- Women at the Whitney, 1910–30: Feminism/Sociology/Aesthetics
In October 1994, I was invited by the Whitney Museum of American Art to develop a proposal for an exhibition in the Museum’s series “Collection in Context.” 1 The series, which began in June, 1993, with an exhibition on Edward Hopper in Paris, has consisted of shows “featuring key works in the Whitney Museum’s Permanent Collection,” with the intention “not to isolate the works exhibited, but rather to set them in two different but related contexts: first, as products of their original time and place; second, in terms of their relevance to contemporary critics and today’s audiences.” 2 The exhibitions have been conceived and organized by outside curators, scholars, and artists; they are displayed in a single room (about 40 feet by 23 feet in size) on the first floor of the Museum, typically running for about three months each. Other themes of exhibitions in the series include Gorky’s Betrothals, A Year from the Collection, circa 1952, Joseph Cornell: Cosmic Travels, and Breuer’s Whitney—Anniversary Exhibition.
My invitation encouraged me to develop a proposal that would bring feminist scholarship to the project. Since my own interests are primarily in art of the early twentieth century, I decided to focus on women artists from that period whose work was prominent in the collection when the Museum opened in November, 1931. It became clear that this would involve looking at social networks and art circles connected with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her assistant (and later the first Director of the Museum), Juliana Force, and particularly the Whitney Studio Club, which operated from 1918 to 1928. Eventually—this was rather an extended process, depending [End Page 117] on visits to New York and finding time between other commitments—I submitted a proposal in January, 1996, suggesting an exhibition of the work of some of these women artists—sixteen works, by fourteen artists. After another delay (and a change of curator at the Whitney), I arranged to go to New York and look at the works themselves. (So far, I had only been able to look at reproductions at the Museum. All the work I was interested in—and this itself is part of the story—had long been in storage in the Whitney’s warehouse in downtown Manhattan.) This visit to look at the paintings, which I did in the company of the Curator of the Permanent Collection, proved to be more or less decisive. In short, our joint assessment seemed to be that the work simply did not merit exhibition. I postponed the decision for a few months, but more or less abandoned any idea of doing this show—at least at the Whitney Museum—by early 1997.
The story of the non-materialization of the exhibition is, I think, an interesting one, and one that raises many questions. The point is that in retrospect (and actually very soon after these events) I began to question this ostensibly “aesthetic” judgement. On a couple of occasions I showed slides of the work in the context of talks I gave on the subject, and each time at least some of those present expressed real interest in the images and encouraged me to pursue the idea of an exhibition. I started to ask myself what was involved in the assessment of these paintings as uninteresting or second-rate. It occurred to me, too, that the conditions under which we had viewed the works were far from ideal—having them taken from storage and propped on the floor by a couple of the warehouse employees, all the time aware that each request meant more work for them (though they were certainly willing and helpful, and I’m sure this was a normal part of their everyday job). As a novice curator (I had only organized one other exhibition), I was also aware that I was deferring to some extent to the judgment of the Whitney curator who was with me. 3 Looking back on it, I realized that my disappointment in the work was—at least amongst other things—very much a product of my own aesthetic (modernist) prejudices...