“Service de Luxe (detail),” by Cecily Brown, 1999
“Service de Luxe (detail),” by Cecily Brown, 1999

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One of the pleasures of viewing a private collection of contemporary art is discovering—or imagining—the circumstances that led to an artwork’s purchase. Unconstrained by institutional directives or a board of trustees, private collectors might buy a work on first glance or before it’s even completed. The result is often a fresh and eclectic assemblage, with some works satisfying an owner’s aesthetic whims and others staking a claim to the art historical canon. So it is with the Rubell Family Collection, one of the world’s largest private collections of contemporary art and the subject of No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection, an invigorating if uneven exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Originally conceived for Art Basel Miami Beach, where it filled Don and Mera Rubells’ 45,000-square-foot exhibition space with a rotating cast of over 130 works, No Man’s Land has been pared down to a more manageable 59 works by 37 artists from around the world. It juxtaposes newish works by art-world heavy hitters, like Yayoi Kusama, Marlene Dumas, and Isa Genzken, with compelling pieces by a younger generation of artists that includes L.A.-based painter Jennifer Guidi and Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman.

D.C. residents in particular should take note: After several years of delays, the Rubell family, who purchased the Capitol Skyline Hotel in Southwest in 2002, is poised to break ground on its other property in the neighborhood, the historic Randall School building, which will be repurposed as a mixed-use complex and satellite museum for their collection. No Man’s Land features one work by a D.C. native, a contemporary play on Japanese Ukiyo-e printing by the artist Rozeal. It’s unclear, though, how much of a role local artists will play in the new museum.

The exhibition is divided into “Body” and “Process,” themes fluid and open-ended enough to make one question whether they’re necessary at all. (How much art doesn’t engage the body or entail a process?) Many women artists, though, especially those who came of age in the early 1970s, when critics began turning the art world’s patriarchy and Eurocentrism on its head, have spent their careers asking particular questions about these themes. For instance, what might the female nude, a classical subject in painting and sculpture, be capable of when liberated from the male gaze?

In the work of Dumas, she confounds. The Amsterdam-based, South African-born artist zooms in on the female body in three intimate works on paper, where the thickness of a lip or the curve of a thigh unfurls in gauzy washes of ink and the occasional gestural brushstroke. Despite the sensual technique, Dumas’ figures are as unnerving as they are sultry. Their uncanny poses point to some underlying, impenetrable psychology—far from the come-hither effect of your average odalisque.

Other highlights here include Nina Chanel Abney’s “Khaaliqua and Jeff” (2007), a work that harnesses the unsettling, allusive power of a pair of rubber cleaning gloves, and Cecily Brown’s “Service de Luxe” (1999), a gestural riot of pink that miraculously coalesces into two figures engaged in a spanking session, as if Willem de Kooning’s “Women” found a way to channel all that pent-up aggression.

A few works seem calculated to generate social-media buzz. Take “Lysa III” (2014), a life-size and unusually voluptuous female mannequin that conceptual artist Jennifer Rubell (daughter of Don and Mera) has retrofitted with a functional nutcracker between its legs. Displayed on its side next to a pedestal full of walnuts, the work, which was inspired by novelty nutcrackers made in the likeness of Hillary Clinton, encourages visitor interaction. And while there is meaning to unpack here—about female stereotypes, about the relationship between violence and desire—for many, the opportunity for a cathartic nut-crack or a photo between spread synthetic legs will inevitably take precedence.  In the process, will anyone take a moment to question whether offering up an overtly sexualized female body for the manipulation of the museum-going elite might be problematic? 

Despite being billed as a painting and sculpture show, much of the Rubells’ collection defies traditional categorization. This is particularly true of the fiber works, which span the two thematic sections and range from a large, many-tendrilled installation in braided straw and beads by Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno to early “knitted paintings” by the German multimedia artist Rosemarie Trockel

When Trockel began stretching machine-made knits over wooden supports in the mid-1980s, she was in dialogue with a wave of women artists contesting the arbitrary distinction between craft and fine art. In works like “Untitled” (1990)—a delightfully hideous knitted composition patterned with a repeating skull motif over yellow plaid—she subverted notions of what it meant for a woman to be a maker while thumbing her nose at the insular and male-dominated German art scene. 

Younger artists continue this legacy of medium mash-ups. For an untitled work in 2010, Dianna Molzan removed the vertical warp threads from a stretched canvas and then carefully painted an abstract composition onto the slack weft threads, effectively employing the language of cool geometric abstraction to generate a new “weaving.” By the time you get to Tauba Auerbach’s “Slice II” (2012), an architectural composition of woven strips of unpainted canvas, you get the point. 

There are some missed opportunities. Where there could be fruitful cross-generational dialogue, there are groupings that feel uninspired, like the small gallery that features only works by the painter Celia Paul, or the odd instance where representations of women of color are lined neatly in a row. 

Other artists seem to be included primarily for their star power: Kusama, who, at 87, has had by far the longest career of the bunch, is represented by two examples from her iconic “Infinity Nets” series. In their obsessive all-over patterning, the paintings exemplify Kusama’s lifelong compulsion toward repetitive processes. But tucked into a gallery of loud objects, far from her broader oeuvre, they lose some of their potency. Contrast that with the hypnotizing effect of Guidi’s two large canvases, which, composed of hundreds of rows of carefully spaced white brushstrokes, create the illusion of tapestries, their “imperfections” generating pleasant rifts and ripples.

Still, in 2016, when women artists continue to be starkly undervalued and underexhibited, NMWA’s exhibition is a welcome oasis—one made possible only through the focused efforts of artists, curators, and savvy patrons like the Rubells. The show aspires to the paradigm shift that feminist art historian Linda Nochlin envisioned nearly 50 years ago: a revision of the “naïve, distorted, uncritical assumptions” about who qualifies as an artist and what it means for her to be “great.” In this no man’s land, we learn that contested territory is sometimes the most fruitful.

1250 New York Ave. NW. $10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org.