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Revolutionary by Nature: Master Prints by Women Artists 1896-2020


On the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage and the passage of the 19th Amendment in the United States, the myriad achievements of women artists are being reflected in the curatorial programs of museums across the country. Since its founding in 1981, Mary Ryan Gallery has steadfastly embraced and championed women artists whose massive contributions to art history have long been overlooked by institutions and collectors around the world. The celebratory exhibition at Mary Ryan Gallery features a wide range of artists who have radically pushed social, institutional and artistic boundaries throughout their careers. It especially highlights artists with whom the gallery has maintained a longstanding professional relationship. Those familiar with the gallery program will surely recognize many works from previous solo and group exhibitions. A total of 36 works by 33 artists is included in this exhibition.

Featuring generations of artists who have wrestled with the tenuous challenges of being a woman in the art world since the 19th century, the exhibition will include seminal works by trail blazers such as Mary Cassatt, whose color etchings count as some of the highest achievements in the history of printmaking, and Käthe Kollwitz, whose special eye for the poor and vulnerable produced deeply empathetic prints that went on to inspire entire movements of anti-war sensibilities. The exhibition also includes the inventive color woodcuts of Blanche Lazzell, who is credited with making the first purely abstract print in the United States, featured alongside the radicalism of the midwestern American artists who made their careers in Europe but settled in Provincetown during the First World War. Further, the breathless modernism of Grosvenor school linocuts by Sybil Andrews and Lill Tschudi is exhibited alongside the social-realist leanings of the American WPA-era works by Mabel Dwight, Elizabeth Olds and Marion Greenwood.

Abstraction, Surrealism and technical experimentations are in full swing in the prints of Atelier 17 and Abstract Expressionist artists such as Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Bontecou, who had to push especially hard throughout their careers to be taken seriously as artists of caliber rather than mere hobbyists. Political pop and militant anti-war sentiments link Kollwitz’ oeuvre with that of 1980s feminists such as May Stevens and Nancy Spero. A practice of appropriating the trappings of a male-dominated art history is shared by Deborah Kass and Dotty Attie.

The feminist movement is only progressively being acknowledged as one of the defining artistic movements of the 20th century, and important works by Emma Amos, May Stevens and Kiki Smith express a range of perspectives within this landmark movement. The most recent works exhibited here include Kakyoung Lee’s prints-in-motion and Deborah Kass’ art historical reroutings.

Throughout this selection of works, the woman’s body is free of objectification and the eroticized prism through which it has largely been considered for much of art history. The viewer is encouraged to consider the primal relationship between mother and child in all of its depth and complexity. Filling the diverse roles of advocate, destructor, creator, innovator, mother, and citizen, the seminal figure of the woman takes center stage in this survey of prints by women artists.

The mediums represented in the exhibition include woodcut, etching, lithography, screenprint, collage, photo offset and digital printmaking. Some of the artists presented, such as Dotty Attie and May Stevens, made just a few prints throughout their entire career. Others, including Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Blanche Lazzell, Sybil Andrews, Mary Cassatt and Käthe Kollwitz, placed printmaking at the forefront of their practice.

Sexist discrimination and exclusion have served as barriers for women in the art world throughout history. In the field of printmaking, only very few publishers would support prints made by women, and collectors were generally disinclined to consider their work. Many of the early prints in this exhibition were self-published by the artists themselves. Edition sizes were often small as there was little to no market or distribution for their works. This gendered exclusion continues to this day, a fact that is notably reflected by the distinct lack of catalogue raisonnés on prints by women artists; much research and scholarship is needed.