The Art Institute of Chicago is doing something remarkable with women artists, and not only with the compelling 'In A Cloud, In A Chair’ exhibition

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The Art Institute of Chicago is having a feminist moment.

Evidence of this welcome development is on view throughout the museum. It marks a sea change for an institution that has held only one solo exhibition for a woman artist in its main Regenstein Hall over the past 30 years. Astonishingly, nearly every temporary exhibition space in the Modern Wing has been given over to the work of women artists this fall. This includes Sara Deraedt’s wily photographs of vacuums cleaners in the photography gallery; Diana Thater’s coolly atmospheric installation at the entrance to the main contemporary art galleries, where she has tinted the windows overlooking Millennium Park with the colors of TV screens; and, in the film, video and new media theater, Moyra Davey’s elliptical “Les Goddesses,” a memoir told via an erudite bibliography of references, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf. Louise Lawler has papered the walls of the Griffin Court with huge, vertically distorted prints of her own 2004 photograph of an Andy Warhol self-portrait hung in a collector’s home in Los Angeles. And Eleanor Antin, in the contemporary art gallery nearest the second-floor café, offers an unsparing return to her seminal 1972 performance “CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture,” in which she documented in pseudo-scientific precision her effort to lose 10 pounds over the course of 37 days. The kicker is Antin’s remake, done 45 years later, with an 82-year-old body grown even more vain, honest and defiant.

Now, not all women artists necessarily make art that is feminist, and simply showing work by women does not in and of itself make an institution feminist. But it’s a start, especially considering the dismal numbers ( endemic to the art world. A recent survey of 18 major US museums found that the average number of women represented in permanent collections was just 12.6%. (The AIC came in a hair worse, at 12.5%.) One easy way to remedy this situation ought to be to aim for gender parity in the exhibition of contemporary art, since nearly three-quarters of those earning MFA degrees in this country today are female, but it turns out only 30% of artists represented by American commercial galleries are women. Discrimination on the basis of sex never really adds up.

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