NEW YORK — “Why have there been no great women artists?” The question was posed, picked apart and licked clean in an essay by Linda Nochlin, the great feminist art historian. First published in 1971, the essay remains a staple of art education worldwide.
In homage to Nochlin, who died last year, and as part of her quietly beautiful solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, artist Zoe Leonard has printed excerpts from “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and hung them on walls throughout the museum. Or not quite “throughout”: The texts are actually placed on walls where staff offices are visible from public areas — usually through windows or glass doors.
There is a point to this placement: institutional transparency.
Nochlin’s essay is, after all, aimed at institutions. It argues that, while there is value in seeking out female artists who have been overlooked, the effort may only highlight an unpalatable reality — that there have been no female equivalents to Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Matisse.
It is better, argued Nochlin, to understand and remedy the ways in which, “in the arts as in a hundred other areas,” things have been “stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male.”
Nochlin’s critique, in other words, is structural. The issue of women’s equality, she wrote, has little to do with the “relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women.” Rather, it depends on the “nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.”
It’s a powerful and lasting critique. But at a time when neglected female artists are being rediscovered and (justly) championed as never before, and when the crushing effects of the ill will of appalling individual men are being laid bare, it may be hard to swallow such a depersonalized view of things. Now is not the time, many would argue, for patiently picking apart ingrained structural inequities. It is time to get personal.
How does Zoe Leonard, who has been making photographs, installations and sculptures for three decades, fit into all this? Why does she want to draw our attention back to Nochlin’s critique? And what does her success (she has been the subject of museum shows around the world, including at the Museum of Modern Art and now the Whitney) say about the current state of our art institutions?
There is space — institutional space — to burn around her work in the seven capacious, light-filled galleries the Whitney has reserved for “Zoe Leonard: Survey” (through June 10). The first room, though it is vast, contains just a smattering of silver gelatin black-and-white photographs, a row of suitcases (one for each year of Leonard’s life) and a table with neat stacks of postcards of Niagara Falls on it.
Rather than seeming bombastic — like one of those bloated corporate lobbies flaunting the space its owners can afford not to use — Leonard’s airy hang has the opposite effect. It feels calming, unassertive, and it puts art in a proportionate relationship to life.
Leonard’s work is marked at every point, in fact, by a brand of humility that has nothing to do with abjection. She has a feeling for thwarted beauty — bricked-over windows, tree trunks growing through metal grates — that is keyed to silence and suffering.
Often, on the face of it, the work is unprepossessing. But in its very modesty, it keeps us tethered to the world outside — a world inhabited by both people we love and people we don’t know, people in many cases who couldn’t care less about art or “institutional critiques,” who have stories of their own to tell and are simply making the best of things, often in chronically painful or unjust circumstances.
Leonard is known for her intimate, elegiac responses to the AIDS crisis, which she lived through in New York in the 1980s and ’90s. One of the show’s most powerful pieces is “Strange Fruit,” an installation of withered and scraped-out lemons, oranges, bananas, grapefruits, and avocados scattered across the floor. The fruits have been sewn back together, sometimes subtly ornamented.
Named for Abel Meeropol’s haunting song — immortalized by Billie Holiday in 1939 — about the lynching of African Americans, the piece began as an act of mourning after the death of a friend. What eventually emerged has an eloquence that would only be undone by explanation.
A nearby gallery is lined with 40 square-format, dye-transfer color photographs showing shuttered shop fronts, discarded mattresses, handwritten signs and sundry items of used clothing for sale. As in most of Leonard’s work, people are implied, never seen.
I love these photographs. Leonard’s feeling for color — rolls of bright fabric in the window of a dun shop exterior; a television nesting in a pink cushion inside a gray wheelbarrow — is captivating.
Some of Leonard’s other work can feel underdone. She has a weakness for tired gambits of the installation genre (neat arrangements of items of the same kind, for instance) and a tendency to think that drawing the viewer’s attention to framing devices or aesthetic conventions is edgier than perhaps it is.
One of her installations, for instance, is a row of different editions, arranged in vertical piles, of a Kodak bestseller called “How to Take Good Pictures.” For a brief moment, it gets you thinking — especially since the gallery it’s in has a glass wall and a beautiful harbor view, so that everything in you wants to reach for your cellphone and take a good picture. But in the end, it doesn’t really lead anywhere (except perhaps to an academic seminar).
Still, to describe Leonard as a political artist eager to dispel “false consciousness” — to make us aware of how our view of reality is shaped by unexamined prejudices — is to overlook her true sensibility, which is tender, heartbroken, clear-thinking, persevering.
Leonard’s achievement is indubitable, and, you could say, implicitly “structural.” In the ways in which it is very good rather than self-consciously “great,” her work disarms ordinary categories of merit, evincing instead an almost spiritual hope that “the last shall be first, and the first last.”
That hope is also, of course, political. So it’s interesting that the work for which Leonard is best known is neither a photograph nor an installation but a 1992 poem called “I want a president.” Written when Leonard’s friend, the writer and activist Eileen Myles, was making a protest run at the presidency, the text subsequently took on a life of its own. Not surprisingly, it has been circulating a great deal of late.
“I want a dyke for president,” it begins. “I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance ...” And further down: “I want a president with no airconditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the dmv, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported,” and so on.
It’s a piece of writing that strikes as many plangent, heartfelt notes as righteous ones. It can be taken both literally and as a metaphor — an occasion to think about the structure of power.
When the typewritten text was enlarged and installed on New York’s High Line during the last presidential election, Leonard spoke at the launch, confessing to mixed feelings. “This is not a text I would write today,” she said. “I don’t think about identity politics in the same way. That is, I don’t think that a specific set of identifiers or specific demographic markers necessarily leads to a particular political position.”
Leonard also expressed a concern for shared civic life that transcended the interests of any single tribe. “Complex issues aren’t answered with one-liners,” she said.
In was an impressive speech. It will be interesting to see, decades down the line, where people think Leonard made her deepest contribution. They will have options aplenty to choose from.