Walking through Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibition Elles: Women Artists from the Pompidou, Paris is an alternately overwhelming and exhilarating experience. A condensed version of the Pompidou’s original exhibition: elles@centrepompidou, which included about 500 rotating works by over 200 women artists, Elles: Pompidou at SAM boasts 130 works of art by 75 women artists spanning about a century of art-making.
As one may suspect, Elles: Pompidou speaks from a potently French perspective on modernism, at least through the first several decades of work on display. The exhibition boasts a breadth of perspectives in later decades that is refreshingly international in scope. As a whole, the exhibition serves to flesh out a traditionally male dominated art-historical canon.
The Pompidou installation is nicely rounded out by Elles: SAM a floor below, which includes work from both the museum’s and local collections. Here, visitors can catch work by notables such as Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yayoi Kusama, and local artist Victoria Haven.
Elles: Pompidou progresses roughly chronologically, but is also arranged thematically by gallery. Each thematic “hub” has the potential to spawn an interesting exhibition apart and in and of itself. Herein lies difficulty as well: walking through the exhibition can at times be an overwhelming and fragmentary experience–one certainly not aided by sound bleed and a staggering number of TV monitors. Processing such a vast array of material as a viewer may be easiest if the show is approached as a series of smaller exhibitions or units of works in conversation with one another. Here are some gems one may encounter on a journey through the exhibition:
A kaleidoscopic and opulent mature work by Sonia Delaunay. A teeny tiny Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Yes, it is small, but it packs a visual punch. Catch it shimmering at the end of a series of black and white surrealist photographs. In “Eccentric Abstraction,” Louise Bourgeois’ phallic marble forms quietly sprout like fungi, flanked by Marie-Ange Guileminot’s hands doting tenderly on flesh colored anthropomorphic “dolls” of ambiguous gender. Shapes take form and recede like figures in a mist within a luminous triptych by Geneviève Asse.
A giant sisal and hemp hulking form by Magdalena Abakanowicz twirls slowly in the center of the “Genital Panic” gallery–at first it appears to be a crouching creature. Look a bit longer, and you’ll discover its true identity. Niki de Saint-Phalle’s awe inspiring crucified Madonna surveys the room from a high vantage point, flung on her back against the gallery wall and sprouting carnival toys and flowers from her revealed chest.
Approaching the exhibition’s curtained off video galleries, look to the right and see Atsuko Tanaka’s light bulb dress; a beautiful yet latently threatening mass of wires and cheerily colored bulbs. On screen, Andrea Fraser rails against the museum institution from behind the veneer of a Philadelphia Art Museum docent. Hannah Wilke performs a subversive striptease opposite Carolee Schneemann who frantically applys collage elements to her own skin. Enter: Mona Hatoum. Yes, really ENTER Mona Hatoum–the artist filmed her body from the inside out, and viewers are invited inside a video containing tube to participate as “foreign bodies.”
Yes, if the Elles: Pompidou exhibition were to be looked at purely as an art historical survey, there may be some tiny chronological gaps. Yes, there may be some big, and mostly American, names missing (Judy Chicago, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Bridget Riley, to name several, are nowhere to be found in the Pompidou show). This should not be dwelled upon as the exhibition’s lack–rather, this more aptly illustrates the collecting habits of the Centre Pompidou. The point is that women were there, and their work was, and is, the big leagues. A rarity for Seattle to host such a talked about international show (and one not originally intended for travel), this exhibition from the Centre Pompidou is not to be missed.