At Paris’ Pompidou Center, the year of the women


Imagine a museum that boasts the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe. Now imagine that an intrepid female curator puts all the men’s work in storage and fills the permanent collection galleries with a new version of 20th and early 21st century art history, the one that women created.

Would she emerge as a champion, finally proving that women artists are as good as -- or better than -- the guys? Or would she simply expose weaknesses of the museum’s collection and the art itself?

“It’s a risk,” says Camille Morineau, who has organized “elles@centrepompidou,” opening Wednesday at the Pompidou Center. “Excluding men and showing only women is a revolutionary gesture of affirmative action. But the museum is avant-garde. It’s part of the Centre Pompidou culture to do things differently. And we like a lot of drama. This is going to be dramatic in a big way.”


A serious statement

By any definition, the installation of about 500 works by more than 200 women is an ambitious project -- a standout among museums’ efforts to pay more attention to women. If not the first such exhibition in the world, as advertised, it’s certainly the first on such a grand scale. And it will run for an entire year, with periodic additions and rotations of artworks.

As Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, puts it: “When you have an institution of the scale and prestige of the Pompidou devoting its entire hang of its collection thematically to women artists, it’s making a very serious statement.”

Beginning with early 20th century paintings by French artist Suzanne Valadon and ending with works by up-to-the-minute figures such as Japan’s Mariko Mori, Switzerland’s Pipilotti Rist and England’s Rachel Whiteread, “elles” will offer an international array of paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, prints, videos, furniture and architectural models.

Visitors who stroll through thematic and chronological sections spread across two floors of the museum will find a mixture of mainstream art, functional design and feminine attitude. Niki de Saint Phalle’s towering sculpture of a monstrous bride will be there, along with a sleek aluminum cabinet by Janette Laverrier, a soft-edge abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler and a Sanja Ivekovic video of a woman cutting holes in a black veil that covers her face.

Some of the artists have subtle sensibilities; others deliver a punch. In a text panel by Barbara Kruger, an awe-struck exclamation -- “What big muscles you have!” -- overlaps sappy terms of endearment such as “My better half,” “My sugar daddy” and “My ticket to ride.” In “Life Size Portraits,” a huge painting by Agnes Thurnauer, female versions of famous male artists’ names -- Annie Warhol, Francine Bacon, Jacqueline Pollock -- appear on 11 of 12 circles of bright color. But the first name of Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor who has garnered almost as most notice as her male counterparts -- has been changed to Louis.


Time will tell how all this is received.

“It’s a very un-French thing to do,” Morineau says over lunch at a cafe overlooking the Pompidou’s plaza, where lovers smooch, sunbathers catch fleeting rays and schoolkids line up for museum tours. “In France, nobody counts the number of men and women in exhibitions. Very few people notice that sometimes there are no women.”

Catching up

Feminism has had a stronger effect in the U.S. and other parts of Europe, in art and society at large, she says. While “elles” was in planning stages, “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and moved on to New York, Washington and Vancouver, Canada; the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Tate Modern in London launched energetic efforts to expand their holdings of women’s work; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art established its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. But the Pompidou’s project is certain to get lots of attention -- and scrutiny.

Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA’s curator of contemporary art, who is soon to be director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, considers it “a terrific thing to do” because it will acquaint the public with many underexposed artists.

Cornelia Butler, who organized “WACK!” while she was a curator at MOCA and is now chief curator of drawings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, views “elles” as an exciting development among many other efforts to raise the visibility of women artists.

“It falls into this category of ‘What happens next? What are we doing in a concrete way to follow up on all this material that has come to light lately?’ ” she says. “What do you do? You think about acquisitions, collections, exhibitions, all of that.”

Still, says Barron, “at the end of the day, what matters is the quality of the work. One would hope that today we are beyond a numbers game and really trying to look thoughtfully.”

Morineau’s idea took root about 20 years ago when she left France to study art at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and discovered gender issues and women’s studies. “When I came back to France, I kept waiting for the subject to pop up at a museum or university,” she says. “It just didn’t. I taught at l’École du Louvre for 10 years and tried to create a gender studies program. Impossible. When I started working here, six years ago, I started talking about doing something, but it took a while to shape an exhibition.”

She and Alfred Pacquement, director of the museum at the Pompidou, eventually came to the same conclusion, she says, “that it would be better, stronger and more ambitious to work with the collection because it would be more about the history of taste. It would address 50 years of collecting, not just a particular curator’s point of view. It would be a bigger thing and a more interesting way to deal with the subject.”

Surprising as it is, “elles” is part of a Pompidou tradition. The third thematic presentation of the collection, it will follow “Big Bang,” an explosive mix of artistic ideas and media that appeared in 2005, and “Movement of Images,” an exploration of art and cinema, in 2006-07. The new installation is meant to be an alternate history, not a feminist tract.

“For the most part,” Morineau says, “we show that the history of 20th century women’s art is quite similar to what we have in the general permanent collection.” But she had to grapple with contemporary art movements, such as Conceptual and Minimal art, that were largely defined by male artists and critics.

“You have to show women who didn’t want to be part of the movement or who were formally part of the movement but were not associated with it by critics,” she says. “So what do you do with that? Do you stress the fact that the women wanted to be out of the movement or do you integrate them? There’s a paradox we have to deal with.”

As the exhibition evolved, some segments paralleled mainstream art history, and others -- particularly performance, representations of the female body and works with a strong feminist viewpoint -- deviated sharply. Morineau eventually came up with seven thematic sections, including “A Room of Her Own,” inspired by Virginia Woolf, and “Eccentric Abstraction,” featuring work that hovers between abstraction and figuration. Throughout the show, labels will contain quotations by the artists, the curator says, so that they can speak for themselves.

“You need to have a strong collection to do this,” Morineau says. “You want the result to be good.” And that meant making an energetic effort to broaden the Pompidou’s holding through purchases and donations. “Some of my colleagues strongly resisted it, saying, ‘Camille, not only are you showing only women, but you want to buy only women. It’s too much.’ But we had holes.”

Support groups, including the L.A.-based Centre Pompidou Foundation, collectors, galleries and artists, provided works by missing artists, including Hannah Wilke, Alexis Smith, Agnes Denes and Lygia Pape. But not all gaps have been filled. In a collection where French women are best represented, as might be expected, earlier periods are thinner than later ones and Latin American holdings are relatively sparse. But the acquisitive surge has “created a dynamic,” Morineau says, one she hopes will last.

At this point, 17% of the 5,000 artists represented in the collection are women. Even so, Morineau had to make difficult choices. “Elles” will include work by one-fourth of them.

“I am really happy I could do this,” she says. “In the States, you think about women’s art. In France, never. It’s not a subject. If the subject does not exist, there is no possibility of discussion. For me, that’s the big issue about doing this. We are turning it into a subject.”