Seattle Art Museum took down its paintings and sculptures by Warhol, Pollock, Gorky, Kiefer, Smith, Judd, Chihuly, Rauschenberg, Johns, Morris, Flavin, and many more artists and carted them off to storage. Not a single male artist from the modern and contemporary period remains on the walls at SAM. In their place? Krasner, Mitchell, O'Keeffe, Frankenthaler, Holzer, Piper, Rist, Kusama, Haven, Hesse, Murray, Amer. All women. Don't know their names? You should and will and can, the museum is saying.
The transformation is called Elles: SAM—Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists, and it will last through January 13. One floor up, there's also Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris, more than 130 photographs, videos, sculptures, paintings, and installations made by 75 women artists between 1907 and 2007. No other American museum will get this show. And neither SAM nor Seattle intend to squander this moment—this show from Paris has occasioned the only time since its founding in 1933 that the museum has ever done anything like this.
Elles-related events are everywhere in the next three months—at the museum, local galleries, college art departments. To even try to do half of it would be impossible; just looking at the upcoming schedule brings new meaning to the phrase "women trying to have it all." Feminist legend Eleanor Antin is coming to SAM to perform from her fantastic quasi-historical memoir Conversations with Stalin. At UW's usually sleepy Jacob Lawrence Gallery, 31 local artists, writers, and an MD are leading events under the title Soft Power, Activated, on subjects including intimacy, trick films, vaginas, zombies, science, Snow White, rage, and letter-writing (I am one of the 31). At SAM's opening night last week, Christa Bell—a local performer unafraid to shout "Hiphop hates women!" on the radio—rattled off 1,001 Holy Names for Coochie while wearing the satin robes of a priestess in a boardroom in the bowels of the museum.
In every room in the galleries, there's something that could be life-changing. Potent visions by early abstractionists like Alexandra Exter and Sonia Delaunay. Suzanne Valadon's "whatever"-faced 1923 Olympia, 60 years after Manet, wearing striped pajamas and sucking a cigarette. The eyeless gaze of the father over the frighteningly budding teenage daughter in Dorothea Tanning's surrealist conscience. A swarm of grotesquely smooth shapes that look like breasts, penises, and aliens, sculpted in polite white marble by Louise Bourgeois. The hilarious, insidious good manners of Andrea Fraser acting as a well-heeled docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Heartbeat, a slide show in a dark room to a soundtrack by Björk of 245 portraits of four couples in their most intimate moments—of course, by Nan Goldin ("To all the couples I've lost, 1981–2001").
Elles: Pompidou is not a greatest hits, or an authoritative feminist chronology like 2007's mega-show WACK!, which came to the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia. It's arranged by theme, it reflects an emphasis on French and European artists, and it feels as scattershot as a museum collection often does. Museums are intended to tell histories, but usually their acquisitions habits are far from systematic, relying on everything from money to availability to the whims, habits, and biases of curators (and in the United States, where nearly all museums are private, trustees). The SAM version of Elles is also about one-sixth the size of what was shown in Paris. Even much reduced, this stuff is a thrill to see. The gum that Hannah Wilke asked her audience to chew before she formed each piece into a little fortune cookie shape and stuck it to her naked body. Her striptease viewed through Marcel Duchamp's abstracting Large Glass. The lightbulb dress—it lights up!—that Atsuko Tanaka wore in the 1950s (it's a wonder she didn't burn down). The streaky watercolor of a girl stooping to piss by Marlene Dumas. Marina Abramovic punishing herself with a hairbrush. Cindy Sherman: monster. Zoe Leonard's photos of the real decapitated head of a bearded lady stuck in a bell jar at the Museé Orfila in Paris. A young Martha Rosler knifing the air of her kitchen. You do not come away with a description—or even a handful of categories—of what women's art is. It is tremendously varied. Which is exactly right. (One note: Why is there a large Sophie Calle piece in French, when understanding the confessional artist's work relies entirely on you reading it? She's done plenty of work in English. Waste of space and a great artist.)
