The Seismic Power of Feminist Art: Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum Presents A Century of Women in Prints

“Excellence has no sex,” the German-born American artist Eva Hesse once remarked in an interview. That unassailable truth is born out in A Century of Women in Prints, 1917-2017, on view through December 17 in the Stern Gallery West of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin. Curated by Andaleeb Badiee Banta, with the assistance of Oberlin student Claire Rasmussen and curatorial intern Kylie Fisher, the diverse selection of fine art prints, all made in the past century by women artists, was culled from the museum’s superb permanent collection. International contemporary and historical prints have been a primary focus at the Allen since its founding, and the present group is, among other things, a tribute to the museum’s longstanding progressive collecting practices.

It is also a part of the museum’s centenary celebration, and reminds visitors that in the not-so-distant past the mechanical, workmanlike nature of the printmaking process was considered a boys-only medium (like so much else). From this standpoint of technical prowess, what is striking about these works, perhaps as much as their significance on the battlefields of gender, is their variety in terms of media and process, subject matter, style, and nationality. The two dozen or so works on view run a gamut from Käthe Kollwitz’s stark Weimar-period woodcuts, to a 1990 two-color lithograph by Kiki Smith, and a 2004 digital print made with bubble wrap on photo-sensitive paper by Korean artist Koo Kyung Sook in 2004.

The Allen is home to the Eva Hesse archive, so it’s no surprise that two of Hesse’s early etchings, made when she was 22 years old (and still studying at Yale with Josef Albers), are included here. They are semi-abstract compositions executed in what is, in contrast to her later work, an uncharacteristically traditional, even conservative medium. Yet of all the artists in this show, the proto-feminist, foundational postminimalist Hesse has a particularly strong claim on the interests of our own time, grabbing flotsam from the currents of contemporary life and conceptually reconfiguring the hidden sensuality of goopy or bristling materials. A few years after making these two prints, Hesse began working in materials like latex and wire, or wool, although she also continued to make paintings on canvas until her untimely death from cancer in 1970, at age 34. It’s fascinating to glimpse the excellent work she was doing earlier, in a more abstract expressionist phase.

Many—even most—of the artists on display were revolutionary in their way. Audrey Flack, the renowned photorealist painter (also a one-time student of Josef Albers) is represented here by a color lithograph called, Macarena Esperanza. It’s a photograph taken by Flack during a trip to Spain, based on a very famous 17th-century statue of the Queen of Heaven and patron saint of Seville, by woman artist Luisa Roldán. Flack has made art and also written (as in her 1986 book Art and Soul) about matters both spiritual and feminist, concerns powerfully folded together in this image.

Kiki Smith, likewise, is a contemporary artist whose work is very hard to categorize. The untitled lithograph at the Allen exhibit is quite abstract and may represent a knot of hair (a quintessential feminist subject), but in general her work since the 1980s has tended to be markedly imagistic, taking place at the edge of narrative or myth and concerned equally with emotional states and the physical facts of the human body. The sheer deadliness of life, wound around with the mists and mysteries of dream and the psyche, are most commonly her subjects.

Of critical importance in the history of German Expressionism and printmaking in general is the seminal early-20th-century artist Käthe Kollwitz, represented in the show by a group of four, typically high-contrast woodcuts. The extent of influence Kollwitz and her heartfelt, gut-wrenching socialist images has had on 20th-century art and politics would be hard to overestimate. Like so much at the Allen, these are international treasures.

Also of great interest, and of real importance to the ongoing revolutions of class and gender represented by the Allen’s collection, are the artists seen here who enjoy less attention at the moment. Athena Tacha, for three decades an Oberlin-based sculptor and educator, whose work can be seen in many northern Ohio museums and on campuses, has had a broad impact on the understanding of environmental site-specific and conceptual art. Her monochromatic, inkless, color-free 1977 embossed Dutch paper print brings three dimensional themes of material manipulation and natural repetitions into printmaking—a kind of visit to Flatland. At another end of the temperamental spectrum, long-time Cleveland-based Japanese American artist Jean Kobota Cassill is represented by a profoundly poetic 1972 intaglio titled Full Sky – Empty Sea. Like so many of her works, this one is a masterpiece of attention to plate and tonal qualities. The longer you look, the more you see, in a delicate world of tactile variation. The windswept forlorn places Kubota represents are like those storybook paintings that have the power to absorb the viewer into another world.

Jean Kabota Cassill, Full Sky Empty Sea, 1972, intaglio

Jean Kabota Cassill, Full Sky Empty Sea, 1972, intaglio

Tectonic shifts in attention, in scale, in value and focus are among the slow shocks and great benefits that feminism has brought to our era, in part through the engagements and conversations of contemporary art. To whatever extent is possible in a small, even modest, exhibit like this one, the outlines of a great cultural transformation nevertheless emerge, reminding us how transformative art can be.