New Whitney Museum Highlights Women Artists in Split From the Past
When visitors enter the easternmost gallery on the seventh floor of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, the first thing they'll see is The Seasons, a giant, almost 8-foot-wide oil painting by Lee Krasner. On the opposite wall is a much smaller painting by Krasner's husband, Jackson Pollock. "The privileged view, if you will, is that of the painting by Krasner," says Donna De Salvo, the Whitney's chief curator.
For decades, emphasizing Krasner over Pollock would have been unthinkable. But in America Is Hard to See, the sweeping inaugural exhibition of the Whitney's new building, Krasner and hundreds of other women artists are being highlighted as part of the museum's ongoing effort to challenge 20th century art history's male-dominated storyline.
"We're not putting these artists in the narrative purely out of some sense of obligation," De Salvo says. "It's because there's something to look at, something really interesting and exciting." Women artists make up about 30 percent of the show, and "that number gets higher the further into the century you get," De Salvo says, pointing out that "a number of women ... permeate the whole collection."
It's also worth pointing out that the Whitney was founded by a woman. (As was New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)
"Any time we talk about the Whitney or its mission, the person we speak about is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney," De Salvo says, noting that Whitney herself was an artist who collected other female artists. "You go back and look at the works the museum was founded with—there are prints by a woman named Peggy Bacon, and there's another interesting artist named Mabel Dwight."
There's no one reason that these (and other) women were underrepresented by the museum in the past, though plain sexism might be a good place to start.
"It speaks to larger cultural conditions," De Salvo says. "Some of these are obvious—the cultural reality of women not getting their place in the dialogue, narrative, or positions of power that they should." And while today women such as Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell are acknowledged as part of a movement such as Abstract Expressionism, for many years that wasn't the case.
"There's that great photograph of leading abstract expressionists," De Salvo says. "And Hedda Sterne is the only woman in the picture."
Ultimately, De Salvo says, it's not a question of whether the artist is male or female, but whether the work is compelling. "I don't see things in a binary way because that's too simplistic," she says. "What we're doing is simply providing the opportunity for great work to be visible."
The following are 10 standout images from the show, with more than 125 more, on view May 1 through September 27.