Few institutional shows have addressed the question of what happens to muse convention when both artist and subject are women. “Women Painting Women” at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art is one exception to exploring this powerful alchemy of talent, gender identity and insight. Designed by chief curator Andrea Karnes, it features some 50 women-identifying artists from the 1960s – the earliest painting is by Alice Neel – to the present day.
In the show, sacred names of feminist art are represented; among them are Faith Ringgold, Marylin Minter and Paula Rego. Younger artists like Jordan Casteel and Apolonia Sokol are placed next to them.
Earlier this week, Karnes was joined at Frieze New York by Marylin Minter and Jenna Gribbon, two artists in the show, for a panel discussion moderated by curator Alison Gingeras. Karnes spoke of her focus on people rarely represented in the art historical canon: black, brown, and Indigenous women, as well as older women, pregnant women, trans women, and people who reject the gender binary. Quoting Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 essay “Why Haven’t There Been Great Women Artists?” as the leading star, Karnes has spoken of wanting to “refocus the idea of grandeur.”
The show notably tackles how the definition of “woman” has broadened, become elastic, to better serve a diversity of self-representation, a goal that has also been advanced by recent shows by artists from before the 20th century like Artemisia Gentileschi and Berthe. Morisot. Does the use of the term “woman” have the potential to exclude participants or viewers? Yes, inevitably, Karnes said. But the curatorial team made an admirable effort to ensure that every artist included in the exhibition consented to the definition.
“I told them, ‘I’ll be in a show, but I’ll never be the only woman again,'” Minter said, reflecting on her early career as a ‘token female artist’ in group shows. against the idea and counted a victory if the conservative conceded to include one more woman.
Minter, a trailblazer, and Gribbon, one of the many artists pushing queer figurative painting in new directions right now, have done well. Minter explained that it was difficult for men and women of her generation to accept women working with sexual imagery.
“I think it comes from fear of the idea of agency,” she said. “If they’re young and attractive, they’re shameful.”
“But if you’re an old woman, you can do anything,” Minter continued, using the example of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photograph of Louise Bourgeois holding little girl, a phallic sculpture she made in 1968. It’s an insulting notion that age turns a woman’s body into something devoid of sexuality. “Having the agency own footage for fun is so threatening,” Minter said.
Gribbon, then, bears witness to progress. She clearly lusts after her partner’s body in her paintings, in which thighs, nipples and body hair are depicted in electric palettes. She strives to convey the eroticism of hands, critical instruments of queer sex. Even in the face of evidence, some viewers are still asking if she knows the sitter.
“People are blind to romantic relationships between women,” she said in disbelief.
The discussion often returns to the circulatory tendency of progress: some things change, most do not. Minter wore a shirt that read “Abortion is Normal,” a reminder of the dire state of bodily autonomy for women in America. But behind her, projected on a monumental scale, were paintings of women, of a genre rarely entered in the history of art, in fantasies of peace.