Sunday morning, November 12th I woke up in New York City with one mission in mind ~ I must look at anything by Frida Kahlo. While I was not certain, it seemed probable that her work would be at the Museum of Modern Art. Like so many artists and authors, I only know them in books and movies, I adore Frida Kahlo for so many things but, oddly, I had never seen one of her paintings in person. How big would it be, would the brush strokes show, how would it be framed and can I take pictures?
I took a taxi and arrived before opening and joined the line outside the door. I stood behind a man in a wheelchair. The museum employee pulled back the red rope and told us to go forward. I followed in the jet stream of the chair only to find myself cut off from the standard ticket table and standing embarrassed and alone wondering where to go. The guard glared as he told me to go back outside and get in the back of the line. With a grumble, I went to the end of the line and stood in the light rain waiting for another 10 minutes. Eventually the rope opened again and I got indoors, bought a ticket and was on my way to find Frida.
I took the elevator to the fifth floor and bee-lined to the information table. "Do you have a Kahlo?" I asked enthusiastically. The woman said, "Oh yes we do but it is not a very good one." "I would like to make that decision myself," I replied. She continued, "It is not one of her better ones. She is ugly and wearing a suit." "I traveled 3,000 miles to see it. You might consider not saying something like that," I said as I stepped away in disgust.
In the next room, hanging under plexiglass I found, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940, oil on canvas. It was surprisingly small ~ 15.75 X 11 inches. There it was, so moving, so emotional, so powerful, so revolutionary. Each color chosen, mixed and applied with her very hand. She had found her husband making love to her sister and cut her hair, sat legs open, wearing Diego's suit. If you look closely at the strands of hair on the floor surrounding the chair, you can single out her braid. How I wish I had known her. I stood in front of her portrait for a very long time.
Breaking from Frida's spell I walked through the room and spotted another familiar painting ~ a Lee Krasner ~ another woman! And one with another deeply flawed husband. No matter the cultural circumstances of their lives it is so wonderful to find work by women in a museum; housed and dry and safe and preserved and remembered.
Ignited with a possibility of more I trekked to the first floor hoping there would be more works by women in MoMA. I charged the main information desk on the first floor and who do I find but the very man who sent me back out to the rain. "Here I am ~ your favorite visitor," I laughed. "How can I help you?" he asked coldly. I explained that I would like to know how many female artists' work are in MoMA. He actually ran a query and gave me exact numbers! 423 works in all and 26 are by women. SIX PERCENT. I have the printout.
He was not at all surprised, not apologetic, not interested - only the facts ma'am. And while Congress has 16% women and the Supreme Court has one out of nine and MoMA has 6% ~ I grieve. I grieve for all the women who could not afford oil and canvas. I grieve for all the women whose passion called them to paint with what they could get; natural vegetable dye on perishable surfaces. I grieve for all the women who wanted to paint but had no time. I grieve for all the female leaders whose ethics disqualify them from national American politics and cannot amass the money required to run a campaign. I grieve for all the women who long for justice.