Linda Lee Alter's collection of art by women, 25 years in the making, makes its public debut at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the title "The Female Gaze."
At the entrance to the show, visitors are greeted by a monumental ceramic "grandmother" figure by Viola Frey that unequivocally announces not only that one has entered the domain of female art, but that this art easily holds its own with any other.
As one quickly comes to realize, the "gaze" in question refers not only to women expressing how they experience daily life and the world, it embodies the intelligence that shaped the collection.
Alter isn't an art historian or exclusively a connoisseur; she's also an artist. Yet her vision goes beyond even a female artist's perspective.
The nearly 500 works in a variety of media, which she gave to the academy two years ago, incorporate an emphatically humanist point of view.
Aesthetic judgments played a role in her acquisitions, but the unifying thread is a concern for how people, especially women, get on in life. This, not just the desire to give female artists more visibility, is what gives her collection special appeal.
Curator Robert Cozzolino had the not-so-enviable task of figuring out how to shape this mass of art into a workable show. The collection itself offered only one hint: It's mostly representational, strong on narration and symbolism. Abstraction isn't much of a presence.
It isn't a collection of stunning masterpieces, either, though overall quality is consistently high. Judging by the catalog, which includes all 185 artists Alter acquired, the art that was left out would have made an equally satisfying show.
Cozzolino decided to organize the 244 works into three sections - Selfhood and Community, Politics, and Nature and Ecology. The first could easily be two categories, while the other two are broadly elastic. Nevertheless, they serve the intended purpose, to impose structure and make the show comfortable to navigate.
Alter began to collect about 1985, by which time the feminist movement had proved the argument that female artists were woefully underrepresented in museums and galleries and in the art market.
She says she was guided by several principles - to form a collection she eventually would place in a museum, to buy art she wanted to live with, and to patronize artists in the Philadelphia region as well as those known nationally.
She also decided to concentrate on the last four decades, which gives the exhibition a contemporary flavor.
Both the show and the catalog suggest that over 25 years she bought art by just about every prominent woman who exhibited solo in Philadelphia. Off the top of my head, I couldn't think of anyone she missed.
While local artists are strongly represented, there are enough national figures to preclude provincialism. Besides Frey, they include Louise Bourgeois, Joan Brown, Kiki Smith, Gladys Nilsson, Alice Neel, Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Beatrice Wood, and Faith Ringgold.
The collection's humanist dimension emerges in several ways. One is the generous percentage of minority artists, especially African Americans and Asian Americans. Another is the large number of works that address motherhood and female self-image, particularly nudes and self-portraits.
Two examples: As a declaration of pride and self-assurance, Diane Edison's semi-nude self-portrait is the most assertive, even combative, image of its kind I've ever encountered. And Neel's full-body nude portrait of a pregnant friend, Claudia Bach, posed as an odalisque, defines a genre no male painter could hope to equal, even in the unlikely event one was drawn to the subject and brave enough to attempt it.
Alter's collection oozes empathy both for female artists and for women's lives. It gives the expected attention to traditional "women's media," particularly fiber art, in just the right proportion.
In fiber, Alter chose examples - such as Ringgold's painted story quilt and Shapiro's collage image of a dress - that combine fabric and painted elements in a way that de-stigmatizes the dominant medium.
Yet the collection doesn't go overboard on explicitly feminist polemics, with two prominent exceptions: a plate from Judy Chicago's Dinner Party and Elaine Reichek's embroidered sampler that caustically decries female "bondage" dating back to Adam and Eve.
The Nature and Ecology section is perhaps the most amorphous of the three themes and also the least manifestly "female."
It includes landscapes and still lifes, and an effusively colored painting by Janet Fish that mixes both. An exquisitely detailed pencil drawing of trees by Emily Brown and another of coastal rocks by Edna Andrade, both of which represent intense scrutiny of nature, also stand out as exemplars of female sensibility.
The Alter gift has been integrated into the academy's full collection, not segregated as an autonomous entity; some pieces from it will always be on view, the museum says.
This approach is not only sensible, it responds constructively to the nagging question of whether regarding "art by women" as a genre has become a patronizing anachronism.
Female artists haven't yet achieved full parity with men, in museums or in the marketplace, and, as the Alter gift demonstrates, art by women does deal with themes that men avoid. Yet the gift also confirms that, in aesthetic terms, female artists no longer should be judged by a standard peculiar to them.
Art: Women at PAFA
"The Female Gaze" continues in the Hamilton Building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St., through April 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 11 to 5 Sundays. Admission is $15 general, $12 for visitors 60 and older and students with ID, and $10 for visitors 12 through 18. Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.
Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at email@example.com.