When it comes to being artists, women can be as bad as men. The problem is that even now, decades after the onset of women’s liberation, women aren’t being allowed to demonstrate this. I doubt that there’s a conscious effort to keep women from showing, yet the percentage of women exhibiting in New York galleries and museums is grievously low. According to the fall exhibition schedules for 125 well-known New York galleries—42 percent of which are owned or co-owned by women—of 297 one-person shows by living artists taking place between now and December 31, just 23 percent are solos by women.
Some may argue that 23 percent isn’t that bad. True, it’s not as bad as last fall’s even worse 19 percent. And it’s certainly not as sorry as the situation at some of our museums. On the fourth and fifth floors of the Museum of Modern Art, in the galleries devoted to the permanent collection of art from 1879 to 1969, there are currently 399 objects. Only 19, or 5 percent, of those objects are by women. This is up from last fall’s 3 percent, but it’s partly due to the display of a silver teapot, a brass fruit bowl, and an ashtray by the excellent Marianne Brandt, who technically isn’t even in the painting and sculpture collection. Yesterday’s institutions can’t be judged by today’s standards. MOMA’s shortcomings are built-in: Of all the artists in its P&S collection with work completed before 1970, fewer than 1 percent are women. Even so, MOMA’s narrative wouldn’t be disrupted by having work on view by Alice Neel, Florine Stettheimer, Sonia Delaunay, Louise Nevelson, Emma Kunz, Hilma af Klint, Adrian Piper, Marisol, Maya Deren, Dorthea Rockburne, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jo Baer, Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, Grace Hartigan, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Natalia Goncharova, Gego, Dorothea Tanning, Romaine Brooks, Ree Morton, Howardena Pindell, Lee Lozano, Hanna Hoch, and Claude Cahun. If MOMA doesn’t own work by all these artists it needs to rectify this.
Meanwhile, since 2000 only 14 percent of the Guggenheim’s solo shows of living artists have been devoted to women. After cringing at that, consider “Full House,” the Whitney’s recent installation of its permanent collection. The show was challenging but familiar in one troubling area: Only 19 percent of its participants were women. Figures, however, aren’t always cut-and-dried. Only 23 percent of all the artists in the Whitney’s collection are women, so “Full House” reflected its collection. There were 48 artists in “Uncertain States of America,” Bard’s summer show organized by three European male curators: Only 10 were women. Several of these were only in the rotating video program. The prime real estate is still a men’s club.
The programmatic exclusion of women is partly attributable to the art world’s being a self-replicating organism: It sees that the art that is shown and sold is made mainly by men, and therefore more art made by men is shown and sold. This is how the misidentification, what Adorno called a “negative system,” is perpetuated.
What to do? As Bob Marley said, “You can observe a lot from watching.” Consider the savant of watching, Andy Warhol. As art writer Jack Bankowsky observed, “He noticed things.” Noticing can be insurrectionary. All of us can notice, then mention that we noticed. I did this last year when I had a hissy fit on this page about how women were only around 15 percent of the artists included in Artforum‘s annual Top 10 lists and the “power lists” of Art + Auction and ArtReview. That seemed to ruffle a lot of feathers. Regardless, if those percentages are repeated, at least we’ll know it’s intentional. (A discouraging sign is that only 13 percent of the solo shows previewed in Artforum this month are women’s.)
If this summer’s Documenta and Venice Biennale were 50-50 men/women, neither would be better or worse than usual. That said, no one is more self-righteous, dogmatic, and moralistic than a quota queen. Art isn’t democratic. Shows shouldn’t be regulated.
It’s a pernicious double bind: If only 24 percent of the shows are by women, how can 50 percent of the shows you preview, review, buy, or sell be by women? Art historian Griselda Pollock has written about “women’s struggle for meaning”; whatever we call this struggle, it needs to be seen as a failure of the imagination that amounts to apartheid. We all have to feel threatened by the bias. We must see it as a moral emergency. Having mainly men show means that more than half the story is going untold. Whatever story women tell will be told in ways it never has before. If we don’t remove the taboo against women, the story could eventually die.
The subjects of Catherine Opie’s academic black-and-white photographs are, as the show’s title informs us, “American Cities.” We see St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York. Opie is trying to tap in to the deadpan lucidity of Atget, Abbott, and Evans. She’s drawn to the indexical vision of Edward Ruscha and the lonely 1970s cityscapes of Thomas Struth. Although many of these works are momentarily engaging, Opie’s city pictures flirt with the canned grandeur and romanticism of Ansel Adams.
Nevertheless, some of Opie’s city pictures are laced with a degree of latent psychological content. We know from her past work that Opie is, or was, part of the lesbian BDSM community. She’s known for images of herself and others pierced with needles etc. This ritualized pleasure and pain is here but cloaked in a fascinating blandness and Opie’s rage for normalcy. She likes families and communities. In “American Cities” the streets may always be barren, but it’s as if she’s staking a claim for those, like her, who want to walk these streets alone without feeling afraid.
Far better are pictures of Los Angeles mini-malls, in which Opie gets out of her own way. We see storefronts of a Taiwanese dentist next to an Arab hairdresser next to a Chinese dry cleaner next to an Italian pizzeria run by Vietnamese. Admirers say these pictures are about “urban sprawl.” This is totally wrong. These pictures echo Opie’s urge for normalcy and are images of hope. The mini-malls are portraits of those who have hung placards outside shops in hopes of making their fortune. I love these pictures.