The sweeping survey exhibition of works by women artists, on view through Sunday, April 12, at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, has many stories to tell.

To begin with, “A Parallel Presence: National Association of Women Artists, 1889-2009” functions nicely as a narrative documenting more than a century of artistic style. More importantly, the inclusion of archival materials from the NAWA’s holdings serves as a reminder that for a woman, recognition as an artist in our society has been an ongoing struggle. And the Rutgers venue for this interesting traveling exhibition speaks to the university’s important historic role in encouraging the development of a strong professional presence for women artists.

“Rutgers has had a long and distinguished history in supporting work of women artists,” says Ferris Olin, co-director with Princeton resident and distinguished professor Judith K. Brodsky of the Institute for Women & Art at Rutgers, who is also curator of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series.

“Our Women Artist Series (currently featuring Destiny: Photographs by Ernestine Ruben, and Alive at the End of Life: Photographs by Cathy Greenblat) is the oldest continuous running exhibition space in the United States showing the work of emerging and established contemporary women artists. It was organized in 1971 so that students could see women artists as role models, and to provide opportunities for women artists who lacked venues.”

Compensating for the lack of appropriate venues for women artists has a long history. “A Parallel Presence” had been staged to mark the 120th anniversary of NAWA, the oldest American women’s art collective in the United States. Founded as the Woman’s Art Club in 1889 in response to the professional and public discrimination of women artists, it became a force to help them gain a significant public presence and to achieve equity with men in professional training, exhibition opportunities, and the marketplace. From the beginning, NAWA worked to enhance the status of women artists, including non-members, by staging exhibitions by women in sufficient quantity to disprove the then-prevailing notion that women’s art was somehow inferior in quality to that of men.

The exhibition nicely validates NAWA’s intentions with an impressive array of media and style by some 80 artists. In addition, photographs, correspondence, exhibition catalogues, brochures, and related materials from the NAWA archives — including a letter to Senator Robert Kennedy supporting the Equal Rights Amendment — document that organization’s role in encouraging the ongoing feminist agenda.

Brodsky, founding director of the Brodsky Center/Mason Gross School of the Arts, describes the exhibition as “an amazing documentation of women artists in the United States.” She makes note of the collection’s range, saying, “We’re looking at an overall view that includes the work of both well- and lesser-known artists.” Brodsky points out that the array of style and the inclusion of artists of greater and lesser reputation makes “A Parallel Presence” especially timely in concept, noting that until recently, exhibitions like this didn’t examine the broader dimensions of their subject. Instead, she says, survey displays focused on the well-known — the bright stars.

“This exhibit documents the range of art and artists. In the past collections such at this focused on the stars without looking at their subject in a broader context. Here we have an instructive sense of the time with a dialogue going on vis a vis the visual arts of the period. It provides a telling context with its range of inclusions — conservative and leading edge, the well-known and those whose names are not familiar.”

An early 20th century portrait of a young girl by Cecilia Beaux, one of the included “stars,” sets the tone, evocatively documenting the prevailing style with the romantic estheticsm that marked the art of the early years of the 20th century. Moving through artistic time the dramatic evolution of style that characterized the century is clearly charted with reference to post-impressionism, abstraction, non-objective painting, and the dramatic gestural work of the mid-century abstract expressionists. Three-dimensional works begin with the representational imagery that marked the turn of the 20th century and then document the transition to modernism with simplified, massive form. The works then move through artistic time to the more conceptually challenging work of recent years — works in which the message is often as important as the medium.

Naomi Grossman’s Lo, I Am, a wall-hung torso made from shaped wire, incorporates an array of emotional phrases in its construction. Grimenesas Amoros’ single channel videos are as much about ideas as images. And the trapezoidal shape of Idelle Webers’ Boxwood and Grass serves notice that this is more than a nature study. In the course of charting dramatic esthetic change, we are introduced in this collection to work of high quality — a telling reflection of NAWA’s mission.

A self portrait by the late Virginia Snedeker, as a young artist standing at her easel in her New York City studio, is emblematic of the collection. While she enjoyed relative professional success with New Yorker covers and a WPA post office mural in Iowa, her brother, Richard, of West Windsor, recalls her having concerns as a woman artist, remembering her indignation when a critic reviewing one of her solo exhibitions referred to the display as “a one-man show.”

In addition to Beaux, “stars” include the work of such notables as Malvina Hoffman, Louise Nevelson, Faith Ringgold, Augusta Savage, and June Wayne. In the process, the exhibition functions as an instructive reminder that high-quality work was not the sole province of the well-known, that despite their lower public profile, women artists all over the United States — then and now — have been producing art in all media that is equal and, in some cases, superior to that of their male cohort.

While the exhibition includes significant works drawn from various public and private collections, much of it is from the National Association of Women Artists Collection at Rutgers. Recognizing the university’s role in the support of women artists, NAWA gave its collection to the Zimmerli in 1992. Since then it has grown steadily through donations from artists, collectors, and estates to include over 200 works.

The addition of the NAWA collection to the Rutgers firmament is only one of many elements in the university’s continuing efforts to build a more established platform for women in the visual arts. The Douglass Library is home to the Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists. The most recent addition is the Institute for Women in Art, founded in 2006. Under the direction of Brodsky and Olin, the Institute has a broad mission; supporting and sponsoring scholarship, research, exhibitions, and programming on topics pertaining to women in art, including attention to past inequities in cooperation with other feminist leadership and visual arts organizations.

Olin notes that the current exhibition is, in its way, an instructive introduction to an upcoming display which will throw further light on the work and issues of women artists, over the years. A Group of One’s Own: Women’s Visual Arts Organizations in America, opening on December 20, will present a selective historical survey of organizations and groups that represented, promoted, and displayed visual art by women in the United States. It will, like the NAWA display, turn the spotlight on efforts to showcase the achievements of women in the visual arts, and to correct the difficulties frequently faced by women in gaining recognition and equity in museums, art schools, and the marketplace.

A Parallel Presence: National Association of Women Artists, 1889-2009, through Sunday, April 12, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7237. The exhibition includes work by approximately 80 artists, ranging historically from the late 19th century to the contemporary.

Also at the Zimmerli: Destiny: Photographs by Ernestine Ruben, and Alive at the End of Life: Photographs by Cathy Greenblat through Sunday, June 7. Reception and artists talk — “Re-visioning the End of Life” by Cathy Greenblat and “Life in Photography” by Ernestine Ruben — on Thursday, April 16, 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., Douglass Library.

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; weekends, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Monday.

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