American Art
A Feminist Lens

Helen Molesworth


Image Credit: Bruce Guthrie


Where does the story of post-war American art begin? With the works of Jackson Pollock, a male artist revered for his energetic, abstract drip murals? Or with Ruth Asawa, Japanese American sculptor, mother and survivor of a World War II internment camp?

Helen Molesworth, former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, prefers the latter.

In a September lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Molesworth highlighted Asawa as a pioneer who redefined the role of “artist” by drawing on her parallel roles as a mother, citizen and arts advocate—a way of working often overlooked by art historians.



Molesworth is one of three women invited to give a Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture on American art this fall, part of an annual series that brings an art historian, artist and art critic to speak at the museum.

Native American artist Marie Watt, the second lecturer in the series, uses blankets and textiles to explore feminist and indigenous themes. In one of her pieces, Watt collaborated with sewing circles affiliated with Northwestern University’s Block Museum to create a mosaic of words associated with “mother,” including “voice,” “agency” and “guardian.”

Watt’s work is held in SAAM’s collection, as well as the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Seattle Art Museum.



In the series’ third lecture, scheduled for Nov. 7, Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic of the New York Times, will address art and art criticism in contemporary culture. Smith will explore how criticism reflects the growing visibility of art by women, people of color, and self-taught artists. The lecture will be livestreamed here.