely against that but in some way all of them are commenting on the archetypal notion of female.”
Karnes cautioned that experimenting with tropes and archetypes isn’t always a comment on the canon. Rather, it can be a starting point for something that serves to expand it. “Besides,” Karnes said, “every artist, male, female, of all colors, is always working with and against a history that came before them.”
Though Karnes said she primarily curated the show for a local audience, she also believes it will have universal appeal. “I wanted people to come to the exhibition and see themselves, either as the painter or the person portrayed and really be emboldened by that,” she continued. “I think it’s important to give young women artists role models, and this exhibition will definitely have something for everyone.”