The ride from Inwood to Brooklyn didnâ€™t take so long after all. In fact, it was surprisingly easy to get to the Brooklyn Museum for the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The new 8300 square foot â€œmuseum within a museumâ€ is designed with the permanent installation of Judy Chicagoâ€™s The Dinner Party as its centerpiece, encircled by galleries for changing exhibitions and a resource center for educational activities. The first of its kind, the Center’s stated mission is â€œto present feminist art and to explore its meaning and influence through a wide range of public programs.â€
The inauguration of the Center included the opening of two temporary exhibitions, Global Feminisms, an international survey of contemporary feminist art, co-curated by Dr. Maura Reilly, the centerâ€™s curator, and Professor Linda Nochlin, as well as Pharoahs, Queens, and Goddesses, (co-curated by Dr. Reilly and Edward Bleiberg, Curator of Egyptian Art). Pharoahs, Queens… is the first of a series of biographical shows based on the figures and themes of The Dinner Party. This show gathers 32 portaits, statues, seals, and amulets from the museumâ€™s collection to delve into the history of Hatshepsut, an Egyptian Queen, and to consider new interpretations of her story, along with those of other powerful women in ancient Egypt.
There is no denying that Judy Chicagoâ€™s most noted work, The Dinner Party, is a seminal piece of 20th century art history. Most people with any interest in contemporary art will have heard of it, but as so often is the case, seeing reproductions does not come anywhere close to experiencing the real thing. And itâ€™s hard to imagine it could look better than it does now, pristinely restored and installed in a romantically lit, triangular room, impressively designed by Susan T. Rodriguez of Polshek Partnership Architects.
The installation allows for close-up viewing of the 39 place settings paired with intricate table runners, each setting representing a woman of historical importance, who, as Chicago said during her walk-through of the piece yesterday, â€œwas selected because that woman represented an entire epoch.â€ After all, thereâ€™s only so much space at the table. To give you an idea of the scope, Chicago worked alone on the piece for two years, and then spent another three years bringing it to completion with the help of over 400 volunteers. In its final form, the table takes the shape of an equilateral triangle, open in the center, with 13 place settings on each side. The number 13 makes reference to the Last Supper, but this supper, Chicago says, was intended to honor â€œthose who did all the cooking for The Last Supper and all those other meals throughout history.â€ The triangle is a traditional female symbol, and its equal sides are intended to convey the artistâ€™s vision of a world made whole through equality. Further, she explains, one reason she chose to symbolically depict the women on the plates was that they were devoured, â€œconsumed by history,â€ and then summarily erased. In addition to the 39 honored at the table, 999 other perhaps unheralded yet important historical women are given tribute on The Heritage Floor, on which the dinner table stands (symbolically on the floor because they were walked over?). The room is dark but the table is well lit, with small lights that have the appearance of stars in a night sky, giving the whole setting a cosmic air. The piece is undeniably forceful and engrossing. It is so involved as to be truly epic, and the extensive symbolism is explained in a newly released book by Chicago that accompanies the show. One leaves this installation feeling acutely aware of the silencing of women’s history, and our subsequent ignorance, but its great success is its ability not just to educate, but to inspire viewers to seek out more information.
While in general, I believe the establishment of this Center is indeed a groundbreaking achievement — truly a cause for celebration — I still have some mixed reactions. Iâ€™m not happy to criticize this effort, so I hope my comments are constructive, as intended. If I focus on its educational value, I find the Center has brought into existence a magnificent vision with great potential. However, I canâ€™t entirely shake my discomfort with its self-imposed segregation. An old Guerilla Girls piece sarcastically listing â€œthe advantages of being a woman artistâ€ posts â€œNot having to be in shows with men,â€ as ironic answer number two. I remain unconvinced that outstanding institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts do much to affect and advance equality for women and minorities in the so-called “mainstream” world of art and culture. In her very moving opening remarks yesterday, Dr. Sackler called for â€œEqual rights, equal pay, equal wall space, equal prices,â€ and as I applauded loudly, I hoped that all the publicity surrounding this new Center effectively serves those ends.
