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Perspectives Identity

Women’s Work, Part 2

A second installment of conversations with contemporary women artists who reflect on their art and share what inspires them most in the Museum.

Mar 20, 2023

Painting of multiple sheets of drawn paper pasted in rows. Small line drawings of thick lips are embedded throughout this composition

Our celebration of Women’s History Month continues with our second installment of conversations with contemporary women artists whose work resides in The Met’s collection. Amie Siegel considers how her 2013 film, Provenance, explores conflicted feelings about the things with which we surround ourselves. Chakaia Booker invites viewers to take the time to engage with her sculpture, Raw Attraction (2001), allowing the work to reframe the ways they see the world. Finally, Ellen Gallagher cites a poem she read at seventeen as the inspiration for Delirious Hem (1995). 

Amie Siegel

Gallery view of a screen showing a teak chair with gray cushions and armrests in an empty urban setting.

Amie Siegel (American, 1974). Provenance (installation view), 2013. HD video, color/sound. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Francis Lathrop Fund, 2014 (2014.1971). © Amie Siegel. Photo by Eileen Travell

Is there anything you would like readers to know about Provenance?

Provenance is a film installation revealing the layers of patrimony that influence the cultural value of objects, the speculative markets of art and design. Provenance focuses on the furniture designed by Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier for Chandigarh, the controversial modernist city in India. Beginning with the furniture in the present—decorating wealthy homes in London, Paris, Antwerp, and New York—the film then traces the furniture’s journey in reverse chronology through warehouses, on display at American and European auctions, at a furniture restorer’s, on a cargo ship, and, finally, back to their origins in Chandigarh. In their original context, these prized pieces function as everyday office furniture: to be used or, at times, discarded. Their migration as the spoils of modern design discloses the gulf between disparate settings, mapping the undercurrents of larger movements of capital. Provenance is a gesture of social and pictorial collage writ large. Since the work’s exhibition at The Met in 2014, the piece seems to have become a locus for our conflicted feelings regarding things in our world (furniture, design, artworks): how their value and cultivated taste, those great unconscious cultural forces, are constructed.

Are there works at The Met you regularly turn to when you visit?

I love the gathering and suturing together of elements on display at The Met, particularly those that might be mistaken as museum architecture rather than collection objects. One of these is a studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio (1478–82), which was shipped from Italy and reassembled at the Museum. This small, entirely wood-paneled room could easily be mistaken for an empty room, absent of collection objects. Visitors tend to duck in, glance around, and quickly turn on their heel. The studiolo, traditionally an intimate room set aside for contemplation and study within fifteenth-century Italian palaces and villas, was populated by books, scientific instruments, and works of art—it was a space for a collection, for its aristocratic owner to retreat into dialogue with their objects, and thus with historians, scientists, and artists past and present.

The Met’s studiolo, created for the Umbrian palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, presents an image of the studiolo’s collection in its surfaces. Its paneled walls are inlaid wood, themselves depicting wood cabinets whose latticed doors open at various angles to reveal books, musical instruments, candlesticks, a dagger, hourglass, checkerboard mazzocchio, inkwell and quill, quadrant, armillary sphere, cittern and plumb bob, among other objects. A feat of perspective and trompe l’oeil, one cabinet slyly reveals a birdcage, while other decorative elements such as a long bench, chair, an organetto, and a lectern are depicted beneath or before the cabinets.

A studio of walls carried out in a wood-inlay technique known as intarsia. The studio showcases cabinets, books and objects reflecting Duke Federico's wide-ranging artistic and scientific interests.

Designer: Designed by and executed under the supervision of Francesco di Giorgio Martini (Italian, 1439–1501). Maker: Executed in the workshop of Giuliano da Maiano (Italian, 1432–1490) and Benedetto da Maiano (Italian, 1442–1497). Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, ca. 1478–82. Walnut, beech, rosewood, oak and fruitwoods in walnut base, H. 15 ft. 10 15/16 in. (485 cm), W. 16 ft. 11 15/16 in. (518 cm), D. 12 ft. 7 3/16 in. (384 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1939 (39.153)

The studiolo, in its program to connect its inhabitants with objects of the past, might be regarded as a prototypical museum. Yet it is a personal one—a private, privileged menagerie. The studiolo was a space for a gentleman, a prince. In fact the duke built another studiolo at his palace in Urbino that was populated by paintings of illustrious men, several of which now hang in the Musée du Louvre. The few aristocratic women who created their own studiolo, such as Isabella d’Este of Mantua, are outliers, rather as women in museums still are, making up an astonishingly small portion of artists whose work is in collections, as well as those hired to take positions as directors and chief curators. People of color are represented by even more dismal numbers.

