Women Take the Floor at MFA Boston

Women Take the Floor (through May 2, 2021)
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Loren MacIver

Georgia O'Keeffe
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has two blockbuster shows that have attracted great notice, the first of which spotlights women. In the age of #MeToo, female outrage and aroused consciousness is a work in progress insofar as transforming the American political landscape goes. There can be little doubt, though, that women have shaken things culturally. We can see the impact in movies, music, and television. Now it’s time for the art world to take notice.

Women Take the Floor begins with an apology. The MFA offers a full confession for its past sins; just 8 percent of the MFA collection of nearly one half million items were fashioned by the hands of women. It hasn’t been much better in the 21st century; in the past 10 years the MFA has acquired 40,000 new works, but just 10% of the artists were female. On the whole, one could say it’s high time for the MFA to make amends. It tries, but it only partially succeeds.

Doris L. Lewis
Women Take the Floor presents more than 200 works from women arranged in 7 galleries “Women on the Move” presents art and design from the 1920s-30s; “No Man’s Land” takes a look at how women imagined landscape in the 20th century; and “Beyond the Loom” explores fiber sculpture. “Women Depicting Women” is largely self-explanatory, as is “Women Publish Women,” though the medium is printmaking. The two more ambiguous galleries are “Women of Action,” which looks at talented women who labored in the shadow of their more famous male partners; and “Women and Abstraction,” which is devoted to mid-20th century women who eschewed representationalism.

Lalla Essaydi
Here’s the rub: most of the works on display come from the MFA’s own collection. Do you see a problem? The museum admits it hasn’t collected or spotlighted women as it should have in the past 150 years. This means that most of what we see has already been well-viewed or was taken from storage and dusted off for this exhibit.  Georgia O’Keeffe is the single most represented artist on the wall, but she was famous in her own lifetime and since. In essence, we don’t need the MFA to remind us that she knew her way around a paintbrush. Nor do we need another contrivance to show off Frida Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres, which the MFA recently purchased. It is not too hard to see through the guise given that the exhibit is largely devoted to American artists. Kahlo (1907-54) was a Mexican citizen who lived in the United States for just 8 unhappy years. There is a similar problem with Converging Territories #30, a work from Lalla Essaydi; she is a Moroccan who works in the US.

Although MFA curators had to choose works from a constricted number of options, there are many gems on view, and they include the O’Keeffes. In my estimation, the “Women of Action” section was the most intriguing. There has long been speculation that many works attributed to men were done in part or entirely by their wives or partners. At the very least, female artists such as Helen Frankenthaler (Robert Motherwell), Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock), Elaine de Kooning (Willem de Kooning), Grace Hartigan (Harry Jackson), and even O’Keeffe for a time (Alfred Stieglitz), labored in the shadow of powerful men who attracted more notice. 

Lois M. Jones
Also of interest are works from women who, if not exactly unknown, deserve broader attention, such as Alice Neel, Loren MacIver, L√∂is Mailou Jones, and Doris Lindo Lewis. Speaking entirely for myself, I simply can’t evaluate the fiber arts of individuals such as Lenore Tawney or the performance art of Porsha Olayiwola as I know next to nothing about soft sculpture and most performance art strikes me as more intriguing conceptually than in practice. (I will say that were I choosing a performance artist, someone such as Laurie Anderson is far more accomplished than Ms. Olayiwola.)
Alice Neel

There remain many challenges in the quest for the MFA to give women artists their due. A start might be to celebrate areas where women have been powerful. Photography is glaringly given short shrift in the MFA show. It’s one to include a rising talent such as Essaydi, but let’s not forget that many female shutterbugs paved her way: Bernice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz, Cindy Sherman, Doris Ullman…. One can–as I have–make the case that women photographers have often outshone their male counterparts. That’s why so much of their work hangs on museum walls.

In similar fashion, I’m not sure it serves the cause to exacerbate women’s exclusion at the expense of ignoring those who kicked down the barriers. O’Keeffe is certainly among them, but there are other female American artists who have done so and are mostly ignored in this show, think Louise Bourgeois, Cecilia Breaux, Mary Cassatt, Judy Chicago, Louise Nevelson, Florine Stettheimer, and Kara Walker. I am always a big fan of giving credit to pioneers. After all, a thing must be imagined before it can be pursued.  

