By Meda Kessler
The new exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth puts the focus on females, from form to feminism
Like everyone else during the COVID lockdown, Andrea Karnes discovered that she had a lot more time to reflect on work, life, the issues of the moment and how sometimes all three collide.
The chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (she was promoted from senior curator in November 2021) says she had been mulling over some ideas for a while, including “Women Painting Women,” an exhibit of female painters who chose women as their subject matter.
“It’s definitely a pandemic exhibition,” says Karnes. “Of all the possible projects I had been thinking about, I landed on this one because it seemed like now was a good moment, a good time. The show covers the late 1960s to the present, and many of these artists are getting deserved airplay now. I wanted us to be part of that.”
The project is an ambitious one: 46 figurative painters from around the world; Karnes’ biggest exhibition to date featured 23 artists. “There were works I had already seen or knew about,” says Karnes, who also managed to do a few studio visits to artists in the show. “I wanted to make it international in scope; a survey exhibition seemed to be the best way to do this. It’s important to look at such a large swatch of talent, too.”
She also decided to make it thematic instead of chronological, allowing her to pair younger artists with some of the trailblazers in female portraiture, including Black women who chose themes and subjects not typically portrayed during certain periods of time or by their male counterparts. These include women of color depicted in daily life, interpretations of the female body, objectification.
The scope of the project was daunting. Karnes says she began with the practical and simplistic exercise of choosing the most compelling painting from each artist. But even that was challenging due to some painters having major retrospectives already planned, as well as the pandemic causing the dates of the show to move several times.
And then there’s the show’s catalog, another involved project for Karnes. “At a certain point, I just sequestered myself and got it done,” she says. “I wanted other voices than my own to be included. Many artists had written in the ’70s and ’80s for Heresies [a feminist publication on art and politics based in New York].” Karnes included texts from two Black women known for more than just their art. Atlanta-born Emma Amos was a pioneer in her field and also an educator and activist. “It’s always been my contention,” Amos says in her biography, “that for me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.” She died in 2020 from complications associated with Alzheimer’s. Harlem-born Faith Ringgold’s early work was inspired by African art; her quilts later helped her tell stories. One evolved into an award-winning children’s book.
When we spoke with Karnes in mid-April, she told us that with the 172-page catalog printed and delivered to the Modern, she’s been waking up at 4 a.m. thinking about all the last-minute details. A few paintings had arrived; the rest were headed to Fort Worth by truck. She was excited about the installation of the show, to see it all come together in the museum’s galleries. “And after the opening parties and tours, a kind of postpartum effect kicks in. It’s definitely like giving birth.”
Karnes hopes “Women Painting Women” brings a different energy into the museum. “There will be things people hate and things people love. I’m OK with that. There should be a conversation.” When asked about her goals in presenting the show, Karnes says she wanted to show how female artists used portraiture to tell stories about beauty, pain, pleasure and everyday life in ways different from those of their male counterparts. She hopes there’s a local effect, too. “While the portraits should connect with all kinds of women, I really want the exhibition to resonate with young women, including those who are artists and girls who see the show and think, ‘I can do this, too.’”