Every collecting museum is the tip of its own iceberg. The art we see in the galleries is a small fraction of the collection. And since most of the art collected by museums is by men, the art we see by women is a fraction of that fraction.
Just 21 percent of the Walker’s collection is works by women. For many major U.S. art museums, that number is 13 percent.
In “Don’t let this be easy,” the new exhibition at the Walker, all 76 of the works on display in Gallery 7 (the one with the rooftop terrace) are by women. The Walker uses “womxn,” a term that includes nonbinary, gender nonconforming and trans women and women of color. Thirty artists are represented in many media: paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, videos, artists’ books. About half of the works on display have never been shown at the Walker before now.
The exhibition is also a way for the Walker to critique itself, and museums in general, for how it collects, and what it collects, and what makes a particular work or artist “collectible” and when. At what stage of a woman’s life does her work become important enough to collect? How old does she have to be? How old does the work have to be? Does it matter if the artist is a feminist, or doesn’t consider herself a feminist? Does identity influence collectability?
Conceived by Nisa Mackie, director and curator, Education and Public Programs, and co-curated with Alexandra Nicome, interpretation fellow, Education and Public Programs, “Don’t let this be easy” is smart, in your face and in tune with our times. As Mackie and Nicome created the exhibition, a process that began almost a year and a half ago, they decided to go beyond presenting “amazing work by womxn” and examine the structural barriers that exist to better representation for women.
“Women make up 80 percent of MFA grads,” Mackie said during a walk-through last week, “but represent only 3 percent of the art market.”
“We had a lot of freedom to decide what we wanted to bring out from storage,” Nicome added. “Our only restriction was space. We wanted to include more than we did! We really packed it in.”
“We wanted to highlight not only excellent works by women in our collection,” Mackie said, “but we also did a lot of research to shine a light on individuals who are either less represented, or artists who are represented in our archive library but not our permanent collection.”
Women artists working in the 1970s-90s, a large part of this exhibition, had an especially hard time being noticed. “They had nothing to lose and became even more experimental,” Mackie said. “They were making videos and writing books. These types of works, unlike paintings and sculptures, are less interesting to galleries and institutions to collect.”
As you enter the gallery, the first thing you see is a video by Howardena Pindel called “Free, White and 21.” Directly facing the camera, Pindel, who is Black, matter-of-factly describes several times in her life when she experienced racism. Then she becomes a “blond antagonist” whose responses include, “You really must be paranoid. Those things never happened to me.” Pindel’s video dates from 1980, 40 years ago.
Some of the artists with works in the show are familiar names: Yoko Ono, Cindy Sherman, Karen Finley, Jenny Holzer, Adrien Piper, Eva Hesse. Hesse is represented by a 10″ sculpture made from gauze and rubber. It arrived at the Walker in 1988 as part of an artist box, a small collection of objects by several artists that dates from 1969. (The other items in the box were by male artists including Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman. Those are not on display.)
Hesse was a pioneering Postminimalist whose works are in MOMA, the Whitney, the Met and the Tate, to name a few. The small sculpture in “Don’t let this be easy” is the only work by Hesse in the Walker’s collection.
“In the world of art history,” Mackie said, “Eva Hesse is super important. Considering the collection focus of the Walker, it’s very surprising we don’t have more works by this artist.”
Mackie commented on the role of the curator. “Unlike an encyclopedic museum [like Mia], a contemporary art collection [like the Walker] is often formed through the individual judgment of curators working there at the time. Any curator who comes to the Walker brings their own set of preexisting relationships and artists they want to champion. Nothing is ever a completely objective process.
“We’re in this moment when across America, we’re examining all of our institutional structures, whether the police force, judicial system, prison system. It’s interesting to peel back the layers and see the minutiae of decisions that inform the way things are in the world.”
