What is the case for exhibiting women artists as women artists? Postwar Women, at the Art Students’ League through December 1st, unites the visions of women artists in the later twentieth century in such a way as to both pose and answer questions of how women artists see, and to make a case for collecting these visions in one space that tells a story across painting, sculpture, and mixed media.
Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold both look into the past, in some cases the very distant past. Catlett’s “Standing Mother and Child” and “The Door of Justice” both recall African mask traditions (I am not an expert, but for me they evoke the Dean gle of the Dan people of Liberia) in the stylized but steady faces…
…while Faith Ringgold recontextualizes the famous remains of “Lucy” as those of a beloved ancestor by placing a miniature skeleton in a gold coffin, surrounded by flowers and colorful fabric. The scale is intimate and familiar, the notes in block printing on plain white paper, bringing Lucy out of the museum and into a setting that feels funereal, reverent, and joyous all at once.
Catlett and Ringgold both look behind to look forward, reaching into the past to bring dignity and tenderness to depictions of people of African heritage. The explicit embrace of African history and artistic traditions reminds me of El Anatsui or Yinka Shonibare; the affection the artists radiate towards their subjects brings to mind Kehinde Wiley. But ultimately, the modest dimensions lead to a different interpretation, distinct from Shonibare’s irony or Wiley’s grandeur: Catlett and Ringgold, by way of the familial and fond, draw the viewer’s attention to the ways in which people of color have been dehumanized and embrace them with seriousness and profundity.
My friend Emily and I spent a lot of time with Kazuko Miyamoto‘s “Woman in a Box” and its moody colors and ambiguous shapes. Looking at it again a few days later, I see a woman in a seat looking out of a window, perhaps on a train. Light and darkness is available to her, as well as her own reflection, smaller and fainter than she herself. A “woman in a box” could be trapped, or in transit. The ambiguity and antitheses Miyamoto offers allow for a range of reactions, and the lack of a distinct face or body shape allow the woman privacy and distance from the viewer. The woman here may be without agency, or she may finally have the solitude and openness to step into her agency.
Perhaps Miyamoto’s “Woman in a Box” would eventually paint Isabel Bishop‘s “Study for a Subway Scene.” I came for the familiarity of the narrow windows of the train cars and the long escalators of a station like Lexington and 63rd on the F; I stayed for the ways in which the bodies and faces are either turned away from the viewer or indistinct. I think again of the sense of remove Miyamoto offers her subject; Bishop might be offering hers the same, or simply reflecting the anonymous blur formed by seas of commuters in the New York City subway. Either way, taken together, Miyamoto and Bishop hold space for their subjects by stepping back; Catlett and Ringgold, on the other hand, invite the viewer closer, into the home, a mother’s embrace, a ceremony of remembrance.
I loved spending time with the artists in Postwar Women, and one could craft dozens of narratives linking together very different works and artists from the ones I chose. But in a world that still feels very much defined by the male gaze, the sense of peace, of play, of contemplation I felt in this show was singular. I was there with my friend, surrounded by other friends, ones I would never know but ones who invited me into a conversation as an equal, a loved one, a woman deserving of my own space to think, to create, to see.