Meanwhile, down on the third floor, where SAM let "women take over," according to marketing materials, there are some pretty spectacular moments, too. An entire show-within-a-show devoted to the Japanese-born artist Yayoi Kusama (little-known fact: Her first solo show was in Seattle, at Zoe Dusanne's gallery) is an eye-burning, creepy-crawling, obsessive knockout. Just a straight-up gift. Another one: Noticing that the spot on the wall where Jackson Pollock's Sea Change normally hangs is now filled by Egyptian-born artist Ghada Amer's streaky painting overlaid with rows of sewn figures taken from porn that are only detectable up close. From across the room, porn and Pollock are the same thing. Nearby is Adrian Piper's important invitation to social change, Cornered, in which she reminds viewers that most white people in this country aren't white after all, and asks: Are you? Victoria Haven has turned another gallery into a site-specific meditation on land use.
But underneath all this celebration of art by women, there are some unnerving facts—and lots and lots of big questions.
To start simply: What does it mean to stuff the concerns of half the population into one-quarter of one year? There's the distinct feeling that we'd better get all the girl business out of the way right now, or else we will miss our chance. SAM, which is run almost entirely by female administrators, has good intentions. But you know what they say about those.
Last week at the Elles press preview, Seattle Art Museum chairman Charlie Wright was standing at the podium. He explained that it was the way that Paris went "all-in" that was so inspiring. He was referring to, first, the fact that for 18 months in 2009 and 2010, the land of Picasso became Elles only. It was more than just a regional museum that turned itself over to women—it was the Pompidou, the French national museum of modern and contemporary art. But what happened behind the scenes was even more all-in. The Pompidou used the landmark all-women show to acknowledge and begin to correct its own institutional flaws.
The Pompidou's collection of art from the last century is the biggest and best in Europe. Certainly, if the Pompidou wanted to call around and borrow a bunch of art by women to fill in the gaps in its collection to put on a facade of gender parity, it could have done that. Instead, it bought art by women to fill gaps before putting on Elles. Where it could not buy, it left gaps exposed—for all to see—by focusing viewers on gender. This is the best of what we have by all the women who've made art in the last century, the museum said. Take a look and see what you think. And the Pompidou—the French national museum—adopted an official policy to buy and show more art by women. France, essentially, declared gender affirmative action in art.
This is not a feminist revolution, but it is about revolution, Pompidou president Alain Seban explained last week at the preview. It's an admission of a failure of the French Revolution, so similar to the American: Given those revolutionaries' claims to universal human rights, why are liberal Western societies still struggling to achieve parity across societal systems, art being one? Elles at SAM is not just an art exhibition—it's an election-season test of the same kinds of values being debated in every branch of government this year, from the Supreme Court to Washington equal-rights initiatives. The central question is local to Seattle but worldwide, too. When the conditions on the ground don't match the values in the air, what are you gonna do about it?
Go all-in, is Seattle Art Museum's response.
But what does "all-in" at SAM mean? At the Pompidou, it meant increasing the concrete, long-term commitment to female artists—buying and showing them more from here on out. At SAM, yes, Elles is making noise right now, and SAM has allowed "women [to] take over." But after Elles, what are you gonna do about it?
Even on the surface, SAM's approach has to be called out. Who decided, and why, to use Rineke Dijkstra's photograph of a pretty, bikini-clad teenage girl on a beach as the exhibition's pamphlet cover? When the museum's restaurant, TASTE, trumpeted that women chefs and bartenders are "Taking over the Kitchen and Bar," why did that actually mean a menu by the usual two male chefs? One lucky female sous chef has been allowed to develop some new "bites" for the catering menu. One female bartender created a drink.
