Women in the Visual Arts

Kerry Oliver-Smith, Curator of Contemporary Art, Harn Museum of Art


Andrea Geyer, Insistence, 2013, HD video, H264, 1248x702
ACC, 29.97 fps, color, 4800Hz stereo sound, 15.21 minutes

Recently I came across a fascinating film regarding history and accomplishments of women in the visual arts world. The film, Insistence (2013), created by artist Andrea Geyer, sees women as a driving force behind the establishment of Modernist art and culture in the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women artists and patrons founded most of New York’s modern art institutions and important galleries including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Still, Geyer observes, they have barely been recognized for their extraordinary contributions.

In the film, Geyer weaves remarkable stories about groundbreaking women in the arts as she, one by one, stacks a pile of postcard photographs of them. She narrates their accomplishments, relationships and tireless work to create a network across art, politics, education and social reform. Geyer insists that we should remember these women by continuing their spirit and efforts as a crucial and vital part of the present and our future.


While women have achieved many goals, statistics show that sexism is so embedded in the art-world system that it often goes undetected.  In the June issue of ARTnews journal, Maura Reilly, founding Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, reminds us of the very wide gap in the representation of men compared to women in museums, biennials, galleries, the press and the art market. She emphasizes the importance of a historiography of feminist art workers. Like Geyer, she calls for action and speech. She states “let’s not just talk about feminism—let’s live it. Don’t wait for change to come—be proactive.”

I decided to look at how art in the Harn’s contemporary collections and exhibitions tell stories of women in the art world. Feminist artists Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama come to mind first. In their distinct ways, they explored realms of the subconscious, memory, dreams and desire. Both artists were born in the early 20th century and both had to wait until their 70s before gaining worldwide recognition. In 1982, at the age of 71, Bourgeois received her first retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art—the first at the museum dedicated to a woman. In the last 15 years Kusama, now 89, received retrospectives at major museum around the world. She is often named Japan's greatest living artist. Today, both artists reign as leading artists of the twentieth century. 


I admire the tenacity of these heroic women. Their influence is widespread and evidenced in the work of other younger artists in our collection such as feminist photographers, performance and conceptual artists Ana Mendieta, Liza May Post and Eija-Liisa Ahtila. I also learn from the women artists who take a leading role in identity based, performance and political art. Artists such as Catherin Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, Cindy Sherman, Justin Kurland, Nan Goldin and Nikki Lee examined the diversity and social construction of gender and race. Further contributions come from women artists such as Magdalene Odundo, Tacita Dean and Haegue Yang who are engaged in global issues including, politics, technology, capital, culture and the environment. Other women artists who have made similar worldwide contributions include Jennifer Allora, Yto Barada, Yael Bartana, Maja Bajevic and Marjetica Potrc̆.