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Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism

September 12, 2010 - January 30, 2011

In conjunction with Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism, The Jewish Museum set out to create a record of all women artists known to have participated in special exhibitions at the museum since its opening in 1947. To create this survey, archival research was undertaken to identify the women participants in solo and duo shows and group exhibitions in fine arts, folk arts, and Judaica. Although complete records of the exhibitions were not always available, this project offers an opportunity to recognize the presence of women artists at The Jewish Museum—a presence that has changed significantly over the past sixty years. The project considers the pervasive underrepresentation of women artists in American museums during the twentieth century, and documents The Jewish Museum’s history of integrating work by women into its collections and exhibitions.

Number of Women Artists & Works by Women Artists in Special Exhibitions, The Jewish Museum, 1947-2010

* Artists and artworks are counted only for the year that the exhibition opened.
These numbers reflect a minimum. Gender of artist/maker is not known for every work and in a few instances the checklists were not definitive. Media works such as television shows are not included due to the profoundly collaborative nature of such works.

Women artists have been exhibited at The Jewish Museum since it opened on Fifth Avenue in 1947. Four women—Theresa F. Bernstein, Alice Gutmann, Louise D. Kayser, and Theresa Zarnover—were among the twenty-three artists chosen to appear in the inaugural exhibit, The Giving of the Law and the Ten Commandments (1947), and all four artists exhibited at the museum again. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, women artists were featured in exhibitions of contemporary Judaica and art with Biblical motifs, including Biblical and Jewish Themes in Contemporary American Sculpture (1952) and Biblical Themes in American Folk Art (1954). During some years in the 1950s, however, the work of women artists was absent from the exhibition program.

During the second half of the 1950s, women became increasingly prominent in Jewish Museum exhibitions of contemporary art. The Artists of the New York School: Second Generation (1957) showed the work of six women among its twenty-three participants, including Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell. In 1956, painter Yehudith Sobel and printmaker Hilda Katz were the first women to be featured in a two-person exhibition at The Jewish Museum. The exhibition was followed by a series of solo and duo shows involving women artists: Anna Walinska: Twenty-Five Years of Painting (1957), Alice G. Gutmann: Watercolors and Oils and Gertrud and Otto Natzler: Ceramics (1958), and Frances Manacher: Oil Paintings and Kitty Brandfield: Paintings (1959). The percentage of exhibitions featuring women artists peaked in the late 1950s, reaching a level that would remain unrivaled until the late 1980s.

Throughout the 1960s, women artists were included in landmark exhibitions and were integral to The Jewish Museum’s efforts to promote avant-garde art. Frankenthaler’s work returned in 1960 for her first solo museum exhibition, Helen Frankenthaler: Oils. Exhibitions such as Toward a New Abstraction (1963), Recent American Sculpture (1964), Large Scale American Painting (1967), and European Painters Today (1969) included significant works by Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, Bridget Riley, and Miriam Schapiro. The emphasis on contemporary work also extended to exhibitions of folk art and Judaica, most notably Contemporary Art for the Synagogue (1966).

Exhibitions at The Jewish Museum in the 1970s began to address more specifically the aesthetics of Jewish life and history, and women artists investigating these subjects were represented. Audrey Hemenway Garfinkel’s Late Model Sukkah was exhibited in 1971 and was the first of an ongoing series of sukkahs presented by the museum in the 1970s and 1980s. Nora and Naomi: Impressions from Sinai (1973) presented works by ceramicists Naomi Bitter and Nora Kochavi inspired by the Biblical landscape. Women artists were also showcased in group exhibits such as The Fabric of Jewish Life: Textiles from The Jewish Museum (1977) and Spiritual Resistance: Art from Concentration Camps (1978). Although these exhibitions are notable, the overall representation of women in contemporary fine art exhibitions in the 1970s appears to have declined when the women’s movement was gaining momentum. Surprisingly, only about fifteen percent of recorded exhibitions between 1976 and 1980 included work by women artists, though it is hard to discern the exact percentage because of limited documentation.

The 1980s marked the renewal of The Jewish Museum’s interest in contemporary art and the start of the steady rise in representation of women artists. Jewish Themes/Contemporary American Artists I (1982) set the tone for much of the decade, and artists such as Louise Fishman, Audrey Flack, Jenny Snider, Nancy Spero, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles added a feminist perspective to the exploration of Jewish identity. Exhibitions of Israeli fine arts became more frequent, and women artists such as Anna Ticho, Lea Nikel, and Tziona Tagger were mainstays. The Jewish Museum accelerated its acquisition of contemporary art and made an effort to show work from the collection. Exhibits such as Recent Acquisitions, 1979–1982 (1983) and The Jewish Museum Collects: A Five-Year Review (1988) indicate that the works of women artists were sought during this period.

Exhibitions of the 1990s built on the interests of the 1980s, and the presence of women continued to grow, especially in installation art, new media, and photography. Several important photography exhibits included the work of artists Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Collier Schorr, and Cindy Sherman. The landmark exhibition Women Photographers of the Weimar Republic (1994) highlighted the photography of fifty-five women, and was the first group exhibition devoted completely to work by women artists. In addition, Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities (1996) was the first group exhibition at The Jewish Museum in which women artists outnumbered men.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the collecting and commissioning of work by women flourished, while retrospective shows recognized the achievements of prior generations. The Jewish Museum presented a sequence of several major exhibitions of women artists: Joan Snyder (2005), Eva Hesse (2006), and Louise Nevelson (2007). Contemporary Judaica and ritual art also remained a significant arena for showcasing women artists, featuring their work in the biennial Light x Eight Hanukkah project since its inception in 1998, as well as in the exhibits Repairing the World: Contemporary Ritual Art (2007) and Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life (2009). From 2006 to 2010, fifty-four percent of exhibitions at The Jewish Museum included work by women artists—the highest representation of women compared to any other five-year period in the museum’s history.

The Jewish Museum has also mounted a wide variety of historical and cultural exhibitions pertaining to women, notably Henrietta Szold: Biographical Exhibition (1961), The Word from Jerusalem: Hadassah’s Sixtieth Anniversary (1972), Women of Valor: The Story of Hadassah, 1912–1987 (1987), and Getting Comfortable in New York: The American Jewish Home, 1850–1950 (1990). The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons (2005) examined women’s contribution to Jewish culture both historically and artistically.

Over 550 women artists have been represented in exhibitions at The Jewish Museum. Altogether, women artists have shown their work in one third of The Jewish Museum’s special exhibitions. While the representation of women has fluctuated over the past seven decades, the inclusion of work by women has steadily increased in the last ten years. To honor the history of women at the museum, the following list was drawn from exhibition catalogues, exhibit and artist files, and press documents housed in the museum’s library and archives. Because of the absence of certain records, some names and information are still missing. This working document, however, provides a solid foundation for further understanding the dynamic history of women artists at The Jewish Museum, shedding light on the role of women artists at the intersection of Jewish identity and artistic achievement.

Anna-Sophia Zingarelli