When Will Women Artists Be Equal?

ZURICH — On a recent trip to this city, I found it energized by exhibitions that compose a vivid picture of women’s historical underrepresentation in art and museums. In particular, the shows all foreground patterns of disruption that hinder women’s art careers. 

At Kunsthaus Zurich, ReCollect!, a vibrant exhibition decrying this lack of representation, occupies one gallery. The show was organized by Hulda Zwingli, a collective of women artists founded in 2019, on the day of the Women’s Strike. Hulda Zwingli is the Swiss equivalent of New York’s Guerrilla Girls, their tactics updated for today’s social media culture. The Swiss collective styles itself as a cheeky influencer, equally active on Instagram and in the city’s public spaces. In ReCollect!, photographs document their actions. For one, a placard placed on a public statue of a nude reads, “Do women in Zurich have to be naked to get into the public space?,” while another asks, “Is the percentage of women artists here under 5%?” — Kunsthaus Zurich visible in the background of the image. 

For the exhibition, the collective paired their pieces with works by an international array of women artists, including Austrian Maria Lassnig and American Mary Kelly, the latter represented by part four of her six-part series Post-Partum Document (1976), devoted to a mother-child relationship. The show also features a witty video envisioning how robotic AI, fed by algorithms, might misrepresent Hulda Zwingli as “a loyal follower of her husband, the reformer Huldrych Zwingli,” a real-life Swiss Reformation figure, whose name the collective combined with that of Swiss art collector Hulda Zumsteg. (The video riffs as well on the fact that Hulda was both a Hebrew prophetess and a figure of Norse mythology.) The wall text adds, in flamboyant Instagram fashion replete with hashtags and exclamation marks, “We will all be destroyed by fake news, but Hulda will be burned at the stake before that happens.”

Within the ReCollect! space is a chair accompanied by a sign that reads, “Make space, monsieur. Finally!,” and another chair with a placard: “Take your place, madame. Finally!” (I did). The items are part of a project by artists Brigit Meier and Andrea Ritter, who took the chairs around Zurich in 1991, on the day of the first Women’s Strike, and who’ve been restaging it since 2019, along with Seline Fülscher.

The exhibition’s most pointed work lists the names of male artists from the museum’s 1481 shows to date, highlighting 60 women with solo shows. What’s compelling is not so much the minuscule number of women — art institutions exhibiting historical work all struggle with this — but its articulation visually: the names of women artists, including Käthe Kollwitz, Maria Lassnig, and Etel Adnan, are thinly staggered. The accompanying wall text notes that women were “usually shown in the entrance or in a small space for graphics,” underscoring the point that few had the success to be recognized individually within the institution.

On the same floor of the museum is Swiss artist Barbara Visser’s Alreadymade, dedicated to the Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. The works illustrate the many ways that women’s art careers are disrupted or overshadowed. Born in Poland in 1874, Freytag-Loringhoven lived in Paris and then New York, where she was active in the Greenwich Village art scene, before settling in Germany. Visser presents Freytag-Loringhoven’s itinerant life and career across typewritten pages, as if writing a biography. 

Visser does a lovely job of conveying Freytag-Loringhoven’s adventurousness, while framing her practice as fleeting, and overlooked. For instance, she takes up an anecdote in which the Dadaist allegedly gave Duchamp the idea of making an artwork from a urinal, resulting in his controversial and groundbreaking “Fountain” (1917). Visser’s small ceramic 3-D replicas, titled “Failed Fountains” (2024), are scattered through the gallery, along with a few works by male artists from the museum’s collection, and a five-channel film installation using 3-D avatars to recreate details of Freytag-Loringhoven’s life. In it, Visser quotes Duchamp’s description of Freytag-Loringhoven: “She’s not a futurist, she is the future.” A story of Freytag-Loringhoven being arrested for wearing men’s clothes and smoking in the streets of New York, also retold in the installation, embodies her performative, avant-garde, and feminist inclinations. But ultimately poverty and struggles with mental health made it impossible for her to establish any continuity up to her death in Paris in 1927. Her artistic output seems to have petered out after moving to Berlin in 1923.

Another example of a sidelined artistic career can be seen in Logic and Intuition, a gorgeous career survey of Swiss artist Hedi Mertens, at Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv, curated by Evelyne Bucher. (The work of German-Iranian contemporary artist Bettina Pousttchi, also indebted to the legacies of Dada and Constructivism, currently fills the museum’s lower floors.) 

Born in 1893, Mertens went to art school and made expressionist pieces in the 1930s. But she soon started a family and dedicated herself to her two children. Although she drew a lively artistic and intellectual circle, including writer Herman Hesse and psychologist Carl Jung, she acted more as a creative instigator than an artist. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Mertens found the confidence to paint again. Inspired in part by her 1930s trip to an ashram run by Indian mystic Meher Baba in Meherabad, her constructivist paintings are imbued with a metaphysical quality, coupled with her interest in musical rhythm. Between the ’60s and her death in 1982 she produced some 200 paintings. Simultaneously meditative and rigorous, her works at Haus Konstruktiv capture dynamism with minimalist means: the square, as visual protagonist, and color. 

The trajectories of these two women artists, along with Hulda Zwingli’s activist intervention, together highlight how societal changes have been slow to improve conditions for women’s individual artistic paths. Decades later, expectations to prioritize family — or male peers — remains the prevailing norm rather than the exception. 

ReCollect! continues is ongoing at Kunsthaus Zurich (Heimplatz 1/5, Zurich, Switzerland). The exhibition was curated by Hulda Zwingli.

Barbara Visser: Alreadymade continues at Kunsthaus Zurich through May 12. The exhibition was organized by the museum.

Hedi Mertens: Logic and Intuition continues at Haus Konstruktiv (Selnaustrasse 25, Zurich, Switzerland) through May 5. The exhibition was curated by Evelyne Bucher.

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