Back in the 1980s, Philadelphia artist and collector Linda Lee Alter realized that the collection she had assembled was dominated by the works of men. So she decided to sell them off and begin building a collection exclusively dedicated to women.
From the start, Alter intended that the collection would one day wind up in a museum, and she scouted many potential institutions before deciding to give everything to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in her home town. The result is a 500-piece treasure trove, and nearly eighty of the best works make up The Female Gaze: The Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women, which is now on view at the University of Denver's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery.
In some ways, this show is not too different from the Transit of Venus exhibit that was at RedLine earlier this year, especially the preference seen for figurative styles over abstract ones. Abstraction was viewed by first-wave feminist artists as being patriarchal. And while that notion may not ring true today, it did inform a generation of women artists who came of age in the 1970s and '80s, and it is from this group that the main current of the Alter Collection was established.
DU gallery director Dan Jacobs, who helped make the selections seen here, was interested in showcasing examples of the art-of-identity movement, which is why there are so many self-portraits and portraits. Artists associated with the art of identity — not just women, but African-Americans, Latinos and others — wanted to convey political content though the depiction of themselves or their communities.
The show includes pieces by many of the most famous artists in the collection, which is essentially a who's-who list of women's-identity artists, including Kiki Smith, Joan Brown, Judy Chicago, Viola Frey, Nancy Grossman, Hung Liu, Ana Mendieta, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold and Nancy Spero. Some of the pieces cross over identity-wise, like Kara Walker's "I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle" (pictured), which addresses her identity as both a woman and an African-American.
In addition to these well-established artists, there are many who are less well known, such as Judith Schaechter, whose outrageous stained-glass window — one part medieval, one part Disney — is one of the strongest works in the show. Also great are the neo-pop informational signs by Ilona Granet.
There's been a lot of talk over the past several decades about whether there are differences between art by men and art by women, and clearly, collector Alter believed that there were. See for yourself before The Female Gaze closes this Sunday, May 4, at the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery in the Shwayder Art Building, 2121 East Asbury Avenue. Call 303-871-3716 or go to myhrengallery.com for more information.