As I sit here in my apartment listening to the pigeons flapping on the balcony, I feel a sense of excitement, hot like a secret, fluttering in my stomach. Why (you might ask)? The girls, the chicks – the elles – are just a stone's throw away at the Centre Pompidou...and what a gang of girls they are!
After Big Bang (2005) and Le Mouvement des images (2006), the Centre Pompidou has undertaken its third re-presentation of their permanent collection, entitled elles@centrepompidou. The forward in the catalogue by Alain Seban, President of the Centre Pompidou, states: "the Centre Pompidou has made the unprecedented and radical choice to focus on the female artists in its collection and thus to present one of the most important exhibitions ever dedicated to women artists in our time."
Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Spring Bank, 1974, Acrylic on cnavas, Photo: Jacqueline Hyde. Courtesy of Centre Pompidou. ©2009 Helen Frankenthaler.
The elles collection actually begins on the 5th floor with “Pioneering Women,” a selection of female artists working through the early-mid 20th century (don't miss the Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler pieces).
Then, the entire 4th floor of the museum is given over to work by female artists from the 1960's onward. The work is grouped into six uber themes: Fire at Will, The Body Slogan, Eccentric Abstraction, A Room of One’s Own, Words at Work, Immaterials. Albeit a huge undertaking, and certainly one that could have veered in many directions, the very fact that this grand grouping of female artists exists - all talking and working and sighing and inviting us through their vision, labor, failures and successes to experience their world - is certainly an occurrence that deserves notice.
"Feminist" exhibits are not new. There have been a number of huge feminist exhibitions in recent years, notably Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution curated for MOCA, Los Angeles, by Connie Butler; and Global Feminisms, co-curated by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin for the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. These shows have presented extensive groupings of work by female artists, as well as made the case for the importance of the female contribution to 20th century artistic production. But these exhibits still present female artists as a closed paradigm bordered by the label of 'feminism.' It is as if work by women flows in a slipstream, the vacuum left by all of the other art produced (by males) in the 20th century. Work by female artists is an interesting sideline, perhaps a sort of smaller parallel universe, and definitely deserving of a room of one’s own, but not really more than that.
What has happened at the Pompidou is a subtle but significant shift in perspective: rather than curating an exhibit of work by women as a bounded moment in the history of 20th century art, the museum has rewritten their 20th century discourse from a woman's point of view, the female perspective. As a result of this decision, She (rather than He) becomes the dominant. Imagine the uninitiated viewer who happens by the museum to peruse the permanent collection and finds only female artists. Consider the young viewer, whose taste is just being formed, that has now experienced 20th century art from this vantage point. These possibilities make for a radical departure from that which was.
At this point, I find it necessary to recount some of the names that one finds in this tour: Hannah Hoch, Joan Mitchell, Rebecca Horn, Rosemarie Trockel, Marlene Dumas, Cindy Sherman, Valie Export, Jenny Holzer, Annette Messager, Shirin Neshat, Jana Sterbak, Rineke Dijkstra, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Carolee Schneemann, Toba Khedoori, Ghada Amer, Nan Goldin, Ana Mendieta, Roni Horn, Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama, Eva Hesse, Tatiana Trouve, Sophie Calle, Piplotti Rist, Moriko Mori, Martha Rosler…I can’t stop writing! There is something incredibly momentous in being able to list all of these names, these women, as the big names in 20th-century art. I plan many visits to stand before these mavens of madness and mayhem, melody and mysticism. It is a heady brew.
Investigating any permanent collection takes time and exposure. This installation, especially, deserves repeated visits. While I am certain to see many of these pieces again in the future, after this hanging I doubt I will see them all together again. On my last stop at the Pompidou, just a few days ago, I spent time with two of my favorite gals: Ana Mendieta and Louise Bourgeois. Located together in the Eccentric Abstraction section, they are immediately paired by the imprint of their blood-red hands all over their work.
Image: Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Body Tracks), 1974, Lifetime color photograph. Â©Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York. Note: this work is similar to, but not the exact video on display at Centre Pompidou.
Standing and watching Ana Mendieta’s Body Trace (Blood Sign #2), 1974, is like an immersion into some sort of neo-ritualistic performative documentary. It is an approximately 1-minute silent video of her dragging paint-smeared arms and hands down a wall. She did numerous such performances during the mid-1970's.
