Great Women Artists at the de Young

Forty years ago, Linda Nochlin published her seminal article "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" spurring art historians and curators to reexamine the contributions of women artists over time. Since then, the landscape of the world’s art institutions has changed drastically. Here at the de Young, we often receive inquiries about the presence (or perceived lack) of women artists in the museum. In response, we have created a self-guided tour highlighting women artists at the de Young.

Gallery 1 and 1A

The first stop is in the Art of the Americas located directly off of Wilsey Court.

Susie Silook (American, Siberian Yupik, b. 1960). Sedna with Mask, 1999. Walrus tusk, sea mammal whiskers, baleen, whale bone, metal, and pigment. Bequest of Thomas G. Fowler. 2007.21.389

Susie Silook, a sculptor and writer, is one of Alaska’s preeminent contemporary artists. Traditionally, the art of carving was almost exclusively the responsibility of men, so Silook’s mastery of the technique is a bold departure from historic Eskimo art practices. This delicately carved sculpture depicts an Eskimo sea goddess, or sedna.

Tonita Martinez Roybal (American, San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1892–1945). Black-on-black jar, ca. 1930. Earthenware. Gift of Paul E. and Barbara H. Weiss. 2007.75.29

Like most pueblo potters, Tonita Roybal learned the art of pottery making from her mother. San Ildefonso pottery was made almost exclusively by women, but their husbands or sons often decorated the surfaces. Tonita Roybal, however, mastered the art of both surface painting and the skilled formation of the pots she made.

Gallery 17

Now walk through the glass hallway towards the American Art wing and into the special exhibition Surface Tension: Contemporary Prints from the Anderson Collection.

Elizabeth Murray (American, 1940–2007). Up Dog, 1987–1988. Color lithograph on 14 pieces of hand-torn arches paper. Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, gift of the Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson Charitable Foundation. 1996.74.325

The fourteen sheets of hand-torn paper that form Elizabeth Murray’s Up Dog (1987–1988) contribute to a varied level across the work’s surface. Hinged together along the top edge, the bottom of each sheet is free to lift, revealing an intentional dimensionality that the artist built into the composition.


Louise Nevelson (American, 1899–1988). Dawnscape, 1975. Cast paper relief. Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, gift of the Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson Charitable Foundation. 1996.74.330 

In Dawnscape, the well-known sculptor Louise Nevelson brings her distinctive sculptural technique to the world of paper, creating a cast paper relief that loosely compartmentalizes organic forms in white, one of her signature colors.

Gallery 16

Head off to the left into the gallery for contemporary art.

Cornelia Parker (English, b. 1956). Anti-Mass, 2005. Wood charcoal, nails, and wire. Museum purchase, Friends of New Art and American Art Trust Fund, in honor of Harry S. Parker III and Steven A. Nash. 2006.2

Cornelia Parker’s Anti-Mass is made from the charred remains of a Southern black Baptist church destroyed by arsonists. Parker’s title refers to the sacred ritual of mass at the heart of Catholicism and perhaps the sacrilegious nature of the arson. It also references matter, the fundamental building block of the universe, in a witty allusion to the floating sculpture’s apparent defiance of gravity.

Gallery 40

Now head upstairs to the second floor into the Art of Africa.

Magdalene Odundo (Kenyan, b. 1950). Untitled, 2000. Oxidized earthenware. Museum purchase, Anita Jaron Spivack Memorial Fund. 2002.71

Magdalene Odundo’s earthy and anthropomorphic vessel has a distinguishable belly, waist, backbone and hips. In Africa, pottery belongs to the sphere of women, and unlike other pots made for storage or fermentation, this vessel functions solely as a beautiful and evocative artwork. Incorporating the formal aspects of ceramic practice, Odundo bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary African art.

Gallery 30

Around the corner, you’ll find the Oceanic and New Guinea galleries.

Bark fiber, 20th century. New Guinea, West Papua (Irian Jaya), North Coast, Lake Sentani. Bark fiber and pigment. Gift of Marcia and John Friede in honor of Diane B. Wilsey and Harry S. Parker III. 2007.44.41

Women from Lake Sentani make this cloth, called maro, from the inner bark of young trees, and men paint the designs on the surface. Women traditionally wear maro on festive occasions, during mourning, and for burial upon their death. For young women, wearing maro marks a transition into adulthood. It is a versatile garment, alternately worn as a skirt, neckpiece, or headdress.

Tootsie Dick Sam (American, Washoe, active 20th century). Cooking basket, early 20th century. Willow, redbud, and bracken fern. Gift of Mrs. T.C. Tilden. 1998.165

Tootsie Dick Sam is among the most admired Washoe basket weavers of the 20th century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, baskets were increasingly fabricated for sale to fascinated tourists and promoted to collectors by local entrepreneurs. Conceived aesthetically, the degikup design of this basket is characterized by its inward-curving form. The degikup form, paired with Sam’s delicate, layered geometric motif, elevates this basket from utilitarian object to pure art form.

Gallery 28

Now go down the hallway lined with chairs and turn right to enter the American Impressionism gallery.

Theresa F. Bernstein (American, 1890–2002). In the Elevated, 1916. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund. 2011.2

Theresa Bernstein used sketchy, fluid brushwork to paint gritty metropolitan scenes, here depicting a quintessential symbol of modernity: the elevated railway. Unlike the painting that inspired this work, Honoré Daumier’s Third Class Carriage (1856–1858), a somber critique of the claustrophobia and alienation experienced by modern commuters, Bernstein’s painting is imbued with warmth and reflects the more egalitarian nature of public transit in New York. Throughout her successful career, Bernstein faced gender discrimination and frequently signed her paintings “Bernstein” or “T. Bernstein,” to ensure that her gender did not influence the decisions of art exhibition juries.

Gallery 50

As you exit Gallery 28, turn right into the American Modernism gallery.

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986). Petunias, 1925. Oil on hardboard panel. Museum purchase, gift of the M. H. de Young Family. 1990.55. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe began painting dark-colored petunias in 1924, featuring them in about a dozen works of various sizes and viewpoints over the next two years. Petunias is the most complex of this series, showing a cluster of six blossoms spread across an atypical horizontal format. Each bloom is positioned to show a different face to the viewer, from a hidden profile to a fully frontal view.

Hamon Tower

Before you leave, be sure to visit the Hamon Tower and the sculpture of Ruth Asawa.

Ruth Asawa (American, b. 1926). Untitled, ca. 1950–1955. Iron wire. Gift of the artist. 2005.90.1

San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa selected and generously donated fifteen significant sculptures for this installation, which surveys a career spanning five decades. Asawa’s careful placement of these works reflects the sensitivity to light and space that is a distinguishing feature of her work.

These are just some of the women artists represented in our collections, and keep in mind that many women artists are unnamed. If you still have time and would like to see all art made by women currently on display at the de Young, please click here.

This post was written in collaboration with Emma Acker, Bianca Finley Alper, and Colleen Terry.