A large video projection opens with a view of a finely stained wooden surface. The hand of an unidentified woman appears on the right and a postcard portrait of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller—who, along with Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, founded The Museum of Modern Art in 1929—is strategically placed in the center of the frame. This image is followed by a postcard depicting the influential writer and social critic Zora Neale Hurston. In the minutes that follow a voiceover announces:
My desire is to make you realize that art is not dead, can never die
while we exist, but is constantly, through our living in the making.
In the next instance a seemingly endless pile of postcards made from portraits are stacked one atop another, from the blues singer Gladys Bentley to the collector Katherine S. Dreier to the performer Josephine Baker. The video, Insistence (2013), created by Andrea Geyer and recently acquired by MoMA, reveals a massive network of women who laid out the cultural landscape of modernism. This network is exposed by weaving together stories about the period’s unsung heroes: women. These stories highlight the everyday lived experiences of the women featured on the postcards, and their commitment to the arts at large. The continuous stacking of their portraits alludes to the fact that their influence is far-reaching, underrepresented, and an ongoing process that deserves further consideration.
Insistence is one element of a two-part presentation at MoMA that explores a network of 850 women. It is accompanied by Revolt, They Said (2012-ongoing), a wall-sized diagram, currently on view in MoMA’s in Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, that further investigates the links between these influential women, branching outward to include their business partners, lovers, and collaborators. As someone who walks through the Gund Lobby every day, I see visitors stand before Revolt, They Said with intrigue. Based on a 50 x 85″ graphite drawing, the installation maintains a hand-drawn quality. The sheer scale of the work suggests the magnitude of this overlooked history, and is a beautiful visual testament to the colossal impact women have had on history. In the diagram, artists, collectors, institutions, and patrons are rendered visible, and form the framework of the social and political contexts of their time.
Insistence and Revolt, They Said challenge standard art-historical narratives by refuting women’s presumed lack of participation in the modernist movement during the 1920s and 1930s in New York City and beyond. Beginning with research into the actions of MoMA’s three founders, Geyer found that, although some women are named in the dominant story of modernism, the contributions of women have not been fully considered. As Geyer puts it, “We need to recognize that so many things we consider the epicenter of modernism are the concrete trace of women’s action, and would not exist without them.” Geyer’s intervention seeks not to provide a revisionist history, but rather to capture the spirit of their cross-pollinating network.