Women at the Whitney

            In “Women at the Whitney”, Wolff attributes the disappearance of the Whitney’s female artists to the marginalization of realism. Realist art, marked as feminine, was cast aside in favor of modernist art, considered masculine. In contemplating a show of women artists heralded at the Whitney in 1931, Wolff finds their work consigned to the basement and doubts their exhibition value. Looking for the foundation of her own bias toward realist aesthetics, she traces the roots to The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) omission of realism from the canon and the masculine perception of modernism. MoMA’s conception of modernism’s origins credited various art movements as progenitors, but ignored and effectively ostracized the realist movement, creating “collective amnesia in American visual culture.” The art world embraced MoMA’s narrative, including the Whitney, although they had initially strongly resisted modernism. Thus the Whitney relegated its own artists, many of them women, to the storage bin of invisibility. MoMA’s articulation of interior space – the square, featureless, white laboratory – versus the Whitney’s earlier brownstone and beaux arts architecture, further emphasized the Whitney (and its artists) as feminine, something to be denigrated. Male realist painters were also disregarded, but it was realism’s “feminine” demarcation that led to the banishment of all attached to this genre.



            This week’s essays are feminist critiques of museums connecting women’s marginalization (as artists or subject matter) with MoMA’s story of modernism always looming in the shadows. In “MoMA’s Hot Mamas” Carol Duncan argues that the Museum’s evolutionary narrative of modernist art history exposes a pro-masculine bias in its presentation, interpretation, and lionization of male artists obsessed with the female nude, a figure of fear and derision. The status conferred on Picasso’s Demoiselles legitimizes the anti-woman portrayal of the nude and eventually pornography itself – both fulfill the same male ideal of diminishing women and elevating men. MoMA is male-dominated both visually and psychologically. It is interesting that male artists need to break away from women to achieve enlightenment, whereas women do not need to define themselves as artists through their relationships with men.

In Wolff’s essay, the feminine status of realism and its lesser ranking as an art style demotes the Whitney’s female painters to the basement. She notes that the Whitney eventually mounted an exhibition, albeit in one of their satellite suburban museums. This echoes feminine/masculine display strategies, as suburbs are likely marked as domestic/feminine, and the city, active/masculine.

Gaby Porter’s “Seeing through Solidity” was distancing with its postmodern theory. She argues that museums’ lack of neutrality manifests in visual interpretations of masculine/feminine categories in order to assign identity. Women’s roles are epitomized as “passive” and men’s “active”, with the female presence marginalized (again) only serving to help define men. There is more promise in European exhibitions, it seems, which have discovered thoughtful ways to depict women as fully realized beings, proving that male/female representation does not have to be a zero sum game.


Are “contact zones” needed for women and men at MoMA to discuss the display and interpretation of female nudes?

© 2019 MuseumHawk/Michelle Straebler, all rights reserved.

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