Like most interesting collectors, Linda Lee Alter was driven by passion when she began collecting art in the 1980s. Unlike most collectors, however, Alter distinguished her collection by endowing it with a social-justice mission: She saw it as a wholesale corrective to the woeful under-representation of female artists in museums and galleries. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts became the beneficiary of Alter’s vision when she gifted the academy nearly 500 works by artists that she hoped everyone would get a chance to see. Now, with the opening of The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World, Alter’s wish has come true, and we all get a chance to gaze back.
The Female Gaze marks the public’s first opportunity to ogle a selection of more than 200 artworks from the Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women. The show is immense, spanning the entire first floor of the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building and extending to an upstairs gallery dedicated to a selection of prints. In short, it’s the mother lode, a theme borne out quite literally throughout much of the work on view. Indeed, Alice Neel’s gorgeous, minty-green portrait Claudia Bach Pregnant (1975) forms the locus of a network of motherhood-themed pieces, including Anne Agee’s Birthing Class (2001) and Katy Schneider’s Self-Portrait with Olive and Mae (1997) in the same gallery.
Robert Cozzolino, PAFA’s senior curator and curator of modern art, has divided the exhibition thematically, with galleries themed “Self-Portraiture,” “Self-Hood and Community,” “Politics” and “Nature and Ecology.” “Politics” is undeniably strong, with colorful craft-meets-public complaint contributions by Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Elaine Reichek and Judy Chicago; “Ecology” is weaker, mostly due to its near total separation from any sort of politics at all. It’s a little startling to see only one or two references to nature as anything other than an eternal garden of plenty. The landscape is changing, but aside from small paintings by Helen Miranda Wilson and Mala Iqbal—which tackle themes of waste and pollution—you’d never know it.
In fact, the exhibition categories not only help to highlight the ways in which the collection addresses the historical (and continuing) omission of work by women (and craftsmen or outsider artists, for that matter) in museums, but they also serve to reveal some intriguing gaps in the collection itself. The art on view is almost exclusively figurative. Works by Edna Andrade, Alice Oh, Anna Williams and Neysa Grassi constitute some of the very few instances of abstraction. Another conspicuous absence is that of photography—there is a single photograph from Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series—and film or video. These are curious omissions, since Alter seems to have otherwise relished a certain degree of promiscuity between media.
However, this is by no means a criticism—what Alter likes, you see; what she doesn’t, you don’t. After all, it’s her collection. PAFA has made a great effort to keep this effect intact. Universally-recognized stars are shown next to relative unknowns. This is a fortunate approach, since some B-list works show major upward mobility. For example, you might head upstairs for the Louise Bourgeois prints but find yourself lingering over Arlene Love’s sado-masochistic fantasies.
Particularly gratifying in Cozzolino’s curatorial approach is the veneration he shows for long-term relationships. The exhibition documents numerous instances of Alter’s commitment to certain artists over time. These early allegiances often yield rarely seen pieces, such as a painting by Judith Schaechter or a series of etched glass jars by Kara Walker. Perhaps in a similar way, Philadelphia can now look forward to a long engagement with the artists in Alter’s collection. And who’s to say how such a relationship might evolve? n
Through April 7. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St. 215.972.2060. pafa.org
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