During the display of Provenance at The Met in 2014, it was mentioned in passing that I was the youngest woman artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum. Rather than be honored by that distinction, I experienced that sinking feeling one has when a large truth sweeps over them—have we only come this far?

What works at The Met have spoken to you or influenced your work?

My own history of being compelled by works at The Met goes back to my anti-authoritarian, desultory teenage years, a period torn between emulating the rebelliousness of the Sex Pistols and the gloomy, romantic post-punk of new wave (Soft Cell, The Smiths, New Order). My sixteen-year-old self was entranced by the Museum’s Jean-Léon Gérôme painting Pygmalion and Galatea (ca. 1890), in which the pale marble of the model’s figure turns to flesh as it rises to meet its sculptor in a passionate embrace. I slyly pinched a poster of the painting from the gift shop, then located in the lobby, conveniently close to an exit. The poster hung near my bed in my teenage room, upon a wall I had painstakingly “marbleized,” deploying the eighties trompe l’oeil painting treatment to mimic the veining and strata of marble.

Painting of a studio setting where a man kisses a female sculpture that is brought to life by the goddess Venus, in fulfillment of Pygmalion’s wish for a wife as beautiful as the sculpture he created.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904). Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890. Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 in. (89 x 69 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Louis C. Raegner, 1927 (27.200)

When Provenance was exhibited at The Met, I realized that the Jérôme painting was only a few galleries away from where I was installing. Each morning I walked through a satellite gift shop of posters and trinkets on the Museum’s second floor to reach my own exhibition space, and thus got into the habit of dropping a few bills into the tip jar next to the register, penance for my early poster heist. On the last morning of installation, a day before the exhibition opening, I walked through the store and noticed a poster of Provenance hanging behind the register.

Lately, the surreal suspension of objects and dark, dramatic quietude in the newly renovated British Galleries was inspiring to me while I was making my recent piece Bloodlines (2022), a film following the lives of portraits by the eighteenth-century British artist George Stubbs, whose paintings of the British aristocracy—their horses, dogs, houses, and families—reside in private stately homes throughout England and Scotland, often hanging on the walls of the homes of the original families who commissioned them. The work is a portrait of class, labor, and bloodlines (equine, familial, artistic) told through objects and the rarified decorative spaces in which they hang, often cast in the stillness of the British upper classes, whose accumulations of land and property—including cultural property, such as paintings—reinforces the tight class grip on privilege and intergenerational wealth.

Chakaia Booker

A mound of sliced and gathered tire pieces takes on the look of feathers or scales covering an ambiguous hulking creature. Nestled in this mass are rows of curved rubber pieces that resemble a vulva, from which a sharp piece of steel protrudes.

Chakaia Booker (American, 1953). Raw Attraction, 2001. Rubber tire, steel, and wood, 42 × 32 × 40 in. (107 × 81 × 102 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Hortense and William A. Mohr Sculpture Purchase Fund, 2001 (2001.413) © Chakaia Booker

Is there anything you would like readers to know about Raw Attraction?

As an abstract artist, I am not looking for a specific experience for the viewer; rather, I am interested in creating work that elicits an emotional, intellectual, and physical response. Each viewer brings their unique life experiences, their associations, their reading to work. Raw Attraction sits on a pedestal at a human scale. The movement, rhythm, and flow of the rubber-tire pieces, metal, and wood pull the viewer around the work. It is the time element of viewing sculpture in the round that helps engender a relationship between the viewer and the work. That is what I am going for, a connection. I want the viewer to walk away from the work influenced by it, and see the world a little differently as a result of spending time with the work. It’s the purpose of art, and of museums like The Met.

