PHILADELPHIA — March is Women’s History Month, an annual embarrassment for too many art museums. Women have worked as artists for centuries, and if one uses a liberal definition of what defines art, women have always been artists. But until the 19th century, perhaps only a dozen female artists made careers large enough to ensure that their work survived, became canonical, and could be found regularly in mainstream art collections: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster, Élizabeth Vigée-Le Brun and Anne Vallayer-Coster are among the all-too-few.
The problem today, however, isn’t a lack of women artists, it’s a lack of knowledge about women artists. Exhibitions that cover themes or movements in 20th-century and contemporary art often include women as an afterthought, despite an abundance of riches to survey. One notable exception is an exhibition that began at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year and is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “International Pop” looks at the Pop art movement not as an American or British phenomenon, but as a truly international artistic current. And women are included not as tokens, but as essential drivers of the irreverence and experimentation that made Pop so vital.
“It was a natural direction for us to take in an exhibition that was trying to expand our understanding of Pop art, and go beyond the canonical telling, which is that it was largely American and male-dominated,” says Erica F. Battle, associate curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia museum.
Pop explored everyday culture, it celebrated sex, and it repurposed and recirculated commercial imagery that was rapidly eroding traditional and stifling ideas about gender. It emerged in the years after World War II — which also had an enormous impact on gender expectations and the roles women played in society — and continued through the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Women were central to it, and this exhibition is a refreshing example of scholarship that is open to the obvious.
International Pop through May 15 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pa. philamuseum.org.
Dalila Puzzovio is an Argentine artist whose work has blurred the lines between fashion and conceptual art. “Dalila Doble Platforma” could be found in any high-end women’s boutique. These colorful, wearable shoes not only function as footwear, but also as an iconic Pop gesture: art that is both for sale, and about the idea of what it means to be “for sale.”
Marta Minujín, an Argentine artist, has mixed conceptual and performance art throughout her career. (In 1962, after a stay in Paris, she invited people to witness a bonfire of all the work she had made during that period.) “Mattress (Erotics in Technicolor)” is an impractical, but suggestive, reminder of the role desire and sex played in both her performance and made works.
Pauline Boty died of cancer at 28, but she was a founder and early leader of the British Pop movement. This untitled collage uses found images and sequins to explore habitual differences in the representation of men and women.
Evelyne Axell’s “Ice Cream” is one of the most provocative and playful works in the “International Pop” exhibition. It is colorful and innocent, yet obviously phallic, and characteristic of the Belgian artist’s sex-infused oeuvre.
Flat, but boldly colorful, these two untitled paintings by the Brazilian Pop artist Wanda Pimentel hint at some kind of sexual narrative without revealing anything specific. Pimentel was the rare female artist in Brazil to focus on gender and feminism during a period of severe political oppression and authoritarian rule.
The artist Marisol is by no means exclusively associated with Pop. But this 1963 work, “Dinner Date,” displays a Pop influence and hits many of its essential concerns, including its distinctive obsession with food and consumerism.