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Women have long been favored subjects in art, but their role as creator is a relatively new development. The Norton Museum of Art honors four female pioneers of modernist art in its new exhibition “O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York,” on display through May 15.

Spring Sale at Bendel’s, Florine Stettheimer

   The Norton’s entire 2015-16 special exhibition season highlights women in art, and this new show—curated by the museum’s curator of American Art, Ellen Roberts—contributes a vital historical and sociological context to the conversation. These four female artists all worked and lived in New York City between 1910 and 1935 and knew each other to some extent. By examining their work in parallel and comparing the mitigating circumstances that surround their art, Roberts builds a narrative about the constrictions faced by female artists at the turn of the twentieth century through to today.  “Their story is bigger than them,” Roberts says. “They sought to be seen as artists, not women artists. In different ways their works are seen through the lens of their gender and that limits our appreciation.”

   Roberts smartly organizes “Women Modernists” into four sections, reserving the work of the best-known artist in the group (Georgia O’Keeffe) for last. The exhibition opens with Marguerite Zorach, a self-taught artist whose vibrant, Fauvist-inspired works pop against a dark-blue background. As Roberts notes, Zorach mastered the fauve aesthetic and then made it her own by redefining the academic constructions of the nude female form. After giving birth to two children, Zorach had less time for painting so she shifted her focus toward textiles, and a handful of her impressive embroideries are included in the show. However, her efforts in this arena—combined with her role as a mother—hindered her ability to truly forge her own legacy in the art world.

   After Zorach, the museum walls transition into a calming hue of light blue to showcase the work of Helen Torr. A very shy and modest woman, Torr worked in New York City but spent most of her time on a house boat with her husband and fellow artist Arthur Dove. Despite the fact that Dove was Torr’s greatest fan, “society saw her work as imitating his,” Roberts says. Torr’s quiet energy is reflected in her delicate take on nature; she sought to find the abstraction in nature and often contrasted man-made structures with the natural world. Like Zorach, Torr never fully came into her own as an artist, but her restriction was a lack of confidence. She urged her sister to burn her work after her death—a request she thankfully ignored.

   The lively and colorful works of Florine Stettheimer are a welcome follow up to Torr’s dreary palette. Stettheimer was almost a full generation older than Zorach, Torr, and O’Keeffe, but she was a powerful player in the Manhattan art scene. A very wealthy woman, she adhered to the modernist impulse to undercut academic traditions and frequently used humor and satire to poke fun at high society, which she was a part of. Like Zorach, she often played with fauvist themes, and her most compelling works in “Women Modernists” include a series of three portraits of herself and her two sisters as well as her most famous work, Spring Sale at Bendel’s.

   The exhibition concludes with the art of Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most famed female artists of the twentieth century. Though best known for her provocative modern images of flowers and her Southwestern influences, O’Keeffe sought to define herself beyond her femininity. “She was conflicted about celebrating the femininity in her work,” Roberts says. “Women Modernists” features 14 O’Keeffe works that range from her floral-focused Jack-in-Pulpit series to two paintings of New York skyscrapers that capture her fascination with the modern world and her quest to defy critics.

   In an effort to further explore the works of these four extraordinary women, the Norton will host a Women Modernists Symposium on March 5. The event is free with museum admission and will include panels with leading scholars who will examine the intersection of gender and modernism. To learn more, visit norton.org

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