The latest exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts is revolutionary because of what it lacks: men.
Called "Women Take the Floor," it aims to rewrite the art history narrative and shed light on the women who created rigorous work that went unseen, undervalued or underrepresented in the past century.
The exhibition coincides with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.
"We are taking the impetus from women's suffrage,” said Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the MFA, “but exploding it to a more modern version of feminism, which is all about inclusion, all about bringing in different voices to the table, and all about community."
For much of history, we've defined artistic movements by their male leaders. Male artists were lionized by male art critics. For example, Jackson Pollack became the face of the radical movement known as action painting. Yet, this exhibition dedicates a whole gallery titled "Women in Action" that proves the work of women action painters like Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner was just as rigorous.
"[Elaine de Kooning] was extraordinarily brazen, had a sharp wit; she could drink all the men under the table, and she was very very talented," said Gadsden. "She herself was an art critic and she was a major proponent of abstract expressionism. Yet she never was able to get the name that her husband got and much of that is due to discrimination based on gender."
To put this exhibition together, Gadsden led a cross-departmental curatorial team to organize a show that traced the trajectory of art through the 20th century in the Americas using only art created by woman-identifying artists.
She brought in her area of expertise from decorative arts and sculpture, and worked with others to weigh in on areas like contemporary art, American painting, textiles and fashion arts, prints and drawings.
She admits the task was daunting. The MFA found that less than 10% (or an estimated 3,800) of all of its acquisitions from the last decade were made by woman-identifying artists.
"I was terrified of this exhibition when I took it over last December," Gadsden said. "I just felt... how were we going to represent all women in one show working primarily from our collection?"
The museum is grappling with its past as it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It's acknowledged an inconsistent history in supporting women artists. The exhibition's curators call this a "takeover," a way to challenge the dominant narrative. The seven galleries contain approximately 200 pieces and takes up the entire third floor of the Art of the Americas wing.
There are paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, a bust by African-American sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller to commemorate the abolition of slavery, and landscapes with mountains that resemble female torsos. In another room are massive woven sculptures. Furniture by the design team Ray and Charles Eames is on full-display, but this time emphasizes Ray's contributions to the husband-wife partnership.
Perspectives like these are the point of the exhibition, Gadsden says.
"The MFA has its broader mission of inclusion diversity equity and access,” she said, “and bringing out the stories of artists and cultures that have had less opportunity on our walls, less opportunity for the recognition that they so deserve, is part of that."
In the center gallery, a poem plays on repeat every five minutes. It's the words of Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola. Her voice echoes as she recites the piece the museum commissioned titled "what is the suffrage movement to a blk womyn? an anthem":
Give me the pen. And Eve devours all the apples. Pass me the torch. And the laws burn to the ground. Hand me the brush. And I re-imagine the gavel, the switch. I unsign the declaration.
Her words are a kind of gateway to the core gallery called "Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice." It draws attention to the power of the female gaze — that of the artist, the subject, and the viewers. We see Frida Kahlo's "Dos Mujeres." Next to it, a photograph created by Andrea Bowers of a trans woman of color in a long gown. She's portrayed as an angel.
"For me, I think the all-inspiring concept that we can do this so beautifully with primarily our own collection and with women artists is jaw dropping,” Gadsden said. “It also makes me very sad that we haven't done it before."
She hopes the exhibition’s visitors will now get the chance to discover these artists in their own right.
Gadsden notes a caption under a piece by sculptor Claire Falkenstein. The curator made sure to include text there about how an art critic once described Falkenstein as the "Jackson Pollack of three dimensions." Here, her body of work stands on its own.
The MFA's "Women Take the Floor" exhibition is open through May 3, 2021.
This segment aired on September 13, 2019.