February 07, 2010


I had the interesting task recently of taking a small group of Wheaton College alumnae (class of 1960) on a “tour” of the 4th floor show, ‘Focus on Artists,’ at SFMoMA. After we looked at the first half of the exhibition, (beautiful, exciting, invigorating) I pointed out that among the eight artists “whose iconic works have been influential in defining movements from Abstract Expressionism to Postminimalism and beyond,” * none were women. One of the alumnae (Wheaton is a women’s college) then asked if there WERE any modern women artists. Now this is a person whose question came more from a simple lack of familiarity with 20th c. art – possibly with visual art in general – than from ignorance or lack of intelligence. So even if the question is naive, it’s also one whose asking, in January 2010, by a privileged Caucasian woman  who was 22 in 1960,  ought to raise some questions for curators, not to mention educators, critics, gallerists, historians, and artists.

We went on to the second half of Focus on Artists, where among the ten artists “whose work has signaled a shift toward more psychological, social, and historical content in art,”* seven were men, and three were women.

The museum’s decision to give a single rooms to each of 18 artists for the Focus on Artists show, as well as the choice to rotate a second round of works into the galleries mid-way through the show’s run, allows for an appreciably deeper experience of the artists’ work. There are many works on display that are old friends, and so nice to see again. But 15:3 is the kind of ratio that makes me want to know more about how the artists were selected. When I’ve learned more, I’ll post again.


Comments (10)

  • Sally Widdowson says:

    Helen Spanierman, a curator and gallerist for several years, dedicates much of her curatorial practice to expose the work of the women of abstract expressionism. I had the pleasure of working for her for three years at the Spanierman Galleries, 2 located in Manhattan, 1 in East Hampton. She lived (still does) in the heart of the East End abstractionist artist colony on Long Island. One of her favorite photographs always on display in her East Hampton gallery depicts the close group of abstract expressionist friends, men AND women. In the fall of 2007, while working for her, she curated the show “Women of Abstraction: Then and Now” (http://spanierman-at-easthampton.com/07_W_and_A/07_WandA_homepage.htm). The “then” artists included Elaine deKooning, Mary Abbott, Carol Hunt, Gerturde Greene, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Charlotte Park, Perle Fine, Miriam Schapiro, and Fay Lasner. It is nice to see that some curators maintain passion and rigor to represent the women. However, the New York Times review fails to even acknowledge the theme of women. Interesting.

  • Anne,

    I’m late to this post–but I was floored and a little outraged by the ratio in the show as well. I’m glad you’re on the case.

    I take my daughter to SFMOMA (and other museums). I’m always on the look-out for role models and these days there are so many of them in just about every single field–it’s really, really great! But SFMOMA, as fun as it can be to visit with her, is a real downer in this regard and I’m sad when I bring her there

  • I think these are excellent questions. Thank you Anne. I’ve no idea about the View From Here (photo collection) balance of women and men but perhaps it is better. I do know my own work is included, so that’s one. All best, joanne leonard

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    expect a shuffle some where between a fib and a white lie…will that do?

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Sure enough — didn’t know of that Wheaton.

  • Julian, I agree. I’ve ended my post sincerely: I do hope to be able to learn more about how these choices were made, and discuss them further here.

    Frank, I’m not sure what the “truth” is, ever. I don’t expect anything, but I think I owe it to the museum and its curators and its public to inquire about the show before drawing definitive conclusions. For now, what I’ve done is offer some perspective and anecdotal info on FOCUS….

    Vance – see my comment to Frank, above. The Wheaton COllege I was referring to is in Massachusetts. There is another one in Illinois. According to their website: Wheaton was founded in 1834 as a Female Seminary and chartered as a four-year liberal arts college in 1912. The college became coeducational in 1988 and its Phi Beta Kappa chapter was established in 1932.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    anne…do you expect to be told the “truth”?

  • Julian Myers says:

    Hi Anne, I appreciate this post. You mark these failures in all directions: curatorial choice, collection, higher education. All institutions implicated. To add another twist: what of the fact that two of those three women on floor four are called, in some gloomy diversity double dutch, to stand for both race and gender?

    For what it’s worth, on the collection front: Jay DeFeo could have held a Focus room. Her painting Incision could climb raging to the top of SFMOMA’s stovepipe like King Kong. It’s that great. And it looks crammed on floor two.

    Anyhow. Thrilled you’ve taken up the columnist baton.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    (Frankenthaler just as an example of an obvious peer of Guston, Ryman, etc.)

  • Vance Maverick says:

    I’m pretty sure Wheaton has never been a women’s college. It’s known as a Christian college, pretty strong in academics and also pretty rigid in doctrine (see here and links). If it were more open-minded, or indeed if it were a women’s college, the question would be more surprising, I think — even conservative women must have given some thought to this historical underrepresentation, even if they haven’t heard of the Guerrilla Girls or Linda Nochlin.

    What’s your sense of the reason for the exclusion in the earlier part of this show? Is there no Helen Frankenthaler because past curators haven’t collected women’s art, or are the present curators filtering it out a bit too?

See all responses (10)
Leave a comment

Please tell us what you think. We really love conversation, and we’re happy to entertain dissenting opinions. Just no name-calling, personal attacks, slurs, threats, spam, and the like, please. Those ones we reserve the right to remove.

Sign Up

Join our newsletter for infrequent updates on new posts and Open Space events.
  • Required, will not be published

Dear Visitor,
We regret to inform you that Open Space is no longer active. It was retired at the end of 2021. We sincerely appreciate your support and engagement over the years.

For your reference, we encourage you to read past entries or search the site.

To stay informed about future ventures or updates, please follow us at

Thank you for being a part of our journey!