The exhibition “Women Painting Women” at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, curated by Andrea Karnes, does more than amend a centuries-long art historical narrative centered on male artists. It celebrates underrepresented female perspectives without limiting them, pulling an intergenerational collection of female figurative painters into conversation with each other through their art.
International in its scope, the rewarding show features the work of 46 artists. It contains works dating from the 1960s to the present, with new work well represented, as 17 of the nearly 60 pieces in the exhibition were created in the last two years.
The exhibition is organized into four sections: Color as Portrait, Selfhood, Nature Personified, and The Body. But the paintings are without exception so rich that they resonate within and beyond these groupings.
Amy Sherald’s “A Midsummer Afternoon Dream” (2020) begins both the exhibition as a whole and the Color as Portrait section. The painting depicts a woman in a blue dress leaning against a bike in front of a field of sunflowers and a white picket fence. As an image of Black leisure, it intervenes in an 18th and 19th-century art history in which most images of leisure were painted by white men of white women. As in her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, Sherald renders the figure’s skin in her signature gray tone, an innovation the artist uses to encourage universal readings of her subjects.
Sherald’s “A Midsummer Afternoon Dream,” is one of many paintings in the exhibition in which women subjects look out as if looking at the viewer, a significant arrangement that gives primacy to the female gaze. In Joan Brown’s “Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat” (1970), a painting included with Color as Portrait for its striking red background, the artist renders her features in a simplified style with visible brushstrokes, her clear eyes gazing out straight ahead.
Faith Ringgold’s “Woman in a Red Dress” (1965) and Danielle McKinney’s “Corner Store” (2021), both part of the Selfhood section, also give their black female subjects a powerful gaze. Likewise, three of the contorted but powerful acrobats in Iraqi-American artist Hayv Kaharaman’s “The Tower” (2019) stare stoically at the viewer.
Other works manipulate and reclaim the sexually charged and at times voyeuristic images of women that dominate the cannon. Marilyn Minter’s “Red Flare” (2018-19), interrupts this voyeurism as a variation on paintings of women after a bath or at their toilette. It depicts a red headed woman washing her hair, seen as if through wet glass. With the viewer’s gaze obscured by condensation, the painting captures the beauty and sensuality of the nude without the keyhole perspective of a male artist like Edgar Degas.
In Mickalene Thomas’ “A Little Taste Outside of Love” (2007), and Alice Neel’s “Pregnant Nude” (1967) the reclining pose historically associated with the odalisque is reclaimed in different ways. Thomas presents a luxuriously bedazzled image of beauty in the form of a seventies icon on a monumental 12-foot-long canvas. Thomas subverts the art historical trend of including black women in odalisque paintings only as maids, positioning a black woman as an elegant, self-possessed subject. The reclining pregnant figure in Neel’s “Pregnant Nude,” on the other hand, defies the implied position of women as sex objects painted by men for presumed male viewers.
Only one painting in the exhibition, “The Turkish Bath” by Sylvia Sleigh, contains no women figures. A wall text, the only painting-specific didactic label in the show, explains the artist’s clever subversion of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “The Turkish Bath” (1862) by replacing his bathing women with male nudes, including an image of her husband.
In “Women Painting Women,” images of women are simplified and reimagined in ways unique to the female gaze, including both women’s bodies and the spaces they create and occupy. Every room of the large exhibition is visually exciting, featuring art by masters of color and texture.
In addition to paintings, several of the standout works in the show are mixed media compositions, including a new, as yet untitled collage by Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts and “Dwell: Me, We” (2017) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
Works in the show reclaim multiple symbolic functions of women in art and women’s associations with natural or elemental forces. Through a variety of approaches, the featured artists represent women of multiple sexualities, gender expressions, and ages. The strong presence of new work, placed in conversation with that of trailblazing artists of the postwar period makes “Women Painting Women” an exciting, timely exhibition.
“Women Painting Women” continues through Sept. 25 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, themodern.org