- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

Heavens to Betsy. The National Museum of Women in the Arts has selected what it considers the best art by feminist artists and put together "Feminism and Art: Selections from the Permanent Collection." Do we need more on feminist art when so much has been done? By now, we know all about such groundbreaking artists as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro and May Stevens [-] whose struggles led to later successes by photographers Nan Goldin and Sally Mann, and others.

Works by these individuals and 55 others comprise this intriguing, uneven show, which was organized, in part, to introduce the big Judy Chicago retrospective opening at the museum Oct. 11.

In general, the exhibit traces expressions exploring: (1) the non-recognition of women by art gurus in the 1960s; (2) women's political radicalization in the late 1960s and 1970s; (3) intensely personal statements closely tied to female experiences; and (4) women's unique transformation of performance, video and installation art, often as collaborative projects.

Of course, the areas merge. For example, while visitors experience the 1970s sprayed acrylic-and-fabric work of Ms. Chicago and the intricate cloth creations of Ms. Schapiro, they simultaneously hear the sounds of Laura Cottingham's 1998 video "Not for Sale: Feminism and Art in the U.S.A. during the 1970s."

The exhibit's frightening 7-foot-tall "Superwoman" (Kiki Kogelnik, 1973) predicted women would make it and they have.

Any "message" show will have its drawbacks and vary in quality. Some of the artists and works may seem dated. Also, the notion of "feminism," like any societal movement, is given a variety of interpretations. Although many of the earlier feminist battles have been won, there are still many more male artists to show at the National Gallery of Art than women. Messages aside, the exhibit is so filled with excellent art that it can be enjoyed just for the expression and quality of the pieces themselves. However, it badly needs informative labels describing the artists and works. Who are the artists and what is the art?

Any museum should provide this information.The museum shows the pioneers first, as is appropriate. Ms. Chicago and Ms. Schapiro initiated the women's art movement by introducing a feminist art program at the California Institute of Arts where both taught. They initiated conferences, published journals and documents, established a cooperative women's gallery and produced group works. Ms. Schapiro went back to experiences from her childhood to make "The Dollhouse" with Los Angeles artist Sherry Brody. It was one of the first installations demonstrating an openly female point of view. Unfortunately, the museum does not own it, so it is not in the show. She and Ms. Chicago initiated the collaborative art/performance space "Womanhouse," converting an abandoned house, and made it a strong feminist statement.

Such art led to Ms. Chicago's "The Dinner Party," her most famous mixed media work created from 1974 to 1979 with the help of hundreds of volunteers. The museum shows an especially handsome inked image, the delicate "Study for Emily Dickinson Plate" (1979), along with the artist's earlier, colorfully-sprayed acrylic canvases.

The museum also displays "SoHo Women Artists" (1977-1978), an important early feminist work by May Stevens. Her enormous and very fine "Artemisia Gentileschi" is placed nearby and also appears in part of "SoHo." The frieze-like group portrait humorously shows women artists and feminists of 1970s New York in a format historically used by men, such as Raphael with his "School of Athens."

Ms. Stevens paints her pals and neighbors. She begins with Signora D'Apolito, owner of a bakery, at left. Continuing to the right are two men from the Italian community; May Stevens herself; Harmony Hammond; Joyce Kozloff sitting on the pavement with her son Nikolas; Marty Pottenger; the well-known and still-living artist Louise Bourgeois wearing one of her sculptures; Miriam Schapiro; the critic Lucy Lippard; and Sarah Charlesworth, who recently showed at the museum. Ms. Stevens pictures an earlier, friendlier time in New York City when artists formed communities and today's cutthroat competition did not exist.Many of the best works are by artists who render their personal experiences. Hollis Sigler is one. She began by obsessively painting the rooms of her home and the household objects in it. Then, doctors twice diagnosed her with breast cancer and she created the intensely moving series, "Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the Ghosts of My Grandmothers." The exhibit's intensely emotional "To Kiss the Spirits: Now, This Is What It Is Really Like" (1993) appears to show her spirit climbing to the heavens. She died last year.

Another artist who plays out her interior life is sculptor Petah Coyne, [who recently showed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She drips wax over intricate wire structures that form the inner core of her work. Some of her pieces can be viewed as floating, weightless images reminiscent of wedding cakes and fancy dresses. These, like the exhibit's "Untitled #781," are filled with life and joy. Others, like some shown at the Corcoran, are massive, masculine and death-like.

Women artists like quilt maker Faith Ringgold and photographer Carrie Mae Weems combine expressions of their identities as women and as blacks. Ms. Ringgold, who showed at the Baltimore Museum of Art three years ago, tells mesmerizing stories of her ancestors in handsomely stitched cloth "canvases." Ms. Weems constructs tableau environments for her "Untitled (Kitchen Table Series)" (1990-1991) that show black women in their dull, domestic environments.

"The Film Room" featuring Ms. Cottingham's "Not for Sale" also holds collaged images of women by Canadian artist Shonagh Adelman. Donated by Washington collector Anthony Podesta, a generous supporter of the museum, they add another dimension to the filmmaker's acid pronouncements. Guerrilla Girls' "Untitled" (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: The First Five Years, 1985-1990") on the opposite wall punctuate the radical humor of the gallery.

The battle of the sexes is not over as the exhibit amply demonstrates. There is much more to be done. In the meantime, the show gives a good measure of what women artists have accomplished.

WHAT: "Feminism and Art: Selections from the Permanent Collection"

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon - 5 p.m., through Aug. 11

TICKETS: $5 general admission; $3 seniors and college and graduate students. Youth under 18, free.

PHONE: (202) 783-5000

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