Are there works at The Met you regularly turn to when you visit?

I always make a point to see the rooftop commissions and special exhibitions. When in the Museum, I try to see as much of it as I can. Even if I can’t spend much time, I try to at least get a glimpse. There are few institutions that can create a conversation between works from around the world and throughout human history with works from the present the way The Met can. It is really the whole package for me. The building, the flowers, the works you discover in hallways, and the people: this is what The Met is for me, it’s not about single works.

What works at The Met have spoken to you or influenced your work?

I can’t say that there are specific works but the idea that the works of the past and the present are in conversation with one another—and will continue to be involved with future works that enter the collection—is what influences me. It’s the contrast of the details of individual works with the larger context of history that is both humbling and inspiring. Artists use their voice to influence the world and institutions like The Met provide artists with a platform to reach a wider audience, myself included. 

Ellen GallagherPainting of multiple sheets of drawn paper pasted in rows. Small line drawings of thick lips are embedded throughout this composition

Ellen Gallagher (American, 1965). Delirious Hem, 1995. Graphite and colored pencil on papers, mounted on canvas, 84 x 72 1/4 in. (213 x 184 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Norman Dubrow, 2010 (2010.427.3) © Ellen Gallagher

Is there anything you would like readers to know about Delirious Hem?

I would like to note the title comes from a poem I read first when I was seventeen and remains close by: Emily Dickinson’s “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch.” Here the delirious hem is both a literal garment to me and a state of mind.

I also think it’s interesting that this is already a kind of oceanic image, like Oh! Susanna (1995). There is a sense of western expansion but the form of the weave/painting is sea-like. To be inside a maelstrom would most certainly mean death at sea. The ship would not escape the swirling, downward pull.

It's also an early example of the machined world/natural world dialectic in my work, which also appears in An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity (2008). “Like a maelstrom with a notch”—there’s this idea that turbulence can somehow be controlled. Like it’s part of some machinery, or some other force that’s not quite natural that also “toys coolly with your delirious hem.”

Are there works at The Met you regularly turn to when you visit?

One work that I return to often is this headrest featuring a female caryatid figure by the Master of the Cascade Coiffure. This stunning piece has directly inspired not only my diptych Dance You Monster (2000) but also my recent series Ecstatic Draught of Fishes (2019–ongoing). Something is projecting forward beyond the image here that speaks to the handling of the material within the social world: the aspect of collage, the wear on the caryatid.

Wood neck rest sculpture of a nude female figure in an asymmetrical pose: the left knee bent up and the right elbow bent downward. Beads are around the figure's head, neck and waist

Master of the Cascade Coiffure (Zaire). Headrest: Female Caryatid Figure, 19th century. Wood, beads, plant fiber, H. 6 3/8 × W. 5 1/8 × D. 4 in. (16.2 × 13 × 10.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Margaret Barton Plass, in honor of William Fagg, C.M.G., 1981 (1981.399)

I return to The Met to visit individual works but also for exhibitions like Kongo: Power and Majesty. More recently I was incredibly moved by the research, display, and discourse around transatlantic kaolin inserts on view in Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina.

Diptych of a power figure at the Hear Me Now exhibition at The Met fifth avenue and two face jugs from the same exhibition photographed in a studio in front of a light brown background

Left: Vili (Kongo). Power figure, ca. 1850. Wood, iron, nails, blades and fragments, and fiber cord, 41 × 14 × 10 in. (104 × 35 × 26 cm). University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern (2005/1.192) Right: Face jug, ca. 1867–85. Maker: Unrecorded Edgefield District potter (American). Maker: attributed to the Miles Mill Pottery (American, 1867-85). Made in Edgefield County, South Carolina, United States. Alkaline-glazed stonewae with kaolin, 7 in (18 cm). Lent by April L. Hynes, and Face jug, ca. 1850–80. Maker: Unrecorded Edgefield District potter (American). Manufacturer: Unknown Old Edgefield District Pottery. Made in Edgefield County, South Carolina, United States. Alkaline-glazed stoneware with kaolin, 10 1/4 in. (26 cm). Purchase, Nancy Dunn Revocable Trust Gift, 2017 (2017.310)

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