Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2024
The Sky’s the Limit
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC 20036, October 21, 2023–Feb 25, 2024
The Sky’s the Limit, installation view, National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2023–24 (photograph by Jennifer Hughes, courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts)

When the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) reopened in October 2023 following a two-year renovation, visitors encountered not only a reimagined space—and roughly fifteen percent more of it—but also fresh takes on the institution’s collection and mission of promoting art by women. The most sweeping manifestation of the latter is Remix, a reinstallation of works in the NMWA’s permanent collection that stretches across six centuries (and much of the building), eschewing chronology in favor of thematic groupings like “Seeing Red” or “Elemental.”  While the historical specificity of particular works is lost in these clusters, the installation does reveal thought-provoking connections among women artists and their conditions across time. A related thread runs through the more tightly focused The Sky’s the Limit, staged in the museum’s special exhibition galleries. This show features thirty-two sculptures made by twelve artists between 1997 and 2023, including never-before displayed collection works, recent acquisitions, and loans. Practically, and seemingly primarily, the exhibition highlights the potential of the museum’s redesigned galleries, especially their ability to support large-scale work and suspended sculptures; as the introductory panel announces, The Sky’s the Limit renews NMWA’s mission of “collecting and exhibiting transformational sculpture.” Beyond this, the selected artists are described as inviting viewers to “move into, around, and sometimes under artworks” to arrive at “a new perspective on a range of themes” and as signaling the “impact and influence of women and nonbinary artists throughout history and into a bright future.” Although this conceptual framework at first appears as broad as the sky in the exhibition’s title, that capaciousness turns out to be pointed, offering room for the works and their installation to reveal something of the multiplicity of lived experiences at play in the twenty-first century. Perhaps paradoxically, what the show’s expansive bent ultimately brings into view is the fundamental knottiness of the contemporary moment, the coincident complications and promises inherent to its navigation.  

On entering the exhibition, an outsized title against a pale blue background greets us, a gesture towards the ceiling-hung nature of much of the work and the show’s aspirational ambitions. A broad opening gallery features a maze of bronze bells made by Davina Semo between 2019 and 2022 and hung by chains from the ceiling. Diversity is central to these variously shaped and scaled bells, with distinctions between them—smooth or textured, solid or perforated, matte or reflective—echoed internally by each form—installed neither high nor low, casting shadows that at once dematerialize and enrich, teasing sound and pointing up its absence. Irregularly spaced and suspended such that their humanoid forms rest around eye level, Semo’s bells come to appear so many singularities, markers of the array of notes individuals within a collective might sound, and prompt viewers to consider their own situations relationally. The complexities spread across and within Semo’s work manifest anew within Rina Banerjee’s maximalist quasi-figural sculptures from 2012 and 2014, which bracket the gallery. Built from intentionally disparate found objects ranging from pewter soldiers to glass chandeliers to acrylic horns, these riotous constructions embody the mess of contradictions that is contemporary, commodified global living. As a label has Banerjee remarking, her art “depicts a delicate world that is also aggressive, tangled, manipulated, fragile, and very, very dense.”

Delicacy and density alike characterize the remainder of the exhibition’s layout. From the opening gallery, the viewer is directed down one of two aisles, each featuring niches with work or works by a different artist off either side. This arrangement sets the scene for a focused engagement with individual pieces and encourages ongoing toggling between installations. A related back-and-forth informs Sonya Clark’s impactful Curls (2005). Comprised of black combs joined together and suspended as strands from the ceiling, each segment resists the straightening that is its material’s ostensible goal as it insistently twists towards the floor. That curling, an assertion of Black visibility, is amplified by the totality of strands and their lighting, which creates coils of shadows against the walls. As a circumambulating viewer enters into those shadowed curls, their cultural meanings and histories are rendered newly proximate.

As Clark’s work drifts towards the ground, across from it, the blue-black female figure of Alison Saar’s Undone (2012) levitates, seated atop a floating chair with a gauzy dress pooling on the floor below and a red root stretching downward from between her legs. Perhaps inadvertently, the work’s installation underscores ambiguities Saar has put in place. The figure’s positioning might signal ascent or an overcoming of historical weight—a label notes the deep blue skin tone is owed to Saar’s interest in indigo dye, brought to the Americas from Africa—with the root reading as generative, conjuring menstrual cycles or an umbilical cord, and the bottles attached to it read as vessels for all the body contains. However, with the figure nearly touching the ceiling, limitations rather than boundlessness are conjured: a bumping against a barrier unprepared to break, with the red protrusion and its bottles quickly transforming into so many anchors.

