July 8, 2010  |  Modern Women, Publications
Leap into the Unknown: Women Artists, Past and Present

Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was published in 1971, but more than fifteen years later, when I attended graduate school at the Graduate Center, CUNY, a second wave of important feminist contributions to the discipline appeared. I am thinking of Griselda Pollock’s Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (1988); Carol Duncan’s “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas” (1989); and The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman, which included an essay by Carol Armstrong, “Edgar Degas and the Representation of the Female Body” (1985), among many others. In addition, my own area of specialization, Victorian England, saw a flowering of feminist art history in the work of Lynda Nead, Susan Casteras, Deborah Cherry, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. These writers and their publications had a profound impact on my own work as an art historian and teacher.

In 1971 Nochlin identified institutional barriers as the key to answering the question of why women artists historically had been left out of the ranks: women could not join the guild that painters belonged to, they were barred from official art schools, and in the late nineteenth century, they were not allowed to attend nude drawing classes. In interviewing Connie Butler, MoMA’s Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawing, Alexandra Schwartz, a curatorial assistant in the Department of Drawings, and Aruna D’Souza, it became clear to me that conversations about institutional barriers and the way that they slowly transform and open—including the barriers within museums (historical collecting patterns, departments divided by media)—is still the key to a complex and nuanced understanding of the place of women artists today.

As you can imagine, it was particularly gratifying for me to interview Alexandra Schwartz and Connie Butler—see the video above—regarding their contributions to MoMA’s important publication Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, not least because they inspired me to re-read Nochlin’s original essay, which ends with this call:

[U]sing as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions  in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown. (Linda Nochlin. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1988, p. 176)