Tamara de Lempicka, Young Girl in a Green Dress, 1929.

As SAM’s board chair Charlie Wright introduced the exhibition Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris at a preview last week, he said he felt the irony of a man being the one to present a show being marketed with the slogan “Women take over.” Yet, he quipped, if a woman were in his shoes, she would probably feel conflicted.

I agree. It is hard to feel whole-hearted about the fact that major museums still think they need to promote art made by women as a separate phenomenon. Or, maybe, they’ve just caught on that marketing to women is where it’s at.  

Dorothea Tanning, Portrait of a Family, 1954.

Whatever the reason, the result is that more than 125 artworks, dating from 1909 to 2007, all with women’s names attached, have crossed the globe from Paris to Seattle, and among them are some real treasures. Haunting my mind are Dorothea Tanning’s tongue-in cheek Portrait of a Family; Tamara de Lempicka’s sleek and sinister Young Girl in a Green Dress; Dora Maar’s fantastic surrealist photographs; a stunning Lee Bontecou wall sculpture that’s both organic and machine-like; and the dead-on posters of those gutsy Guerilla Girls (the anonymous females who took on the male power elite of the 1980s art world with subversive performances and touché slogans like “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum?”).

There is so much art and it is presented so chaotically, I found myself more overwhelmed than enlightened. Headings like “Get Your Woman On” and “Genital Panic” didn’t do much to clarify things. Elles originated at the Pompidou and it isn’t clear how much input SAM’s in-house coordinator of the exhibition, associate curator Marisa Sanchez, had on the organization of the show or the explanatory texts. (The museum recently announced Sanchez is leaving SAM to continue her education.) In my view, she didn’t succeed in answering the big question: Why is it here?

SAM missed the boat with Elles. Putting great art on the walls is part of a museum’s job. But it’s even more important is to present the work in a meaningful context and help us understand why it matters. For a show to tell us in the year 2012 that women were important participants in 20th century art is a no-brainer. To present their accomplishments in relationship to that of the male artists they responded to, rebelled against, inspired, and sometimes superseded—now that could be a revelation.

Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Oct 11–Jan 13, Seattle Art Museum, seattleartmuseum.org