On View Now: Women Making Their Mark

Curator Cecilia Alemani's show of Komal Shah’s female-forward art collection is challenging convention and sparking conversation.

Art collector Komal Shah’s first acquisition of Rina Banerjee’s work on paper, It Rained so she Rained (2009), marked the start of a collecting journey firmly rooted in championing women artists. The painting is now on show in “Making Their Mark,” which presents more than eighty works from the Shah Garg Collection, by prominent artists such as Simone Leigh, Julie Mehretu, Judy Chicago, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Faith Ringgold, among many others.

A brightly lit interior of an art gallery with several artworks displayed on the walls and in the center of the room
“Making Their Mark” (Installation View), 2023. Photograph: By Tom Powel Imaging / Courtesy the Shah Garg Foundation

Curator Cecilia Alemani, who has known Shah for nearly a decade, articulated the show around three broad pillars: engaging with form, exploring genealogies and transmissions, and fostering cross-disciplinary dialogue. Komal Shah has been drawn to abstraction’s power to slow us down and lean closer, a feature explored in plurality and versatility, as a continuous lens that permeates various works.

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While the show isn’t about abstraction, it reveals its expanse from Sherrie Levine’s Chair Seat 6 (1986) to Cecily Brown’s large-scale painting The Demon Menagerie (2019-20). It also questions the abstractive qualities of figurative works, such as the monumental fresco from Firelei Báez, For Améthyste and Athénaïre (Exiled Muses Beyond Jean-Luc Nancy’s Canon), Anacaonas, 2018, a site-specific work drawing on Haitian history to discuss representation and historical discontinuities, previously shown in MoMA’s front window in 2018-2019.

Two women pose arm-in-arm in front of an abstract, graffiti-like painting
Komal Shah and Cecilia Alemani. Jason Crowley/BFA.com

Joan Mitchell’s Untitled (1992), completed just before her death, anchors the collection and pulls various threads of intuitive resonances and fluid mentorship. The two-panel painting plays with negative space and vibrant yellows and greens facing each other in a negotiation of complementarity and dissonance. Shah describes the painting as a “cornerstone” of her collection—one that inspires her and other artists. The show includes accomplished historical artists such as Mitchell, as well as emerging young artists, notably Zimbabwean-born and based Portia Zvavahera’s dazzling Crying Belly (2021), in which two characters are entangled amid dominant eggplant hues—a child, a spirit, an augmentation of the self, which resonates with mythological leanings and mystical insights into the interconnectedness of beings.

The curator’s cross-disciplinary intention is evident. Alemani told Observer she sees the show as a “dialogue between disciplines that sometimes have been put aside,” noting the collection’s “exquisite group of textile works”. We see this best on a high stand that resembles an altar, where ceramics from Toshiko Takaezu converse with Etel Adnan’s Untitled (2014) and Trude Guermonprez’s hanging textile work Untitled (Space Hanging), 1965. The physicality of Adnan’s beloved mountains blends with the spherical poetry of the glaze and the textile’s elongated form. Together, they suggest a textured vista that extends Etel Adnan’s scenic proposition. “I looked at that platform and I see a landscape. It’s already a very sinuous horizon line,” Alemani said. Of Takaezu’s ceramic works, “they are also abstract paintings. The glaze that is applied on them, the surface work and the texture are very painting-like, not just vessels.”

A textile art piece featuring the profile of a woman's body
Emma Amos (1937-2020) Star, 1982, acrylic, machine-made synthetic fabric, and handwoven synthetic fabric on canvas 76 1/2 x 54 1/8 in. (194.3 × 137.5 cm). © 2022 Emma Amos/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo by Ian Reeves.

Among the cohesive rooms, works engage with the body through figuration and texture with fibers and ropes. For instance, Francoise Grossen’s braided, curtain-like sculpture, Contact III (1977) traverses the second-floor room and imposes the body as a material volume we must face. Along with artifacts of mythology and ancestry, the show presents maps of possibilities rendered in quilts, glass beads and resins. There are pixelated abstractions reminiscent of a needle point and an elevated presence, as well as echoes of the Black Atlantic with Simone Leigh’s totemic Stick (2019) centering a room next to an oceanic, mosaic-like collage of painted plates from Jennifer Bartlett (At Sea, 1979).

