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“Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today” seeks to spark conversations about the continued influence of women artists and designers from the U.S and Scandinavia. With an eye toward dispelling gender stereotypes, the show makes a point of including the works of female industrial and furniture designers alongside those of jewelers, ceramicists, and textile designers.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ newest exhibition begins in the 1950s, a time when macho modernism was the mainstream (think Jackson Pollock), and many artists not devoted to abstraction were seen as passé and even regressive. After World War II, the G.I. Bill opened up many teaching opportunities in newly formed crafts departments at universities throughout the U.S., and women artists jumped at the chance to fill these positions. By the mid-1960s, the feminist movement—and a turn away from the space-age aesthetic of the 1950s—led to increasing numbers of women artists moving beyond the “traditional” or “domestic” crafts and toward industrial design. As the title suggests, the women artists of the postwar era became pathmakers for contemporary artists and designers of all genders.
The exhibition itself is divided into “historical” and modern-day sections, but the galleries alternate, so visitors jump back and forth through time, making connections along the way. The largest historical galleries primarily gather works from the 1950s and ’60s—mostly functional ceramics, textiles, and jewelry. Through the years, objects become less and less utilitarian, where today, even some of the seemingly practical objects appear more suited for museum display than anything else. Vivian Beer’s “Anchored Candy No. 7,” a giant, red spike heel made to serve as a desk, and the Swedish industrial design group Front’s complexly tangled copper pipes and shower installation (both from 2014), although technically functional, give the impression of being much less practical than earlier works, like Margaret de Patta’s 1960s broaches or Eva Zeisel’s cups and bowls.
But the key to the historical aspect of “Pathmakers” isn’t in the individual artists, it’s in the groups. This is written on the walls—literally. Reading through the wall text, many of the artists featured in the historical section knew each other and were part of a larger, intentional community of women artists who mentored and supported one another. Artists like Anni Albers, Olga de Amaral, and Ruth Asawa were largely linked through the crafts departments where they studied and taught, most notably at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
In contrast, many of the contemporary artists and designers have little or no connection to each other and their work seems more disparate. In one of the contemporary galleries, Gabriel A. Maher’s 2014 installation and video exploring gender norms and queer theory in design and fashion sits across from the work of Front, a three-woman industrial design team that explicitly states that they don’t feel gender is part of their work.
Though the works in the two different sections may be markedly different from each other, they have in common the apparent labor that goes into their creation. The complex (even tedious) techniques behind Magdalene Odundo’s ceramics, Polly Apfelbaum’s “Handweaver’s Patternbook” installation, and Ruth Asawa’s “form-within-form” sculptures all evoke a greater appreciation of the time and effort behind the finished work, where the process is just as important as the final outcome.
It’s more politically ambitious than NMWA’s usual programming, but “Pathmakers” misses an opportunity to bring to light the subject of human geography. Although the Scandinavian artists included in the show provide unique perspectives, the exhibition may have been better served with a narrower focus on its American artists and their origins. A majority of the American artists represented (especially those in the historical section) are immigrants and minorities, and a large portion are from the Western half of the U.S., which could have launched an interesting discussion about the cultural geography of influential American women artists.
Even though gender is an important factor in thinking about the history of art, there are always many other identities layered throughout, and a strict emphasis on gender inevitably tunes out that inherent complexity.
1250 New York Ave NW. $8–$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org.