“Inside the Visible”

Institute of Contemporary Art

In an effort to reread 20th-century art history, visiting curator M. Catherine de Zegher, Director of the Kanaal Art Foundation in Belgium, presented “Inside the Visible: an elliptical traverse of 20th-century art,” a sprawling show that comprised over 250 works by 37 women artists from Europe, Asia, North and South America. Spanning more than 60 years, this exhibition suggests a trajectory of artistic production, perhaps heretofore invisible, that runs parallel to the predominant art-historical axis. The work of such prominent figures as Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Nancy Spero, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Höch, and Agnes Martin appears alongside that of lesser known artists such as Claude Cahun, Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, Mona Hatoum, Charlotte Salomon, Cicilia Vicuña, and Nadine Tasseel, some of whom have only recently become the object of critical study. (In addition, a film and video series, curated by Catherine David, showcasing the work of 15 women directors from the last 100 years, runs for the duration of the exhibition.) “Inside the Visible” offers an incisive, often highly theoretical look at the women who helped shaped the art of this century, and whose contributions often go unacknowledged.

This exhibition grew out of a series of 12 individual shows, collectively entitled “Begin the Beguine in Flanders,” held at the béguinage of Kortijk in 1994 and 1995. The béguinages were founded in the 13th century to house semireligious, exclusively female congregations whose members had opted for an existence free of men, institutions, and possessions in order to devote themselves to poetry, prayer, lacework, and writing. Inspired by the radical independence of the Beguines and by their broadened idea of what “women’s work” could be, de Zegher set out to examine the work of women artists during three politically and socially volatile periods of the 20th century—the ’30s and ’40s in Europe, the decade that followed the sociopolitical turbulence of 1968, and the present day.

“Inside the Visible,” however, is not organized chronologically but divided into four sections, each of which draws from the three “periods” of de Zegher’s hybrid art history: “Parts of/for,” “The Blank in the Page,” “The Weaving of Water and Words,” and “Enjambment: ‘La donna è mobile.’” (“Rhythm: ‘women are fickle’”). Each section, built on associations of ideas and images, gathers and juxtaposes a wide range of works in many media. The title “Parts of/for” is meant to evoke the fragmented and dismembered female body as fetish, embodied by Hans Bellmer’s dolls and since dissected by feminist psychoanalytic theory, as well as the constrictive roles assigned women in everyday life. Included here are sculptures and videos as well as a number of masterful photocollages and montages. Among the strongest images in this section, are five diminutive Dada photomontages by Hannah Höch. Höch’s Negerplastik (Negro sculpture, 1929), from her series “Aus einem ethnographischen Museum” (From an ethnographic museum, 1924–30), is a study in contrasts: an African mask onto which sexy eyes have been grafted tops a baby’s body. As critics like Maud Lavin have discussed at length, Höch’s series addresses the tension between idealization and abjection that can be said to define the female subject. The work of Surrealist writer/artist/photographer Cahun (1894–1954) is represented by silver print photographs and a photomontage featuring her androgynous self-portrait. In many of her self-portraits, she is shown with hair shorn or dressed like a sad clown; in one, she is the coquettish performer who revels in the ambiguity and fluidity of her womanliness as she parodies the traditional pose of the male artist. Similarly, Flemish artist Tasseel uses black and white photographs to reframe the gaze of famous Flemish and Italian Mannerist painters. In Untitled Self-Portrait, 1992, for example, Tasseel appears nude, covering her face with a mask that echoes Rubens’ portrait of his wife, a severed cow’s head arranged on a plate beside her. This work reads as a pastiche of allegorical painting and the tradition of portraiture, both of which transform, sometimes idealize, the female form.

The section “The Blank in the Page” includes 51 gouaches and 47 drawings on transparent paper from the prelude to the painted diaries of Salomon “Leben? Oder Theater?” (Life? Or theater ?, 1940–42). Her drawings, which echo those of Chagall and Grosz, were made during World War II, though Salomon would not survive; she died at Birkenau at the age of 26. Juxtaposed with these moving records of her thoughts are the 16 drawings that comprise Hanne Darboven’s Letter and Indices to 24 Songs, 1976, which in their ordered repetitiveness emphasize, like her other series, discipline and documentation, only to call such “bourgeois” values into question. Israeli Lichtenberg Ettinger offers “Matrixial Borderlines,” 1990–91, a post-Modern palimpsest of texts. Lichtenberg Ettinger juxtaposes photographs of documentation that describe the events and effects of the Holocaust, items from her family album, and her own psychoanalytic writings, all of which she veils, alters, or touches up with paint so that they embody the hazy traces of memory, the matrix where the ineffable meets the concrete. In the works selected for “The Blank in the Page,” drawing, writing, or tracing is viewed as the process through which the self is constituted as such while the slippages, erasures, and breaks in continuity mark the feminine rewriting of representational conventions, echoing, in this way, ’70s French feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and the writings of Julia Kristeva from the same decade.

“The Weaving of Water and Words” pivots on Agnes Martin’s Minimalist paintings and Gego’s “reticuláreas”—weblike structures made from wire—both of which, albeit in different ways, revolved around the grid. The spatial weavings of Gego’s kinesthetic sculptures were complemented by Vicuña’s piece in which yarn and raw wool were woven in an Andean pattern and filled the central exhibition space. For Recollection, 1995, an installation by Palestinian-born Hatoum, a grid was woven with individual strands of the artist’s hair that dangled from the ceiling at six-inch intervals, and hundreds of balls of hair were arranged on the floor or had been woven into a tight Victorian grid with the aid of a miniature loom attached to a table with metal brackets.

Enjambment,” the final section of the exhibition, is less visually and thematically cohesive than the others. Works by artists such as Hesse, Francesca Woodman, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Lygia Clark, are grouped together since all address the relationship between the artwork and the social or physical space that surrounds it. Clark’s objects, for example, were meant to be manipulated by viewers, and many of her works really exist only in relation to the human body. At times, however, the formal differences in the work made this section seem less cohesive than the others. Woodman’s haunting photographs from the ’70s, in which she appears and disappears like a phantom, are notable, yet their link to the Russian Constructivist Katarzyna Kobro’s hard-edged architectural sculptures remained somewhat obscure.

The four sections of “Inside the Visible” would have been welcome as separate shows, since the sheer number of artists and works included in the relatively small space of the ICA could not help but overwhelm the viewer at times. However, the discovery of so many formerly “invisible” artists and the opportunity to see rarely exhibited works by the likes of Woodman, Höch, and Cahun more than compensates for the difficulty in navigating the exhibition.

Francine Koslow Miller