I am captivated by the downward pull of her body as she forms two graceful, red curves on the wall. I notice how her back is to us with her arms stretched upward against that wall, bringing forth flashes of firing squads or wailing walls, yogic contortions or some other kind of body work. Ana seems engrossed in her own world, concentrated on her task. She allows us to participate only as distant voyeurs or onlookers, from behind. There is no forward-facing engagement or confrontation with the viewer. Mendieta goes from the full-standing position, arms upwardly reaching, to the final supplication in which she bows on bended knees towards some unknown power.
Image: Ana Mendieta, Blood Signs, @ estate of Ana Mendieta
During her move down the wall, her derriere pushes out towards us, drawing our attention to the sweep of the buttocks as her arms and hands seem to echo this curvature on the wall. I am profoundly entranced and wonder how innocent this pushing of her butt towards us actually is – for a split second I feel manipulated and seduced by her erotic exhibition. I marvel at the final seconds of her performance where she bows and finishes the strokes of her red curves. This position has eradicated the eroticism and brought us to a place of stillness.
It is only in the final seconds of the video, when she stands and walks off her “stage,” that we see her face, experience her frontally. How young she is. Beautiful but not glamorous. She does not make eye contact with us, gives no indication that she wants to linger and enage, or confront and outrage. Her work is done and she exits quickly and anonymously. This is not a drama of personality or idea; it is a performative action.
With Schneemann or Abramovic or Sherman we are drawn into a face-to-face confrontation with the female power. Shocking, disgusting, mesmerizing, we shift uncomfortably under the heat of their gaze, the force of their anger or defiance or longing. With Mendieta we intuit the power that she channels; it is a power generated by the body. Mendieta uses the body as the creative instrument, not an overt weapon of difference. She yields a far deeper source at play, not altogether human but something older and more primal. Her body is not so much a field upon which identity has been projected; rather it is the source of creative power which is eternal. Through simple, subtle actions, Mendieta deconstructs the monumentalism of the Abstract Expressionist or Minimalist (male) artist and produces a body of work that shifts another kind of power into the female silhouette.
After Mendieta leaves the video frame, we are left observing the two red curves. How these strokes hold the "canvas," utterly abstract but resonating with the body both in their form and in their allusion – breast, butt, hips, belly, blood – these red curves are essentially feminine. They speak of birth and death and fertility, and they hold the canvas upon which they are inscribed with authority. She has laid claim to that moment in which woman becomes creator.
Image: Louise Bourgeois, Extreme Tension, 2007, set of 11 panels, graphite, pencil on paper and prints highlighted by watercolor; Courtesy of centre pompidou.
Moving across the hall we enter a room that includes work by Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Silvia Bachli, Lygia Clark, Yayoi Kusama, Alina Szapocznikow and Lee Bontecou. Immediately I am drawn to Extreme Tension (2007) by Louise Bourgeois. Encompassing a set of 11 panels, this piece catalogues Bourgeois’ investigation of her body.
The first panel shows two sets of upward reaching red arms and hands, elongated and stretching. It is such a mirror of the Mendieta arms and hands that I am at first confused and think perhaps this is a related piece. Written in faint pencil between the two sets of arms are the words “Extreme Tension.” (I laugh to myself as an image of ET’s long finger reaching out to touch comes to mind.) I notice the date of 2007 and at once realize that these are quite p;ossibly Bourgeois' own arms and hands at the age of 96 - no wonder the spindly appearance. Despite the title, there is gentleness in these red arms and hands, a childlike naiveté found in the drawing. It is intimate and touching. I move around the other panels reading the text and looking at the simple drawings that go with them. The tension lies in the words, not the very fragile imagery. As I follow Louise's exploration, I mentally explore my body. I connect to my own extreme tension.
Like Mendieta, Bourgeois has managed to produce work with an essential strength despite the tenuous and ephemeral quality of her imagery. Both artists are profound examples of 'less is more;' both are masters at holding visual and conceptual space with ease and subtle finesse. Is it the simplicity of their works that makes them so memorable? I have to say No. What imbues both of these pieces with an unforgettable poignancy seems to be the body that stands (so to speak) behind them – that is the locus of their power.
Elles@centre pompidou will hold center court until sometime in 2010. It is a must-do, again and again.
-- Georgia Fee
(Top image: Valie Export, Aktionshose:Genitalpanik, 1969; All images courtesy of their rightful owners)