Along with larger pieces – Ree Morton’s horseshoe-shaped sculpture “Terminal Clusters,” Andrea Carlson’s “Anti-Retro,” the print being used to promote the exhibition, and Kaari Upson’s “(J.O.) Dead Twin,” a fascinating and repellant silicone replica of a discarded mattress – “Don’t let this be easy” contains a number of vitrines. The glass cases display books, postcards, drawings, letters, and other small objects.
Like Carolee Schneemann’s book “Cezanne: She Was a Great Painter.” And Suzanne Lacy’s “Rape Is,” modeled after the saccharine “Happiness Is” books popular during the 1970s. And Karen Finley’s scatological “Pooh unplugged: a parody.”
Especially intriguing – and utterly inaccessible – is Huong Ngô’s “Reap the Whirlwind,” based on the narratives of concubines. It’s printed in thermal reactive ink. The only way to see it is by activating the ink with the warmth of your hands, which you can’t do.
In the fall of 2019, the Walker joined the Feminist Art Coalition, a group of nearly 100 museums committed to social justice and structural change. “Don’t let this be easy” is the Walker’s contribution.
And what about the enigmatic title? Nicome explained in an email, “I would say the title picks up on a central tension in the exhibition: It’s about resisting the urge to group artists solely on the basis of identity and the imperative to recognize harmful systems and histories that marginalize artists on the basis of identity. Rather than labeling all the artists in the exhibition feminist, or subscribing to one vision of feminism, or accepting a binary-bound definition of womxn (/women), we choose to question everything.”
Like all museums that have reopened, the Walker has limited hours, safety protocols and capacity restrictions that require timed tickets. “Don’t let this be easy” will stay up through July 4, 2021. If you visit the Walker, make it one of your stops. Be in a roomful of art by women. For now, and likely for a long time from now, that’s still a rare and precious thing.
Will it help if we preface the picks with V (for virtual) and L (for live and in person)? Let’s try it and see.
V Now at WNET’s AllArts.org: “Women Artists: Annette Messager.” The French installation artist curates a virtual exhibition of works by women artists – including Eva Hesse – whose art has been important to her work. One in a series of films about women artists by Claudia Müller. Free.
V New at MSP Film Society’s Virtual Cinema: “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and deservedly famous. FMI and tickets ($10). Sunday, Aug. 16, and Monday, Aug. 17: “Jim Crow of the North,” a TPT original documentary about why Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. Monday’s showing will be followed by a live conversation. FMI and reservations. Free.
V and L Tonight (Thursday, Aug. 13) at 6 p.m.: Jazz Fest Live presents the Sofia Kickhofel Quartet. Apple Valley teen Kickhofel made news last year when she played Carnegie Hall with the 2019 National Youth Jazz Orchestra. She’ll be live at Crooners Lakeside Café. Sign up here to save your spot for Jazz Fest’s livestream. If you’d rather be there in person, tickets are still available ($15). Doors at 5 p.m.
V Friday (Aug. 14) at 2 p.m. CST: Dan Tepfer and Cécile McLorin Salvant: “The French Songbook” livestream concert. Pianist/composer/coder Tepfer loves improvisation, Bach, and algorithms; vocalist Salvant is a four-time Grammy winner. Both studied classical and jazz; both grew up speaking native French. FMI and tickets ($5); includes access to a stream archive if you can’t do 2 p.m.
V Friday and Saturday (Aug. 14 and 15) at 7:30 p.m. or streaming on demand: “Riddle Puzzle Plot.” Park Square’s four-part episodic murder mystery ends this weekend, and kudos to playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for his twisty-turny mind and wordplay. FMI and tickets ($30). If you missed the first three episodes, you can view them all online.
V Saturday (Aug. 15) at 7:30 p.m. from Hamline’s Sundin Music Hall: Minnesota Guitar Society Concert to Benefit the Lake Street Council. Donations ($25 suggested) will help the Lake Street Council rebuild the neighborhood where George Floyd lived and died. With Jeffrey Van, Annett Richter, Robert Everest, Leslie Shank and Joseph Hagedorn. FMI and RSVP.