When my sister visited last week she and I had a chance to do some of the New York City exploring I haven’t made much time for since moving to the Bronx in August. Our Big Apple adventures included a Friday evening trip to the MoMA. Although probably dulled by the effects of our largely food-based itinerary, our senses were stimulated by the array of artistic expression contained within. A couple of exhibitions in particular set the feminist wheels spinning in my mind.
We began by wandering the extensive sixth floor presentation of Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning’s works, which span over half the 20th century, employ various media, and cover several styles and themes. My sister and I were joined by a Fordham colleague, a fellow feminist theologian with a background in art history. She was especially intent to show us de Kooning’s third “Woman” series, produced in the early 1950’s. They are, I learned, an important and tensile convergence of figural representation and abstract expressionism; to some of his contemporaries, the perceptible central image in these paintings betrayed his previous and more thoroughgoing abstractionism. They are also controversial in content; de Kooning’s depictions have been variously hailed as progressively subversive and repressively misogynist. Together we puzzled over the paintings and our responses to them. Alluring? Unnerving? Angry? Grotesque? Hateful? Whatever else, somehow compelling. On the one hand, they seem to destabilize the staid genre of seated portraits; my Fordham friend and the gallery notes also helpfully pointed out some of the Marian imagery orienting this tradition. On the other hand, the bulging eyes, almost porcine nostrils, always prominent breasts, all marked in bold but meticulously considered brush strokes, connote something distressing and perhaps violent, especially to a viewer who may herself be categorized by the title of the represented figure. The MoMA’s website says this about Woman, I (1950-2):
The hulking, wild–eyed subject draws upon an amalgam of female archetypes, from Paleolithic fertility goddesses to contemporary pin–up girls. Her threatening stare and ferocious grin are heightened by de Kooning’s aggressive brushwork and frantic paint application. Combining voluptuousness and menace, Woman, I reflects the age–old cultural ambivalence between reverence for and fear of the power of the feminine.
I found it interesting that, according to the curator’s notes, de Kooning apparently modeled this series on his wife. Is “Woman,” then, a woman? All women? The aforementioned feminine? A comment on the artist’s relationship to himself? His world? His medium? And whose culture? It may be noteworthy that de Kooning’s next major phase encompassed primarily landscape paintings; what do we make of that transition, which the exhibit summarized as a seamless integration of (female) figure into (non-human) landscape? I tend to regard it with some suspicion. Likewise his Woman series. Certain paintings are a bit less arresting as I see them now on the computer screen. Yet to my mind, in the challenging energy of color, form, and texture in these works left a residual sense of the oft-noted virgin-whore dynamic – as if that binary holds the two and only two options for “woman,” which may be presented in tension or in ambivalence, but, as presented here, are never wholly contravened. Then again, there is a lot going on – all the more so when viewed within the expansive diversity of de Kooning’s artistic career.
A similar observation coincided with the subject matter of a second exhibition, “Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence,” this time from the artist’s own perspective. As I see it, the work of this Yugoslavian feminist and political activist probes and exposes the connection of the “cultural ambivalence” noted above to what is very frequently a masculine or at least male-defined phenomenon. Our tired tourist feet couldn’t carry us through the entire four-decade retrospective of her work, but they held on for a few provocative minutes in the second floor atrium. There we circled the base of Iveković’s obelisk, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, the installation we had been eyeing from above on our descending tour of the museum.
The story of this piece is fascinating. In short, several years after her proposal to move the gilded Nike – a classical female figure of victory – from atop a Luxembourg war memorial to a local domestic abuse shelter was rejected, Iveković created her own full-scale replica of the towering monument (the initial proposal and subsequent project were both part of art exhibitions). However, she made several significant changes in the piece that would stand a short distance from the original and is currently displayed at the MoMA. From the museum website:
[T]he new monument was dedicated to the Marxist philosopher and activist Rosa Luxemburg, who was executed in Germany in 1919 for her radical political ideas; Nike was turned into a visibly pregnant woman; and the original commemorative plaque honoring male heroism was replaced with texts in French, German, and English: “LA RÉSISTANCE, LA JUSTICE, LA LIBERTÉ, L’INDÉPENDENCE” (Resistance, justice, liberty, independence); “KITSCH, KULTUR, KAPITAL, KUNST” (Kitsch, culture, capital, art); and “WHORE, BITCH, MADONNA, VIRGIN.”
Interesting stuff. It’s not particularly subtle. But then neither is the practice of heroic, masculinist monumentalization that the artist is challenging.Unsurprisingly, Iveković’s installation sparked a great deal of controversy in Luxembourg and throughout Europe; newspaper clippings chronicling this coverage now accompany her original piece.
You can read the full MoMA description of Lady Rosa of Luxembourg with a short analysis of its feminist implications as well as numerous photographs here. If you can’t have the benefit of an in-person visit or, like me, cut things short in the interest of pursuing dinner, I’d also recommend poking around the museum’s internet display of the exhibition. I’ve enjoyed learning a bit about Iveković’s other work, including some of her performance pieces such as Triangle or Practice Makes a Master, as she engages facets of the interaction between gender, consumerism, militarism, memory, history, and politics in the context of socialist and post-socialist Yugoslavia. I haven’t had any luck opening what appear to be links to critical texts analyzing Lady Rosa (at the bottom of the page linked above) but the essay titles may be intriguing to those who would like to read more about this artist from someone with more qualifications than me (despite my grandiose feeling of insight into the relationship of woman and art, artist and object, etc., I have approximately zero). For more on de Kooning you could start with this NY Times review of the MoMA retrospective and the museum’s exhibition site.