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Where Are All the Women?

If the museum doesn’t own work by all of these artists, it needs to go shopping. For the hand-wringers who imagine this would trash the canon, I’ll note that cramming in 50 more paintings by women would still keep their presence below 16 percent. Of course, if MoMA removed some warhorses like Dine, Gottlieb, and Kitaj at the same time, things could get really interesting.

Ideologies are fortresses; ideas blaze new territories. As many have said, MoMA needs to begin telling a more complex story of modernism, or it’ll be telling a story only it believes. Museums are not tombs where people go to simply stare at objects. They are places to participate—places where things you don’t understand change your life. Museums have to not only defend the canon but also delve into and question it. They are guardians of history, but they’re also makers of meaning and metaphors. If a museum doesn’t continually nourish itself, it will die, and part of MoMA is dying.

But maybe only this part. Curators in other departments have bravely integrated women into exhibitions, with good results. This week will see the opening of Deborah Wye’s “Multiplex,” a big group show of 72 works made from 1970 to the present. Not only does this exhibition contain 26 works by women; a lion’s share of the space will be devoted to large installations by Louise Bourgeois, Hanne Darboven, and Nancy Spero. This summer’s “What Is Painting?” was more than a third women. The survey of Elizabeth Murray in 2005 was unevenly reviewed but a promising sign. The recent reinstallation of the photography collection includes excellent groupings of work by women, as does the current drawing show. The film-and-video and prints departments have long been virtually gender-blind. All this would resonate more if only MoMA weren’t fetishizing pure modernism on the fifth and fourth floors, trying to oversimplify the twentieth century.