Like the Barjeel Foundation exhibition last summer in London in partnership with Christie’s, “Making Their Mark” is the curation of an already curated collection. That exercise can be difficult. “It’s a challenge but an exciting one. You want to bring your own taste and vision but also respect the vision of the collection,” Alemani said. “Because it’s a very thoughtful and personal and intimate collection.”

Shah, a former tech executive born in Ahmedabad in India, has constituted with her husband Gaurav Garg a collection of nearly 300 objects that is bold, vibrant and meticulous (she doesn’t work with an art advisor). The Shah Garg Collection is clearly mission-driven: to recognize, promote and unleash the power of women in arts. And it’s very much needed given the undeniable structural gap that remains to be addressed and closed.

A painting featuring smears of color, primarily in yellow, green and purple
Joan Mitchell. “Untitled”, 1992. © Estate of Joan Mitchell / courtesy the Shah Garg Foundation

According to a 2018 survey, the collections of eighteen major art museums in the United States were overwhelmingly male (87%) and white (85%). Komal Shah is well aware of this, having served as a board trustee at the San Francisco Museum of Art and following this agenda closely. “Museums need to be nimble, but it’s become so structurally heavy that sometimes it’s hard to do that,” she said, noting that other actors such as private collectors “play a complementary role” to shape stories, nudge, disrupt and advance conversations.

Alemani agrees that such shifts, which transcend the art world, are taking place and will take time. “Those institutions are important but it’s not binary, that you either go to a museum or you’re a nobody. We can start telling different stories that don’t necessarily belong to the institutions but go in parallel.” They both notice change, on the heels of record-breaking auction prices for women artists and praised publications such as Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men (2022).

As Shah presents the works, she comes through as someone who has become a custodian of the artists’ perseverance and hardships as much as their physical artworks. She recalls meeting women artists at public events. “At least two have come to me in Basel and cried about how there are stories waiting to be told. And it is sad to see that they’ve had to suffer so much.” Sitting next to Shah, Alemani nods in agreement, sharing the heartfelt response she also received from teenage girls during the Venice Biennial she curated. These reactions attest to a real hunger for increased recognition and genuine representation.

A brightly lit interior of an art gallery with several artworks displayed on the walls and in the center of the room
“Making Their Mark” (Installation View), 2023. Photograph: By Tom Powel Imaging / Courtesy the Shah Garg Foundation

For all this necessary reckoning, it’s a disservice to art when we start essentializing artists. Assigning artists to their gender is reductive and it’s also unfair to project our own aspirations onto them. “I don’t think this show is about women. I think there’s a subtitle but it’s not about the history of feminist art, especially for a show like this that goes from the 1940s to now. You have hardcore feminists in the show and other artists that do not like that label and who don’t want to be necessarily pigeon-holed in that definition,” Alemani said.

This first public display of the Shah Garg Collection in Chelsea follows an acclaimed critical book published last May, co-edited by Mark Godfrey and Katy Siegel. Through public engagement and critical scholarship, the work of the Shah Garg Foundation opens new avenues to consider the role of private collections in advancing progressive agendas in the art world.

We often seek complementarity in group exhibitions; this is how we make sense of information, by association to identify patterns and similitudes. Yet what stands out in “Making Their Mark” is the incredible diversity of artists and works shown—from emerging young artists to late-blooming women in their 70s and their 80s, painters, sculptors and ceramicists, spanning the historical and contemporary. In doing so, the show compellingly demonstrates that women artists make their mark in various ways, not by being women, but as artists.

Making Their Mark” is on show at 548 West 22nd Street through January 27 and will subsequently travel to Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Saint Louis’s Kemper Art Museum.

On View Now: Women Making Their Mark