Why Kim Schoenstadt’s Now Be Here Is More Than a Celebration of Female Artists
In the summer of 1958, a young photographer was tasked with making history in Harlem. A freelancer for Esquire, Art Kane had asked (by word of mouth) for the city’s jazz musicians to gather together on the morning of August 12th, at 17 East 126th Street, for a group photo. This iconic image documented an historic moment for the Jazz community—57 musicians were present, including legends Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. The picture was published in the January issue of Esquire the following year, and became known as A Great Day in Harlem 1958.
Last week, the L.A. artist Kim Schoenstadt cited the historic photograph’s tale as part of the inspiration behind Now Be Here, a participatory work that saw her organize her own epic group photograph. Schoenstadt sent an email to some 200 of the city’s female and female-identifying artists, inviting them to gather together at Downtown L.A. gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel on Sunday afternoon. She also asked them to forward the invitation to fellow artists identifying as women, hoping to gain, literally, a critical mass. And she did. A group of 733 female artists flooded around a sculpture by Jackie Winsor in the massive gallery’s central courtyard. The motivating force behind the event, Schoenstadt told reporters, was the all-female group show at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016,” which comes to a close this weekend.
Based on logistical and organizational aspects alone, Now Be Here should most certainly be considered an achievement. However, with Kane’s image in mind, the project and the resulting photographs prompt the question: Decades from now, will we look back at Schoenstadt’s photograph and see the embodiment of a significant cultural moment for women artists?
The event comes at a time when the male-dominated status quo of the art world is largely intact. Museums are still catering to famous male artists, and auction records reflect on longstanding predilections for works made by white men. As something of a consolation, the all-female group show has become a rampant trope—filling galleries more than museums, but in some cases, representing a side of recent art history that has been woefully absent from exhibitions and art history curricula.
Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s show, with its strong angle, was a prime example of this type of show. With major loans from museums and private collections, it showed prime works by established (and a few emerging) female artists that have been excluded from leading discussions of modern and contemporary sculpture. Another show that generated beneficial buzz was the Denver Art Museum’s “The Women of Abstract Expressionism,” which similarly sought to revisit the historical record, and challenge the perceived inherent maleness of the movement. On a smaller scale, this summer, Cheim & Read in New York staged a striking challenge to the male gaze, presenting works by women portraying men, including phallus sculptures from Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Sarah Lucas.
There are some who are not partial to the all-female model, the argument being that gender isolation shouldn’t be the answer, and isn’t productive. And in shows where a central thread or argument is lacking, that’s true. But any opportunity to elevate and intellectually contextualize the work of women artists should be supported; in reality, a temporary platform that focuses on art by women is a small gesture.
But beyond corrections to the art-historical canon, all-female shows have shone a spotlight both on the team mentality among female artists and the communities of support and discussion that they share. Whereas in past decades there may have only been room for one outstanding female photographer, or one mystifying female Surrealist painter, today, as Schoenstadt’s work proved, women artists are apt to support one another, rather than compete. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Schoenstadt that so many women artists showed up—that so many didn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of something, and to support one of their own at the same time. It should be expected.
So did Schoenstadt make history this weekend? In the way that Kane’s photograph became a historic record of Harlem’s legendary jazz community, no. The hundreds of women artists who gathered on Sunday represent various generations, backgrounds, types of art, creative motivations, and communities—to pigeonhole them simply as women artists is diminutive. But Schoenstadt’s photo op was a success in that she got us thinking about the cultural climate in which this event is happening and the historically embedded issues that women artists are still facing.
While the event has been portrayed as a congratulatory and celebratory moment, it should also be a wake-up call that women artists still have a long way to go. It’s not a question of making history—it’s a question of fighting it.