Ladies who launch: an appreciation

My mother took me to the McNay on Friday to see Neither Model nor Muse, which occupies the entire Stieren Center for Exhibitions through September 12. This is a terrific art show to see with your kid, or your mom. Not to brag, but it would be a pretty good show to see with my mom, Carol Fisch, a McNay docent for more than 30 years. If you’re 40 or younger, spent your childhood in San Antonio, and ever attended a school tour of the McNay, you may well have crossed paths with her: small, commandingly animated, with a slight Midwestern accent and a penchant for making you sit on the floor in front of a Goncharova and asking you about your feelings. If she didn’t lead you around, you still enjoyed the attentions of one of an army of (mostly female) docents who offered her time, passion, knowledge, and training to connect you with las bellas artes. They’re unpaid, hard-working volunteers, looking to put more art in your life. MK McNay’s posse, if you will.

Carol’s Docent M.O.: the Socratic method, direct eye contact.

Likes: “The Burghers of Calais,” engaging kids in dialogue (junior-high-school students present a particularly satisfying challenge), arts education in schools, Kathë Kollwitz (quick: do a Google Image search on her and see if it doesn’t prompt a meltdown), sensible shoes.

Dislikes: Reverence. She loves the McNay, and so do her kids (biological and museum visitors), though for years I thought of it as a Grandma’s attic kind of scene: unthreatening, respectable, familiar, and a mite out of touch. But she’s got issues with various pieces. Many of them, and she isn’t shy about opining. One of Carol Fisch’s time-honored strategies for getting kids to talk about art is to plant herself in front of an artwork and announce, “I don’t like this one. Who likes this? TELL ME WHY.”

Why this approach doesn’t scare the shit out of children and adolescents, I’ll never quite understand. Perhaps it’s her barely checked smartassery that kids identify with. It could be her repeated insistence that “there is no wrong answer.” Or maybe it’s the fact that she’s barely 5 feet tall.

“Sometimes, they convince me!” she tells me on Friday. “One of the reasons I enjoy `kids’ tours more than tours for adults` is that I learn more from kids … 8-year-olds have changed my mind, more than once.”

As she walked the Stieren Center this past Friday, my mom argued with me and Daniela Oliver, the McNay’s public-relations manager.

“There’s a Cindy Sherman,” I observed.

“So you recognize this Cindy Sherman right away,” Mom began. “Does this tactic pay off, or is Sherman just repeating the same formula, which is always self-portraiture?”

Daniela and I counter that most prominent artists have a signature, and that while Sherman may be the common denominator in a Cindy Sherman, it’s her role-playing, her willingness and execution of herself as canvas, that makes her important. Her attenuated ubiquity is powerful, a trait that seems very, well, female.

If Mom’s convinced, she doesn’t entirely let on.

Marion Koogler McNay died 60 years ago, but the visual artist, collector of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Southwestern art, peacock enthusiast, and philanthropist who left us her house and artworks still wields a little influence around the McNay Art Museum. A graceful, if old-fashioned, Deco semi-portrait of a woman by Mrs. McNay herself is on display at the front of Neither Model nor Muse. Nearby, “Head of a Girl” (1908), owned by Mrs. McNay and made by the now-canonical Mary Cassatt, holds court. Three O’Keeffes are also in the show.

These ladies set the early stage, erect the framework of what you thought you expected from any historical-survey Art by Women-type show. You already know that Cassatt’s visual legacy is now dipped in kitsch; that her renderings of mothers bathing rosy toddlers appear on coffee mugs and baby-shower invitations. But Cassatt had to fight like hell to make those images: Defy her father, leave the U.S., work and self-promote (I shouldn’t have to tell you how arduous and inappropriate this-all was in the 19th century), join up with the Impressionists (who at the time, you remember, were the most radical thing going), parse weird backwards-compliments like Degas’s “no woman has a right to draw like that,” and the disdain of contemporary critics who felt her style was too precise to be appropriate or flattering.

The paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, likewise an artist whose images regularly adorn T-shirts and whose life story was made into a disappointing biopic by Lifetime Televison for Women, have long been satirized as ladybit stand-ins, her palette and sweeping brushstrokes the inspiration for throngs of Southwestern painters of lesser talent (some of these have Kokopellis on ’em, too).

If somebody’s work is familiar to you, it’s hard, and instructive, to remember that the work in question was once new. Was once first. Luckily, the show’s four curators — Rene Barilleaux, chief curator and curator of art after 1945; McNay Director Bill Chiego; Tobin Theater Collection Curator Jody Blake; and Lyle Williams, the McNay’s curator of prints and drawings — have dug deep into the museum’s collections to craft an exhibition whose power relies on mellifluous or surprising groupings. A big, blue Joan Mitchell intensifies intriguing miniature theater-design maquettes by Russian designer Alexandra Exter, for example. Or Frankenthaler vs. Nevelson; wood assemblage sculptures resonate with sleek prints for smart, evocative fun. Our contemporaries are in the room, too. Chakaia Booker’s radial tire sculptures, with their cut-outs like petals, feathers, blades, crouch on the floor or cast ominous shadows on the wall.

Rather than coming off didactic and virtuous, Neither Model nor Muse feels wide open, associative, and refractive. Don’t call Muse a female aesthetic; call it party dialectic (as in a dance revolution, not a political one). It’s the diversity of artworks on display — in scale, in medium, in era, in technique — that illustrates the impressive depth of female presence in the McNay’s collection, and in art. I saw many works I’d never seen before (a stunning geometric by Edna Andrade about knocked me down), and didn’t see the grand old pieces I’ve grown up with — what, no “War Child?” And where’s Germaine Richier’s “The Leaf?” I also saw art I didn’t respond to; I’m not sure Sarah Jimenez’s mid-century calavera and Zapata woodcuts add anything to the tradition, and Danielle Frankenthal’s acrylic panel painting “Impulse: just now: spring” made me feel antsy. But if I could request the aid of a bright, opinionated 8-year-old, maybe she could help me out. •

Neither Model nor Muse
Through Sep 12
The McNay Art Museum

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