Women Making Art History: He Said/She Said at the Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Katherine Brodbeck still remembers the textbook from her art history class as a college undergrad: Janson’s History of Art, a weighty, encyclopedic book that has been schlepped in countless backpacks across college campuses for decades. Originally published in 1962, the “survey of the major visual arts from the dawn of history to present day” has sold millions of copies over the past 60-plus years. Of those millions, the DMA likely owns the world’s only copy with a vulva-shaped hole carved into the center.

One could perhaps call Improved Janson: A Woman on Every Page the “welcome mat” to visitors of He Said/She Said: Contemporary Women Artists Interject, on display at the DMA through July 21, 2024. The Janson piece is the handiwork of Dallas artist Kaleta A. Doolin, who has literally (and metaphorically) carved out a place for women artists in Janson’s nearly 800-page book, which happens to contain no works by female artists.

“Kaleta has done a clever repurposing of the textbook, so that there’s a woman on every page,” Brodbeck says with a grin, noting that the only presence of women within the book are mostly in nude paintings. “It makes you think about what women actually make art history.”

The DMA has been earnest and intentional in its efforts to acquire works by women and people of color over the past seven years and the current exhibition reflects that. Brodbeck began noticing comparisons between the works by women in the contemporary collection and some of the predominantly male artists they were referencing. “It kind of expanded from there,” she says, explaining the initial inspiration for He Said/She Said. “It does feature a lot of these recent acquisitions, many from emerging artists—but also some from pioneering feminist artists that just recently came into our collection.”

Brodbeck chose to organize the display of 51 works in thematic sections representing 46 artists (including 14 men) in a way that suggests each piece is in an open dialogue with the others. Near the provocative Doolin piece is Carolee Schneemann’s Up to and Including Her Limits, created by the artist while suspended nude in a harness as she scribbled on large pieces of paper with crayons. (Sidebar: Actress Julianne Moore used Schneemann as one of her muses when creating her character of Maude Lebowski in The Big Lebowski.) The Schneemann work is juxtaposed with pieces from the DMA’s permanent collection, including Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral, an abstract “drip” style painting on canvas.

The Women and Appropriation section pairs playfulness with meatier subjects, such as the portrayal of women in mass media and as objects of sexual desire. Postmodernist works by women from the 1970s to 90s are represented here, including Pledge, Will, Vow, a thought-provoking video installation by American artist Barbara Kruger. In the center of the space is an installation by Sherrie Levine, an artist known for recreating masterwork paintings by male artists. After Man Ray (La Fortune):6 is Levine’s response to a 1938 work by surrealist American artist Man Ray.

Black Female Subjectivity addresses the issue of underrepresentation of Black women artists and includes pieces by younger artists working today. “There’s a great juxtaposition between a work by Lauren Halsey, who’s a young artist from South Central Los Angeles, who did this stack of rectangular boxes that reference the signs you would see in South Central L.A.,” Brodbeck says. “And she’s referencing in part, Donald Judd, who is an American minimalist who made these rectangular boxes famous in the 60s and 70s in New York. She’s reappropriating that language, but also kind of broadening the story by showcasing how you can find it in the urban environment where she’s from in L.A.”  The section also includes the DMA’s recently acquired photos by Lorraine Grady, an artist often celebrated for creating alternative spaces for women of color to share their art.

The Women and Surrealism portion of He Said/She Said contains more works by younger, emerging female artists who are fearless in exploring topics of gender and sex. Most conspicuous in this whimsical corner is Olivia Erlanger’s Pergusa, which presents an industrial washing machine with a mermaid tail sticking out of the opening. Quirky and comical upon first glance, there’s a deeper symbolism in the pairing of two tropes.

“The first idea is the siren in mythology or art history, where the woman is kind of this seductress,” Brodbeck explains. “Even the figure of the mermaid is really based on this kind of seductive, mythical creature who’s luring men and sailors from their safe ships to the rocky shores and ultimately to their death.” Brodbeck goes on to add that Erlanger’s concept of the piece was born while spending much of her time doing her laundry at laundromats in New York “and thinking about how this is really a space that’s both kind of gendered, as women are often sold appliances and told that they have to take care of the home.”

Friendships and Collaborations is the fourth and final section, ending the exhibition in an optimistic tone by recognizing the spirit of camaraderie between male and female artists. “Even though a lot of these artists are kind of necessarily critical of how exclusionary the canon has been towards women, they also do take great inspiration from the work of great male artists,” Brodbeck says.

She chose works by artists who are friends, family members, and spouses who worked together as teams in making art. Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola pays homage to German artist Sigmar Polke in Cracked Screen, using female contemporary Lynette Yiadom-Boakye as the subject, who is admiring a work by Polke. “So I think that, too, is important for us to remember—that artists take inspiration from everywhere and they don’t just take inspirations from their particular geographic or national origins,” Brodbeck says.

Conversations centered on subjects of sexism, gender, and race can be complicated and even polarizing, which is why addressing them through art can often convey more on canvas than through words. Despite the gravity of the overarching theme of He Said/She Said, Brodbeck says she also wanted to bring a sense of levity to the experience. “I think there’s a lot of playful works in the show (so) that even if you’re not interested in issues of gender, I think that it’s really kind of eye-opening about the diversity of works—and especially the works by younger artists who are making you look at art in different ways. I’m hoping that people have a good time with it (and) that it’s not necessarily preachy, but that it works on both levels.”