Big checklist: 150 objects
Big names: Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson, Julie Mehretu, Kara Walker, Wendy Red Star, Judy Chicago. Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Nicole Eisenman, Jenny Holzer, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu.
Big ambition: hosting its first off-site exhibition during the closure of its historic home for a massive renovation.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. goes big during the exhibition “Positive Fragmentation: From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” on view through May 22, 2022 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.
The show’s title references a phrase coined in 1978 by feminist scholar and critic Lucy Lippard as she addressed gender discrimination in art criticism. Lippard describes positive fragmentation, or the “collage aesthetic,” as particularly suited to historically marginalized artists seeking to dismantle and rearrange the world as it “willfully takes apart what is or is supposed to be and rearranges it in ways that suggest what it could be.”
“I was struck by how many artists use fragmentation of some kind in their work–whether it is the fragmentation of form, color, text, or even stereotype,” Virginia Treanor, Associate Curator, National Museum of Women in the Arts, told me. “Not only that, but how they rearrange the fragments in order to come up with a new whole or a new way of thinking about an issue.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, the first museum in the world dedicated to women in the arts, has been forced to come up with new ways of pursuing its mission during the closure of the landmark home at 1250 New York Avenue NW which it has occupied since 1983. Doors to the 78,810 square-foot building constructed in 1908 for use as a Masonic lodge–ironically an organization that prohibited women members–were closed to the public on August 9, 2021. Completion on a $66 million renovation is expected in fall of 2023.
The Katzen Arts Center four miles away lends a hand allowing the NMWA to host a massive presentation of works employing a wide variety of printmaking processes from a who’s-who of contemporary female artists, all living except for Bourgeois. While not a survey of contemporary female art, the 150-plus object presentation of 21 artists using fragmentation both stylistically and conceptually to comment on the greatest issues of the day including gender, race and the environment, presents visitors a remarkable sampling of leading practitioners in the genre.
“I always knew there would be a lot of work in the exhibition simply because there were so many great works to select from,” Treanor said. “I wanted the installation to echo the theme: lots of things coming together to make a whole. It was also important to select works that would ‘play well together,’ and complement each other both visually and thematically. It was a bit like putting together a big puzzle.”
With this much art to take in, approaching Treanor’s “puzzle,” could prove daunting. It needn’t be.
“There is no right or wrong way to go through this exhibition. It’s not chronological and the sub-themes are very porous, flowing in and out of each other,” she said. “There are a few works that have audio guides associated with them that feature the artists speaking directly about their work. These are always enlightening and I would encourage people to listen to those.”
For a world which seems to be increasingly going mad, the exhibition’s subject can provide hope.
“Even though the theme was decided upon before the Covid-19 pandemic and the social unrest of 2020, I think it is particularly relevant to the world as it is today,” Treanor said. “So many lives and institutions have gone through their own fragmentation–how do we pick up the pieces and rearrange them in a better way, a way that works for all and not just some? That’s what art and artists can help us envision.”
Every piece on view in “Positive Fragmentation” comes from the personal collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer or the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. That name might not mean much around the nation’s capital, but it carries tremendous weight on the other side of the country in the Pacific Northwest where the Schnitzer family has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to a wide variety of cultural causes, primarily in Portland, OR. Those efforts began with Jordan Schnitzer’s mother, the city’s most prominent and prolific patron and advocate for the arts dating all the way back to 1961.