A third challenge is recognizing what the MFA isn’t: a repository of contemporary art. Let’s face it; although institutions such as the MFA constantly add to their collections, they mostly do so after a particular artist gains acclaim. Fine arts museums are by nature conservative institutions–no matter how hip individual curators might think themselves to be. Contemporary art isn’t the MFA’s strength. “Women Take the Floor” is weighted more heavily to mid-20th century art because those works were vetted before they were collected. More recent works are something of a gamble, especially when one begins to collect with an eye toward ticking boxes (black, Hispanic, transgender, queer, body image). I wish the MFA would cede contemporary turf to museums that know it better, like the Institute of Contemporary Art and Mass MoCA.  

By all means get yourself to the MFA to see this exhibit. Just don’t buy into the ballyhoo surrounding it. Women Take the Floor is a start, not the definitive word on sexism and museum collecting practices.  

Rob Weir


Rosemary and Garlic: Artist of the Month

Rosemary and Garlic
A Step Outside

Winter is a time that makes many of us introspective, so why not have some music that matches the mood? A Step Outside is the third recording of the Dutch trio Rosemary and Garlic, and selections from it and the previous two releases are all over YouTube.

(Identity of dark-haired woman unknown)
Their music gets labeled as “alternative” and for once the alt label isn’t contrived. In all honesty, I’m not sure what to call this group. For me it’s music that makes me drift, sway, and lose myself in its ethereal beauty–a bit like “Dreamer,” one of their songs. Rosemary and Garlic is fronted by vocalist/acoustic guitarist Anne van den Hoogen. She sings in English and her voice has a rare quality of clarity that one might associate with a young Judy Collins. Her phrasing is also reminiscent of Collins. The repertoire, however, is markedly different.

One of the ways to evaluate a group is how well they can approximate on stage what we hear in a studio recording. There’s no question here, as all the tracks I recommend are from live shows in Amsterdam and Hamburg. Van den Hoogen has a professed love of 18th century romanticism. We hear definite traces of that in the beautiful melody of “The Dancers.” It, like everything the band does is quiet, contemplative, and suggestive of fragility; “Blue Boy” also embodies all of those qualities.  Instrumentation is minimal: van den Hoogen’s guitar, Dionne Nijsten’s cello or percussion, and keyboards, percussion, and a bit of electronica that suggests nature sounds from Daf Smolenaers. The choice of instruments might evoke an early music small combo, but though classical music is here and there, it comes out in small dollops rather than in sustained form and is most noticeable in some of Smoleanaers’ piano cascades and arpeggios. A personal favorite is “The Kingfisher,” which is mysterious and wintry in feel. Yes, I know my frosty adjective seems out of place for a song named after a bird that (in most places) migrates to warmer climes when the temperature cools, but the song has a moody wrapper that feels more misty than sun-dappled. It does, however, simulate flight when Smolenaers picks up the pace on the keys and Nijstein’s cello fills in the spaces.

Another admirable trait on this band is that it’s never in a rush. A new version of “Take This Hand” features pulsing electronics and keys for nearly a minute and a half before the vocals come in. Those pulses serve to set an emotive frame that’s neither drone nor √©tude. It’s already a gorgeous melody by the time van den Hoogen sings. You could easily think of her vocals as a fourth instrument, though there is never an attempt of any of the three to embellish or launch into a virtuosic breakout. This is music without filler; Rosemary and Garlic go with what they have and have the wisdom not to toss unneeded elements into the mix to artificially enhance it.

Anne van den Hoogen
And let’s face it, you sure don’t need much when you have a singer like Ms. Van den Hoogen. She’s reminiscent Loreena McKennitt on “Old Now,” though van den Hoogen prefers to channel a song with less drama than McKennitt. Again, a Judy Collins analogy suggests itself. Both opt to interpret a song rather than stage it. Please don’t slap a New Age label on this music–it has far more depth. More apt analogies would include the music of Nick Drake, Sufjan Stevens, or Laura Marling–the last of whom is a big fan of Rosemary and Garlic. Beyond that the only other label I have is this one: just frickin’ beautiful. If all of this weren’t enough, at times Ms. Van den Hoogen looks a bit like Cate Blanchette.

