Beyond the Binary: Women Painting Women at The Modern

There have been (and will be) moments when painting, especially figurative work and portraiture, falls out of fashion in the art world. Now is not one of those times—and women are at the forefront.

On view at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth May 15 through September 25 is Women Painting Women, a thematic exhibition of forty-six women artists who choose women as subject matter in their works. The show is organized by the museum’s chief curator Andrea Karnes and includes figuration and portrait mavens such as Nicole Eisenman, Luchita Hurtado, Alice Neel, Deborah Roberts, May Stevens, Michalene Thomas, and more.

“The idea for the show really came together at the beginning of the pandemic, while working from home and not knowing when we were going to be able to get back out into the world,” says Karnes. “As a curator, I think I was taking inventory of some of the ideas that I had had over the last few years.”

Wanting the exhibition to be thematic rather than chronological, Karnes started thinking of women artists from different generations, with the basic exercise of asking, “What is their most compelling painting that features a woman as the subject? And how can I put this all together?”

She knew she would have to choose artists whose careers she knew well, because what she didn’t know was if she’d be able to travel and do studio visits. Keeping an eye out for some fluid themes helped her organize the exhibition in terms of the catalog and the layout of the museum’s galleries.

“It’s exciting to have, for example, Alice Neel in the same room with a very young artist, somebody who’s emerging, who most visitors may not even know, like Somaya Critchlow or Jenna Gribbon,” says Karnes. “And it’s exciting for the young artists to be contextualized with some amazing trailblazers. I think if those trailblazers were still alive, they’d be thrilled to see their legacy. So, it feels like there is cross-generational synergy.”

London-based Critchlow creates small scale portraits of Black women, collapsing art history and contemporary culture into one charged scene. Renaissance-like lighting, Rococo-inspired color, and 1960s boudoir kitsch situate the bulbous bodies and poofy hairstyles of fantastical figures with direct yet flattened gazes.

Gribbon often paints her partner as muse in scenes that hover between intimacy and voyeurism. Like Critchlow, these images of women defy the objectification so rampant in the Western art canon. Here, women embody their agency, in control of who’s watching and who’s showing.

Other works on view depict women alone or in social interactions — abstracted, expressive, collaged, or patterned — amid surreal, picturesque, harsh, or ethereal environments, both private and public. The result is a variegated visual narration of lived experiences across generations and time zones.

Self-portraiture (or the self, in general) is centered, for example, in the flattened curious scenes of Joan Brown, here seemingly mid-studio-effort with her painting brush and gloves — but holding a fish; Danielle McKinney, barefoot in one of the calmest interiors I’ve ever seen; Marlene Dumas, Dana Schultz, and Elizabeth Peyton whose works remind me of how disturbing it can be to look at someone else’s likeness, only to be hit with the realization of my own mortality. I could stare at Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s emotive, patterned works all day, breaking only to peer at Chantal Joffe’s disproportionate figures, which always resonate with how awkward I often feel in my own body. And speaking of awkward: Kim Dingle, an artist whose work is new to me, makes me laugh and cringe with her paintings of the unruly lives of children, and by extension, adults.

Women Painting Women also offers museum visitors the chance to see three works recently acquired by The Modern that are now in the collection, debuting with the show: Susan Rothenberg’s painting Mary III (1974) and Lorna Simpson’s Murmur (2019) and Black Darkness (2019). Mary III is quintessentially Rothenberg. An earthy mauve-colored, brush-stroked ground is inseparable from its subject matter—here, a crouching nude woman—save for the pale gestural line that outlines the form and one that splits the image in two.

Simpson’s Murmur and Black Darkness, each made of ink and screen print on gessoed fiberglass, offer depictions of deep, watery Arctic blues and heavy glacial forms. Vertical bands glimpse text and portraiture within the scenes, pointing to the human imprint on nature.

That shift in perspective, a bringing to the surface, offers some insight into the inherent complexities and possibilities of the exhibition theme itself. Here, the term “women” is as fluid as identity itself. Karnes explains that the exhibition casts a wide and representative net to include trans women or femme-identifying people.

“Having the word woman in the title could be perceived as a pigeonhole. But, on the other hand, the definition of a woman is being liberated from its binary terms. Gender, sexuality, queerness, race — and identity in general are addressed by these artists,” says Karnes.