Catty-cornered, Cornelia Parker’s Thirty Pieces of Silver (exhaled) Sugar Bowl (2003) moves propulsively downward. Composed of silver-plated items (cutlery, serving dishes) crushed by a two-hundred-fifty-ton industrial press and then strung from the ceiling such that they hover just above the floor, the sculpture casts doubt on long-standing Western cultural values. As what was once held in high esteem comes crashing down, the work’s glistening delicacy testifies to the beauty of reimagined concepts of worth. Challenging historical standards and stereotypes around class and race, the juxtaposition of Parker’s revalued silver and Clark’s charged combs exemplifies the show’s range of concerns. Fittingly, across from Parker’s work, Johanna Unzueta’s oversized wood and felt hinges from the 2010s are cannily positioned in corners. There, they playfully amplify the potential for further opening, their material softening and emblematizing a curious, outward orientation to the world—modeling our movement across the exhibition’s varied terrain. At the end of this aisle, spread across but not quite holding a more open area, is Mariah Robertson’s 9 (2012), created with photographic materials exclusive of a camera. Her singular actions are cued by the variety of marks across more than one hundred feet of metallic paper, which animatedly folds over and into itself as if running through a projector. 

One of the exhibition’s most striking moments is a pairing of works by Petah Coyne: Untitled #1273 (The Age of Innocence) (2008) and Untitled #1458 (Marguerite Duras) (2019–20). Positioned in a darkly painted, spacious gallery, the former is predominantly white and the latter black, with both, again, hung from the ceiling.  In Untitled #1273, delicate silk flowers entombed by wax are woven into a rectangular support, split down the middle to emphasize the dualities materialized within—life and death, organic and manufactured, open and impenetrable. Set against its haunting romance is the menacing snare of wire-wrapped black glass balls that make up Untitled #1458. Bomb-like or, given its COVID-era context, viral, this work gives form to how the pandemic left us at once isolated and uneasily entangled with one another. Despite differences in tenor, the works feel undeniably of a piece, in keeping with the show’s both/and instead of either/or thematics. This passage also opens onto the most compelling sight line of the show, with the volatile downward arc of the black Coyne offset by the upward lilt of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s large, abstract cedar sculpture. Installed in an airier, light-filled room that points up the relative tightness we find elsewhere, von Rydingsvard’s intricately faceted works suggest ongoing expansion, even respiration. The viewer has space to breathe with them, perhaps taking stock of their idiosyncratic rhythms.

Sharing this organicism are Yuriko Yamaguchi’s sculptures, dating from the last few years. The exhibition’s niches serve the works well, bringing viewers into concentrated contact with their wending masses of wire and resin. The sculptures’ apparent upward drift seems facilitated by their constitutive tensions—manufactured/organic, opaque/transparent, tactile/ethereal—and opens onto an idealistic vision of difference’s power. The adjacent sculpture of Beatriz Milhazes answers the quiet of Yamaguchi with a cacophony of colored spheres, circles, and polyester flowers strung from multiple shaped forms. The installation’s dynamic asymmetries and globe-like components conspire to spin the viewer around, a choreography registering the joy that can accompany fullness. Those orbs find a pared-down counterpart across from them in Shinique Smith’s Daisies up your butterfly (2013). A ceiling-hung compact sphere of textiles, Smith bundles the histories of each item together to form a whole. While Smith’s slight work might be less forceful on its own, here it constitutes the purest expression of the knots so critical throughout the exhibition, from the works themselves to how they are hung. 

One question that might (and has) been posed of NMWA is whether a museum devoted exclusively to women artists remains necessary when many cultural institutions are actively pursuing a diversification of their collections. The quiet richness of The Sky’s the Limit suggests the answer is yes.

Katherine Markoski
Adjunct Professor in Art History, Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, George Washington University, American Women’s History Initiative Writer and Editor, Smithsonian American Art Museum