Show on 150 Years of Women Artists at Yale Overcomes Its Thematic Bindings

NEW HAVEN, CT — I admit a twinge of disappointment when the Yale University Art Gallery elevator opened onto a siloed view of On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale: one room of depictions of people, another room of abstract works. Separating by subject matter didn’t inspire confidence though I was eager to see a rare exhibition of artwork only by women. But the six thematic categories organizing the show almost immediately unravel and bleed into each other, and by the end, I mostly forgot they were there. I soon found myself imagining Eva Hesse, Wangechi Mutu, and Jen Davis side by side talking, instead of a floor away from each other, and daring us to join the conversation. 

View of the exhibition On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale, Yale University Art Gallery

After being postponed for a year, the show follows a number of anniversaries: graduate and undergraduate coeducation, the admission of the first cohort of Black students, and the gradual founding of centers for students of color and queer students 50 years, 25 years, and as recently as 10 years ago. More than a reason to celebrate, these markers serve as a reminder of all that still needs to change: from investing portions of its endowment in the fossil fuel industry, to its extractive relationship with the city of New Haven. It even took, well, 150 years for the gallery to focus on “the crucial role that women have played in pushing creative boundaries at Yale, and in the art world at large,” as the exhibition description reads. How could one showcase do more than scratch the surface of all that women who attended Yale have to say about art, the world, themselves?

View of the exhibition On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale, in corner, “Katrina Footprint” (2005-7) by Howardena Pindell, Yale University Art Gallery

Sarah Sze’s “Mirror with Landscape Leaning (Fragment Series)” (2015) in the “Sculpting Space and Place” room, poses a fundamental challenge to this question. When you look at artwork — a mirror amidst a landscape of furniture, string, and paint splattered directly onto the floor — you’re looking at yourself. If you’re not careful, you might even step on a pearl of hardened blue paint. Sze’s work is a provocation; she makes us become part of the work. So does Howardena Pindell, a floor away in “Casting History, Etching Memory” with a lithograph of a churning mass of color and lines. The shapes seem to move as you draw nearer, morphing from fish in a sea of orange and blue into layers of tiny arrows circling inwards. I was mesmerized. Then I saw the title: “Katrina Footprint” (2005–7). Though separated by walls, the pieces are linked in their dynamism and in their own ways, force you to ask yourself: why can’t I look away?

Sarah Sze’s “Mirror with Landscape Leaning (Fragment Series)” (2015) (photo by the author)

Elsewhere, artists play with the viewer’s expectations to trick, outsmart, and communicate multiple truths at once. Rina Banerjee wrestles watercolor into a simultaneously fluid and precise scene inDangerous World” (2010), placed in the “Threading Myth, Legend, and Ritual” section. The portrait of a family caught in turbulence captures all the contradictory risk and joy of living in a world in constant crisis. Around the corner in “Modeling Nature,” Banerjee’s linework echoes in Maya Lin’s “Silver Housatonic” (2011). The thin string of silver recalls its namesake, but looks like a border or an open wound. A room away from Lin, Maria Porges’s “Implement of Knowledge” (1992) rests on its wall mount in the “Drawing Identity” category. An axe seen from far away as menacing is actually made from a book, its blade a closed cover with bound pages inside. In these artworks, beauty and promise coexist with a sense of unease.

View of the exhibition On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale, in center, “Sentinel I” (2018) by Wangechi Mutu, on right, “Implement of Knowledge” (1992) by Maria Porges, Yale University Art Gallery

Much as there is no single “Yale woman’s perspective,” let alone “woman’s perspective,” this exhibition is just one of infinite possibilities. It could’ve been shuffled in any number of ways, generating more conversation and contradiction driven by women thinking within and beyond the institution’s walls. And I, for one, delighted in imagining those encounters that the physical gallery space allows for.

On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale continues at the Yale University Art Gallery, (1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through January 9, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Elisabeth Hodermarsky, Judy Ditner, John Stuart Gordon, Keely Orgeman, Sydney Skelton Simon, and Molleen Theodore.

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