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The Women of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing

October 3, 2009



Interior view of the new Modern Wing

As many feminist art critics—professional and amateur alike—are quick to point out, little has changed when it comes to women artists’ representation at major western art museums. Ever since the late-eighties when the Guerrilla Girls drew public attention to the lack of women artists exhibited in Modern Art section of the Met with their “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” poster, feminists have been flooding art institutions in order to conduct their own statistical surveys of numbers on the wall and numbers nude.

As a Chicago resident, I kept my own eyes peeled over the course of my first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago’s long-awaited Modern Wing. The addition, which was designed by Renzo Piano and opened May 16th, 2009, increased the museum’s size by 264,000 square feet and bumped it up to second largest art museum in the country. To be expected, “the paintings on the wall,” so to speak, neither alternated authors by gender nor included a plenitude of pieces by those of non-western origin or descent. Instead, a vast majority of the work was unsurprisingly that of well-known white male artists.

Installation shot of Kruger's "WWNBWWMTY"

Kruger's "WWNBWWMTY"

That being said, upon my second visit, I began to notice something more nuanced about the opening exhibitions. In many cases, the works by women, including Eva Hesse, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas and Joan Mitchell, did not appear as seemingly token inclusions but instead as substantive pieces given prominent positions in the new space. Kruger’s 48 by 72.5 inch We Will Not Become What We Mean to You (1983), which hangs in Gallery 291A, dominates the wall it hangs on, its words hailing the viewer upon first glance.

Hesse's "Hang Up"

Hesse's "Hang Up"

Eva Hesse’s now canonical Hang Up (1966) consumes one end of the rectangular Gallery 293B while allowing ample room for viewers to walk around and experience it from all three sides.

But, as we all know, size isn’t everything. This fact is exemplified by a work that I was immediately drawn to in the third floor 1900-1950 galleries. Hanging in Gallery 393A, Broken and Restored Multiplication (1918-1919) is a painting whose surface is composed of a paradoxically neat jumble of colorful spheres, contrasting stark industrial-looking lines and zigzagging phrases en français.

Suzanne Duchamp's "Broken and Restored Multiplication"

Suzanne Duchamp's "Broken and Restored Multiplication"

I am not 100% sure why I was drawn to this work, but my first guess is that I was caught by its use of language, having for some time now been openly fascinated by artworks and media that explore complex meaning relations through the juxtaposition of word and image. Despite being unable to read French and thus understand what was painted in stenciled letters across the complexly composed canvas, I paused before it, only glancing away after a few minutes had passed to read the accompanying wall text. What I saw there immediately shocked me out of my art-induced trance as I read—this time perfectly clearly—the name Suzanne Duchamp at the top of the placard.

Most modern art enthusiasts are familiar with the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose pieces of the 1910s and 20s spanned media and style, profoundly altering the manner in which art objects are thought about and discussed to the present day. Many consider his readymade Fountain (1917) to be the most influential work of the twentieth century, which he notoriously “made” by purchasing a standard urinal of the time, rotating it ninety degrees, signing it R. Mutt and submitting it to the Salon des Indépendants as a work of art. His Hat Rack (1916) hung in the corner just to the left of the painting in question.

Gallery 393A

Suzanne Duchamp, however, I had never heard of . Having recently read Anne Wagner’s Three Artists (Three Women):  Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe, which looks to the lives and works of three twentieth century female artists who also happened to be married to well-known male artists of their time, I immediately wondered: did Duchamp have a wife and did she paint? After conducting a quick internet search back at home, however, I learned that Suzanne Duchamp was not in fact Marcel’s wife but sister. As it turns out, the Duchamps were an artistically talented family, Marcel and Suzanne’s two older brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon being a painter/printmaker and a sculptor respectively. Suzanne, who was the youngest, created and exhibited along with the rest of them, her relation to successful male artists most likely assisting her to overcome what may have otherwise been a difficult task as a woman artist to show on such stages as the Salon des Indépendants.

Alongside the Art Institute of Chicago, Suzanne Duchamp’s work can be found in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of California San Diego; the Museum of Modern Art owns a lithograph advertisement for a joint exhibition of her and her husband Jean Crotti’s work from 1921.

In conclusion, I would like to ask readers to conduct similar searches. Rather than simply tallying up the points of male versus female artists represented in major museum collections (unfortunately we know the results for now), take the time to think about how the works by women are functioning within the exhibition at hand. Be sure to visit your favorites–as I did with Hesse’s Hang Up–but also allow yourself to engage with each work that you see. Who knows: you might just come across a woman artist missing within your personal feminist database, making it time to update your inventory.

Photographs taken by the author courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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