Why are the ad banners on the street on a first-name basis with the artists? "GEORGIA." Got it: O'Keeffe. But "VICTORIA"? As the mall lingerie store once asked in an ad campaign, "Who Is Victoria?"
Even if you write this stuff off as minor—which you should not, as this is the public face of the exhibition—there is also a profoundly real difference between Elles: Pompidou and Elles: SAM. The difference is that while the Parisian show was entirely made up of art from the Parisian museum's own collection, SAM's "transformation" is almost entirely made up of art borrowed from somewhere else. Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris used the word "from" intentionally. The fact is that SAM, with its puny acquisitions budget and its catch-as-catch-can collecting habits, does not own anywhere near enough art by women to create its own version of Elles. Will it ever?
Museums on the East Coast and in Chicago, private collectors, and dealers in New York are where Elles: SAM came from, and where these works will return to unless something happens in the meantime. The eye-burning, creepy-crawling, obsessive Kusama show? It leans heavily on loans from New York powerhouse Gagosian Gallery. That art will disappear as quickly as it arrived. Or will a trustee or angel step up to buy any of these pieces for Seattle? Kusama would have made a far more interesting and relevant investment for Seattle than SAM's trademark flying cars by Cai Guo-Qiang; will a focus on women (and in this case, women of color) steer those kinds of boardroom decisions in SAM's future? Will SAM buy anything by the Seattle artist Victoria Haven—or will it just show this handful of pieces for a few months and then ship them back to her closets? The fact is that SAM has virtually no collecting budget. Acquiring new art—meaning supporting artists, whether male or female—isn't an institutional priority.
Back to the press preview, and this notion of takeover.
"Out of this commitment came a tagline," chairman Wright continued. He pointed to a tagline on the PowerPoint slide next to him. The lowercase words "women take over" were printed inside a white box at a slight slant, as though they'd been officially stamped there. (Women take over in lowercase letters.) There was an awkward moment: Wright, the scion of Seattle's modern-art collecting family, said, yes, he is a man, and he laughed likably and self-deprecatingly. He added that maybe a woman reading this tagline might feel conflicted. When a female SAM administrator took the podium after him, she told the audience with a big smile that she did not feel conflicted one bit. All of which served to highlight, rather than efface, the simple fact that nobody who is taking over makes an announcement. This planned, temporary "takeover" merely makes the secondary status of women artists at SAM official and acknowledged—and after that, anything or nothing could happen next. The easiest default would be a return to the very male-dominated status quo.
What will this have meant 30 years from now? Remember when SAM opened its new building, and in honor of a piece of new architecture, a billion dollars of art came into the museum's collection? I never thought I'd say it, but: Women—less sexy than architecture? Will anything change here, or will Elles just be a nice big party—everything in the art world is a festival lately—and we'll all wake up hungover with vague recollections of coochie nicknames dancing in our heads (tutu, twat, Twatlantic Ocean, tweet-tweet...)?
SAM badly needs more art by women. One day this spring, before the "takeover," I walked through the museum and took a survey of the gender breakdown in the modern and contemporary wing. The pop art area at the top of the escalator with Double Elvis, the Rauschenbergs, et cetera: 10 male and 2 female artists. Art of the 1950s (Pollock, et al.): 10 men, 1 woman. Art of the 1960s and '70s (minimalism): 10 men, 2 women. Photography: 13 men, 4 women. The art of today (the majestic double-height gallery with the big dog-tag sculpture by Do Ho Suh): 10 men, 3 women.
To give credit where it's due, SAM didn't have to organize any of this. It could have left identity alone and put something pretty on its walls. Or it could have just taken the headline-grabbing French Elles and left its own collection intact. The museum is opening itself up to critique here. There is real energy behind change on some level at SAM. And it's absolutely right to raise questions about representation in the museum's collection—women are just the tip of the identity iceberg.
But institutional change is overdue. It would be tragic to give life to these questions in the galleries for three months, then kill them behind the scenes. What comes next is what to watch.