I also found myself ambivalent about the inaugural exhibition Global Feminisms. Indeed there are many good things to be said about this show (for instance there being approximately 50 countries represented), yet while it brings to view a cross-cultural feminist perspective, it unfortunately succumbs to the demon of ageism, that nasty discriminating filter from which women already suffer greatly. The press release and informational signage make a big deal trumpeting that most of the almost 90 participating artists in this show are under age 40, the majority having never before shown work in New York. In fact, from what I could tell, none the artists is older than 47. Why is that? There is no explanation given offered why older artists have been excluded. â€œIn Global Feminisms, we are attempting to construct a definition of â€˜feministâ€™ art that is as broad and flexible as possible,â€ says curator Reilly. â€œLinda [Nochlin] and I kept asking what it means to be a feminist in radically different cultural, political, and class situations. And we found not one definition, but manyâ€¦â€ therefore their use of the plural word, â€œfeminismsâ€ in the exhibition title. Well, I ask, arenâ€™t there any women over 47 to be found in these ‘radically different situations?’ I wondered if the young age of the artists was in some way related to the age Judy Chicago was when she made The Dinner Table (35-40). If thatâ€™s the case though, it casts a harsh spotlight on the sad yet undeniable truth that thereâ€™s not one single piece in this show able to come anywhere near the depth of commitment, research, and execution involved in Chicagoâ€™s piece. While Chicagoâ€™s piece celebrates the reclamation of womenâ€™s historical contributions in one gallery, why, one wonders, are the creative contributions of older artists to the feminist dialogue being negated here? Or are they planning a show of feminist art by underrecognized women age 47 and up for the next season? As Chicago talked about her identification as an artist and her subsequent realization that the museums of her youth did not have the work of women like her, I wonder if she was aware of the irony that she would be considered too old to be included in Global Feminisms? The contributions and examples set by older women who have persevered cannot be overvalued. They should be trumpeted and their work included at every opportunity because those women are the beacons on this path. As inspiring as it is to have an icon like Gloria Steinem on hand to give an introductory speech, it is disappointing to then note the absence of any artists from her generation.
Global Feminisms is divided into four thematic sections: Life Cycles, Identities, Politics, and Emotions. In Life Cycles, it again seems ironic that there are no works by women who are in the mature, even elderly stage of life. Doesnâ€™t that count as one of life’s cycles, and aren’t they best equipped to reflect on it? There’s too much in this show to discuss it all, but some standouts in this section were Jenny Savilleâ€™s enormous painting â€œFulcrum,â€ with the ability to shock both in scale and by her adroit handling of the paintâ€”a kind of realism at its best. I was also taken by Miwa Yanagiâ€™s photo â€œYukaâ€ from her series â€œMy Grandmothers.â€ Iâ€™d seen this before in reproduction, but in person, it conveyed such a sense of true joy. Itâ€™s to be expected that a feminist show will express many grievances of the female experience, which made the few pieces like Yanagiâ€™s with a positive message, or any hint of wit, really stand out. This show has tons of photography and videos, greatly outnumbering painting and sculpture. In the Identities section, racial, cultural, and gender identities are explored. A particularly strong, albeit disturbing statement is made by artist Mary Coble, in an 11-minute video of a butch lesbian repeatedly binding and unbinding her breasts with duct-tape until the skin becomes red, raw, and obviously painful. Finding inspiration with Duchampâ€™s idea of an alter ego of another gender, Israeli artist Oreet Ashery also presents a rather startling image of a breast-baring Hasidic man in â€œSelf-Portrait as Marcus Fisher Iâ€, a kind of fascinating commentary on this insular society of patriarchal tradition. (Sorry for the reflection — bad photo.) Unless I missed them, absent in the Identities section are pieces that address the continued objectification of women and the ever-increasing pressure on women to alter themselves with plastic surgery to be more appealing (to men).
