In a 1971 article in ARTnews, Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, asked a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad question: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Her question has been ringing in our collective ears ever since. And it’s ringing especially loudly this year.
Here is Nochlin’s killer line: “The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.” She went on to explain why:
The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education … everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals.
Our very idea of greatness, of genius, she argued, is bound up with manliness.
Nearly half a century has passed since Nochlin posed her question. Now we face it again, because this year, 2016, is once again the year of the woman artist—it happens roughly every decade—although no one has formally declared it so.
The wave of all-women exhibitions in the United States hit first in Florida this past winter. The Contemporary Arts Foundation in Miami showed “NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists From the Rubell Family Collection” (now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.). The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach displayed “O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York.” By early summer, the wave had moved west. At the Denver Art Museum, “Women of Abstract Expressionism” opened in June. Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, a new gallery in Los Angeles, made its debut with “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016.” Sprüth Magers’s L.A. gallery showed the work of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel in an exhibit called “Eau de Cologne.” The summer wrapped up with “The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men,” at Cheim & Read in New York. (And I haven’t even counted up the solo exhibitions featuring women such as Diane Arbus, Cecily Brown, Carmen Herrera, Kruger, June Leaf, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Agnes Martin, Linn Meyers, Nasreen Mohamedi, Charlotte Moorman, Pipilotti Rist, Sherman, and Alma Thomas.)