If you know someone who likes dreamy music, consider this one as a holiday gift. If you like what you hear, maybe you could ask Santa to tuck a download or two into your holiday sack. If, of course, you’ve been good!

Rob Weir


Fun for Winter: Watch Singin' In the Rain

Singin’ In the Rain (1952)
Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Dolan
MGM, 103 minutes, G

The American film Institute declared 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain (SITR) the greatest American musical of all time. I would dispute that – think American in Paris, All That Jazz, Cabaret, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge–but SITR is such corny fun that I understand AFI’s over-exuberance. This Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds vehicle leaves you grinning from ear to ear, even if you’ve seen it numerous times.

It bears another distinction in that it is one of the few film scripts written long after its titular song was published. Yes, you read that correctly. You will see music credits for Arthur Freed and now Nacio Herbert Brown. Both ended up in Hollywood, but lyricist Freed wrote “Singin’ in the Rain” when he was a shopkeeper in the 1920s and observed rain falling beyond his store window. In 1929, Brown scored it as he and Freed were doing the music for a stage show called “Broadway Melody.”

SITR has several other notable songs, especially “Fit as a Fiddle,” “You Were Meant for Me,” and “Make ‘em Laugh,” the last of which spotlights O’Connor in a slapstick song and dance. SITR has come down to us as Gene Kelly’s film– after all, he directed, choreographed, and starred in it–but it’s a shame Donald O’Connor’s reputation has dimmed over time. He was a great dancer, good enough to rival Kelly.

The film is a rom com/ musical/ satire hybrid. Although it appeared in 1952, its setting is 1920s Hollywood, when the industry was on the cusp of the sound era. Don Lockwood (Kelly) is an idol of the silent screen, famed for playing a romantic French nobleman. (Think a powdered wig version of Rudolph Valentino’s sheik.) He is so dashing that the public assumes that he and screen flame Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) will soon tie the knot. She’d like that, but Don can’t stand her, her vanity, or her high-pitched New York accent. He would much rather hang out with his piano-playing sidekick Cosmo Brown (O’Connor). The public also doesn’t know that Don and Cosmo were once two-bit vaudeville hoofers.

Circumstances will literally throw Kathy Selden (Reynolds) into Don’s path. The film’s various misdirection, misunderstandings, threats, and triumphs are expertly written into the script by the formidable pair of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Marvel over their timing, not the situations, as much of the plot is pretty silly. Appreciate the way that the story thread doesn’t fray even though Comden and Green have to balance romance, comedy, satire music, and dance.

Dance, of course, is the primary reason for all the fuss. If all you know are clips of Gene Kelly swinging from lampposts, splashing in the gutter and crooning the title song, you really need to see the film. The aforementioned sequence isn’t even the film’s biggest eyecatcher. When sound comes to Monumental Pictures–the fictitious production company for Lockwood/Lamont films–Don and Kathy have to rescue a film rush ruined by Lina’s horrible voice and inability to follow simple directions. Never mind the how, why, or wherefore, but Don and Cosmo assemble a very long “modern” dance interlude titled (yep!) “Broadway Melody!” It is a very cool piece of spectacle. Kelly showcases his athleticism and grace, and it often seems as if he had a layer of air at his feet; his jumps are as if he is propelled across the stage by a breeze. Yet he’s almost outclassed by the amazing Cyd Charisse. Her role is that of a vampish gun moll, and in a particular modern dance/tango meld, she slinks her body into Kelly’s and intertwines him in her long legs. It is as close to sex as two clothed people can get without being arrested! You should also appreciate Howard Rosen’s cinematography for keeping up in this high-energy story within a story.

You get the picture, now you should see the picture. A few tidbits to take you out. Singin’ in the Rain attracted scant notice upon release. Jean Hagen was the only principal nominated for an Oscar (best supporting actress). She did not win and today her performance seems histrionic. But the movie built small following among GIs and TV audiences watching on screens that could not render the film’s color. Today we might call it an underground hit. By the way, if Reynolds seems to struggle to keep a bit with Kelly and O’Connor, she was just 20 at the time of filming–many years her costars’ junior. If you are a dance historian, another thing to look for Rita Moreno in a small role as Zelda.

The best way to enjoy Singin’ In the Rain is just surrender to it. Yes, it’s often cheesy, but it’s so much fun that it puts a smile on the sourest of pusses.

Rob Weir