The section on Politics is perhaps the most enlightening, presenting the vast range of experiences of women from so many different countries and cultures. The video by Bulgarian artist Boryana Rossa in the final section, â€œEmotionsâ€ was another standout for its humorous approach to skewering stereotypes of womenâ€™s exaggerated, histrionic emotions. There was a kind of poignant humor to the unpretentious piece by YBA Sarah Lucas, called â€œThe Sperm Thing,â€ of a soccer ball, steel bucket, and pantyhose. The show is up until July 1st, and â€œThe Dinner Partyâ€ is a permanent installation at the Center, and a trip to the Brooklyn Museum is always worth it, no matter how you slice it. I hope that young people will not be steered away from the Center because of the bold and challenging material it will present in fulfillment of its mission. At last there will be an ongoing opportunity for the public to take in the diverse expressions of female artists, to see beyond the depiction of women as artist’s model, Virgin Mother, martyred saint, or whore, and most importantly, to learn.
Iâ€™ve already written too much here, but have to add a quick addendum:
Three other things worth checking out at the Brooklyn Museum are:
1) A small exhibition of women ceramacists, including several wonderful pieces by Eva Zeisel
2) A fantastic, extensive survey of American Art on the fifth floor from the museumâ€™s incredible collection.
3) Also on the fifth floor, the Visible Storage & Study Center in the Luce Center for American Art. You can wander in here and see, through acrylic cases, a vast warehouse of stored items. Gives you a glimpse into behind-the-scenes inner workings of the museum, and itâ€™s simply fantastic.
What you constantly overhear at the Brooklyn Museum is people saying to their companions â€œI love this museum! This is such a great museum!â€ And theyâ€™re right. The Brooklyn Museum, with its focus on education (great signage, often bilingual), mission of serving a diverse community, and massive, first-rate collection could easily be considered our cityâ€™s finest. Add to that easy accessibility by subway, low admission fees, friendliness to people of all ages and those with disabilities, and proximity to the Botanical Gardens, and you just have to ask yourself what have you been waiting for?
[Images from top to bottom: 1& 2: Judy Chicago (U.S.A., b. 1939),The Dinner Party, 1974â€“1979, Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, and textile, 48 x 42 x 3â€™ (14.6 x 12.8 x .9 m), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center Foundation Â© Judy Chicago, Â© Polshek Partnership Architects. Image 3, Hatshepsut plate from The Dinner Party, 1974â€“1979, Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, and textile, 48 x 42 x 3â€™ (14.6 x 12.8 x .9 m), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center Foundation Â© Judy Chicago. Image 4: Jenny Saville (UK, b. 1970), Fulcrum, 1999, Oil on canvas 8′7″ x 16′w, Gagosian Gallery, NY. Image 5: Miwa Yanagi (Japan, b. 1967) Yuka, from the My Grandmothers series, 2000 Chromogenic print on Plexiglas, mounted on aluminum, 63 x 63″ (160 x 160 cm) Collection of Linda Pace, San Antonio, Texas Â© Miwa Yanagi, photo courtesy of the artist. Image 6: Oreet Ashery (Israel, b 1966) Self Portrait as Marcus Fisher I, From the Portrait of Marcus Fisher I-IV Series, 2000, Lambda Print, 47 x 37″, edition of 7, lent by the artist and Foxy Production, NY, and supported by Arts Council England. Image 7: Boryana Rossa (Bulgaria, b. 1972) Celebrating the Next Twinkling (Praznuvane na sledvascia mig), 1999 Single-channel video, color, sound, 2 min. 45 sec., edition of 2 Private collection (Photos: courtesy of the artist). Image 8: Sarah Lucas (UK b 1962) The Sperm Thing, 2006. Steel buckedt, cast concrete football, and nylon tights, 20 x 76 x 21:, Collection of Murderme, London. Image 8: Eva Zeisel (American, b. Hungary), Salt and pepper shakers, 1946. Image 9: The visible storage at Brooklyn Museum)