Almost 50 years ago, art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” became an electrifying feminist rallying cry that called out male-dominated art institutions. Fittingly, Alice Neel’s vibrant portrait of Nochlin with her young daughter—depicting the fierce scholar as a tender mother—is a centerpiece of “Women Take the Floor,” currently on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. This exhibition of art by women, which takes over an entire floor, aims to correct what the museum calls “systemic gender discrimination.”
The more than 200 works, primarily from the museum’s collection, are organized into seven thematic galleries and encompass painting, sculpture, fiber art, prints, design, and more. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the show also takes on racial disparities by showcasing work by African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American, and indigenous women.
The exhibition aims to correct what the museum calls “systemic gender discrimination.”
From Luchita Hurtado’s Surrealist depiction of the female body as landscape to stark photography by Lorna Simpson that calls into question the social construction of femininity, this is an exhibition of disparate styles and concerns. Claire Falkenstein’s models for the gates of Peggy Guggenheim’s Venetian palazzo are lacy modernist decoration, while Amalia Pica’s full-size cast-concrete podium (Now Speak!) invites participation. Gender is interrogated and redefined in Andrea Bowers’s monumental photographic portrait, Trans Liberation: Building a Movement (CeCe McDonald), 2016, which depicts the African-American bisexual transgender woman as “an avenging angel of liberty with wings and a hammer.”
Still, with major artists like Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell represented by a single painting each, and only a smattering of works by Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, and Louise Bourgeois, the exhibition can feel shallow. Which may be the point. As noted by the curators, just over 8 percent of the M.F.A.’s art is by women. On a nearby wall inscribed with inspirational and defiant quotes, words from the artist Faith Ringgold could be the motto for the museum’s future collecting: “I just decided when someone says you can’t do something, do more of it.” —Johanna Keller