Progress is a suspect word when applied to art.
But not always. In 1995, the painter Elizabeth Murray organized a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. She chose a hundred or so pieces by 70 artists, and sardined them into tight quarters off the lobby. The artists she picked had one thing in common: They were all women. The show, "Modern Women," was a MoMA first.
Now, 15 years later and nearly three years after Murray died, the museum's gender demographics have changed significantly. There are two permanent collection shows devoted almost entirely to female artists: "Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography" and the smaller "Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now."
They coincide with the publication of a big book of essays, several years in the making: "Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art."
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Add a handful of single works by women strategically installed through the premises - a Louise Bourgeois sculpture introduces the grand sweep of European modernism on the fourth floor; one of Lee Lozano's hammerhead paintings commands the fourth-floor public space - and the curatorial rethinking sparked by Murray's show becomes clear.
MoMA's photography collection has always been strong in female artists, sufficiently strong for "Pictures by Women" to almost live up to the sweeping promise of its title.
The show - 200 works by 120 artists - starts with a botanical print by the British photographer Anna Atkins from around 1850, when photography barely had a history, it was still so new. Because the curators have ordered the exhibition by date, we get a solid dose of late Victoriana in the opening room, with pictures by Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Kasebier.
Cameron was British; Kasebier American. Both were partial to mother-and-child tableaux, with Kasebier taking time out for some dejeuner-sur-l'herbe high jinks. First extolled and then disparaged by the almighty Alfred Stieglitz, Kasebier, who photographed for a living (Cameron didn't need to), knew something about the vagaries of career politics, which were entangled with gender politics.
In much of this early photography, we see the world through a kind of romantic humidity, a softening haze suggesting innocence of vision.
But in the new century, the haze lifted; the focus grew razor sharp, as it is in Tina Modotti's still life of bullets; in Ilse Bing's funny, furtive doppelganger self-portrait; and in Margaret Bourke-White's pictures of blast furnaces in Detroit. They look like industrial power-portraits.