Art Is Long

Art Is Long

The first women to study at Yale weren’t the undergraduates who turned up in the fall of 1969. They arrived a full century earlier as graduate students in the Yale School of Art when it opened in 1869. The Yale University Art Gallery’s exhibition On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale, on view through January 9, exhibits the work of 20 of these women, plus nearly 60 more women artists who graduated from Yale after the undergraduate college went co-ed.

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The exhibition’s title is a play on the phrase “on the basis of sex,” which appears in Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded education program. These women, the title seems to suggest, should be judged by their art, not their sex. Indeed, the fact that all of them are women is somewhat incidental to appreciating On the Basis of Art. Like their male counterparts, they offer up work demonstrating a remarkable range of subjects and media. Perhaps the only thing you might find among male artists that you won’t find here—at least, not without irony—is objectification of the female body.

On the Basis of Art is divided into six thematic segments spread through six galleries, including one on the mezzanine level that’s easy to miss. By organizing the works in this way, a painting by Irene Weir, class of 1906, shares space with the photograph Untitled (Bev and Ivor—back) (1991) by Laura Letinsky, who earned her MFA in 1991. Weir’s The Noon Hour, Chinon, France (ca. 1923) is a watercolor with bold strokes and vibrant colors that evoke the heat of the midday sun. Five women who rest, eat and drink in the shade of a pair of leafy trees are arranged in a circle like the face of a clock. One at the bottom sits on her haunches, her back and the broad curves of her olive skirt facing the viewer, her head turned to the left, a kerchief obscuring part of her face. Letinsky’s woman, too, has her back to the camera, face turned to the left. But her visage is more obscured, and she’s in the company not of other women but of a man, presumably her lover. Sunlight travels from a window in the upper left corner of the image across his face and chest, illuminating the edges of her face and shoulder and bare back as she gazes down at him. Unlike Weir, Letinsky seems partially interested in the traditional male gaze, but here it’s reversed: The woman is naked from the waist up, but it’s she who is looking upon the fully clothed man. His eyes are closed, and he appears to be asleep.

Juxtapositions like these that cross time and media are there for visitors to notice and explore in every corner of this rich exhibition. At the same time, works command their own attention. Fran Siegel’s Overland 8 (2009) is a giant paper, ink and graphite collage, a confusion of hatch marks, black-washed shapes, layers and cut-outs inspired by the disorienting Los Angeles landscape. The lines seem to drift in one direction only to loop back on themselves, defying any attempt at organization. Even the edges of this “map” are irregular, as if resisting boundaries that might contain it. Howardina Pindell’s video Free, White and 21 (1980) documents stories of racial and gender prejudice encountered and retold by the Black artist interspersed with clips in which she plays a white woman responding to them dismissively: “You must be paranoid,” she says. Or, “Don’t worry. We’ll find other tokens.” In the upper mezzanine gallery, four pastel studies by Maya Lin, also dating to 1980, show the artist’s impressionistic vision for what would become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Women are more frequently the subjects in On the Basis of Art than men are. They recline naked in a Turkish bath or lie fully clothed in bed; they sit at an easel or in an orchard chair. But more often, these artists have turned their attention outward to the world of nature, built spaces, inanimate objects and abstractions. Working in pencil and paint, metal and textiles, photographs and video, to name a few, they often push back against conventions. When Sylvia Plimack Mangold, for example, finishes her gorgeous oil landscape Valence with Grey Cloud (1982) with a frame of painter’s tape that is, itself, painted trompe l’oeil style on the canvas, she seems to be drawing attention to the border in order to undermine its authority.

The School of Art isn’t the only Yale institution celebrating women artists. At the Yale Center for British Art, Art in Focus: Women from the Center, open through October 10, celebrates the many women artists—not just alumna—in its collection. An online exhibit, Yale-Aided Design: The Work of Female Architecture Graduates, tells the history of women at the Yale School of Architecture through photographs, documents and drawings. Also online, the Yale University Library exhibition We Were Always Here: Celebrating All Women at Yale salutes women throughout the university’s history—not only students but also faculty, staff and administrators.

Like Siegel’s Los Angeles Overland series, many of these women’s maps to artistic and professional success offered no easy route. Perhaps most famously, Lin was “met with vociferous opposition that targeted her youth, gender, and race as an Asian American” after her memorial design unexpectedly won a national competition that had been judged blind. Walking your own route through the large and eclectic collection in On the Basis of Art is an uplifting testament to their tenacity and to the vitality of their work.

On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Public Hours: Fri 5-8pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm through January 9, 2022; free tickets required
Yale ID Hours: Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-5pm
(203) 432-0601 |…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

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