At MOMA, a Glaring Absence


There isn’t a painting, sculpture, or drawing by a woman in the first and biggest installment of MOMA’s “ModernStarts” survey. This fact is so depressing, brazen, and pitiful, it bears restating. Of the 320 objects on view, only 13 works are by women — and all are photographs! There are paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints by men of women — the show runneth over with female flesh — but not one of these women is by a woman.

No doubt, subsequent segments of this three-part, 17-month “radical rethinking” of modern art will include more art by women. But there isn’t a painting, drawing, or print — and only one sculpture — by a woman in the catalog that covers the subsequent segments of “Modern Starts,” either. This could get ugly. “People” focuses exclusively on the human figure in art from 1880 to 1920, but nothing explains this stunning exclusion. What about Florine Stettheimer, Hannah Höch, Romaine Brooks, Gabriele Munter, Paula Modersohn – Becker, early Sonia Delaunay and Liubov Popova, or I hate her but, Mary Cassatt? I’m talking quality, not quotas; all these women could have been included without lessening the show. All the art on view is from the Modern’s collection, so they are bound by ownership. Still, it’s hard to believe this institution doesn’t own a single work by a woman within the period. If they didn’t, they should have gone out and got one.

In “ModernStarts” MOMA is playing with itself, which is great. The preordained hierarchy championed for decades has been cracked. At the preview, director Glen Lowery lauded this “fundamentally different way to present the collection.” True, but the absence of women distorts the proceedings. A chill went down my spine when Lowery said, “This is what we will do in the future.”