On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale, a Reflection

Designed by Cleo Maloney

On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale is a new exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery that features work by women who studied at Yale. Though the scope of the show seems narrow, the work itself varies tremendously.

In the first room, which focuses on the theme of portraiture, Mary Foote’s Mabel Doge (1913-14) and Josephine Miles Lewis’ In the Orchard (1922) are placed directly across from Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s The Rest of Her Remains (2010). The first two portraits, both oil paintings with delicate brushwork, depict white women in formal dress sitting in an upright position. In Akunyili’s self-portrait, she lies down on a bed, seemingly unaware that a portrait is being taken. She is surrounded by collages of images from her personal past and her Nigerian heritage. The works, set opposite each other, seem to come from different worlds. And yet, there is some throughline. The bright green of Mabel’s shawl and the dappled light green of the lawn behind the woman in Lewis’s portrait pick up the soft blue-green walls of Akunyili’s bedroom. And, perhaps more significantly, all of the works are women’s depiction of women. Mabel stares straight ahead, as though she is looking across the gallery to Akunyili, looking ahead to a future of women’s portraiture.

A couple of rooms over, a work by Marie Watt made from reclaimed wool blankets, embroidery, and floss is positioned across from a series of etchings by Wangechi Mutu. Next to them is a silver and mahogany seder plate designed by Amy Klein Reichert. Even within that small space, a rich variety of mediums and stories are on display.

Yet, leaving the exhibit after my first visit, I noticed a twinge of disappointment. Each of the six rooms are arranged by theme, which brings works of varied time periods and mediums together in dialogue, but does little to provide historical context. I wanted more information about the Yale School of Art, and more information about women’s experience there. I wanted to hear directly from the artists about their time at Yale, about what they learned from their professors and classmates, and about if and how they think that their gender impacts their work.

But that information wasn’t on the walls. If it weren’t for the initial introductory wall text, I’m not sure that I would have known that the exhibit only featured women who had trained at Yale, or even that the exhibit was only composed of women artists.

When I returned to the show, I paused to look at the exhibition catalogue, and found much of the information that I was looking for stored there. The catalogue documents the history of the art school and its female students, including timelines of when each artist was at Yale. However, it is tucked against the wall next to the entrance, and there’s only one, so just one person can view it at a time. It’s an addition to the show, rather than an integral part of it. The catalogue clearly required much research and thought—I would’ve liked to have seen more of its findings up on the walls, or integrated into the design of the show.

Elisabeth Hodemarsky, the lead curator, writes in the exhibition catalogue that the exhibit provides an opportunity not only for observance, but for “deep institutional reckoning.” Putting together the show included examining which artists’ stories are told by Yale’s collection, and which are not. She notes that for each woman represented, there are dozens more who are not, but should be. Walking through the exhibit, I got very little sense of how representative the works on view were, and where the gaps referred to lie. I would’ve appreciated more context that put the works on view in relation to one another, and that illuminated which voices are missing from Yale’s collection.

I found more of what I had initially felt to be missing when I listened to the audio tour. Finally, I heard from the artists themselves. In front of her portrait of a bright-eyed Sister Mary Margaret, Ellen Carley McNally tells us about her room at the faculty club where she held a work-study job, that was “so tiny I had to cut off the top of my easel to fit in.” She remembers her time at Yale fondly, describing her memories of walking “across the Green, past the church, every morning—and just being so happy I was in art school and going to Yale. Then walking up the wooden steps and getting ready to paint for the day. That was heavenly, yes.” I know the Green, I know that church! Suddenly I could imagine her there, even all those years ago.

On another stop of the tour, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, an artist known for her depictions of interiors and landscapes, recollects seeing Eva Hesse (a pioneering post-minimalist sculptor whose work is also on view) reading, surrounded by works in progress, and how this prompted a realization that she could do the same. She remembers that Josef Albers, an influential art theorist and professor at the art school, told her to only tell one story at a time. She further recalls  that Sumner McKnight Crosby, an art history professor whose career focused on just one medieval church, taught her that you can spend your whole life exploring one subject, continuously finding new ways to look at the same thing. Hearing about the interactions that happened at the art school and about what stands out in the memory of these artists brings their worlds to life and sheds new light on their artistic practices.

The narrators of the audio tour were all women students at the Yale School of Drama. I found this simple element surprisingly touching. It gets at what I think is the greatest victory of this show—it is a massive work of collaboration by and for so many smart, insightful, creative women. The list of acknowledgements and contributors is humbling; so many women have devoted time and thought to this project. It holds up what they have made and imagined to be seen and honored, and that should not be taken for granted. 150 years—only 50 for undergraduates—is not long at all. The show provokes a critical examination of Yale and its collection, but its existence is a cause for celebration.

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