New York City’s MAD celebrates women artists’ contributions to postwar visual culture

Continuing to Sept. 27, 2015, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) presents “Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today,” an exhibition that considers the notable contributions of women to modernism in postwar visual culture.

In the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture and architecture were dominated by men, women had extensive impact in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics and metals. Largely unexamined in major art historical surveys, due to either their gender or their choice of materials, these pioneering women achieved success and international recognition, establishing a model of professional identity for future generations.

Featuring more than 100 works, “Pathmakers” focusses on a cadre of women – including Ruth Asawa, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Karen Karnes, Dorothy Liebes, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Toshiko Takaezu, Lenore Tawney and Eva Zeisel – who were influential as designers, artists and teachers, using materials such as clay, fibre and metals in innovative ways. Significantly, the group came to maturity along with the Museum of Arts and Design itself, which was founded in 1956 as the center of the emerging American modern craft movement.

“’Pathmakers’ places women at the center of the midcentury modernist narrative, and makes a powerful case for the importance of craft and design media as professional pathways,” says Glenn Adamson, MAD’s Nanette L. Laitman director. “Founded by a woman and with half of its collection representing works by female artists, MAD continues to champion the inclusion of women in the narrative of art and design history, along with other groups that have traditionally been marginalized.”

The exhibition also highlights contributions of European émigrés, including Anni Albers and Maija Grotell, who brought with them a conviction that craft could serve as a pathway to modernist innovation. Parallels between women creating work in Scandinavia and the United States are emphasized by the inclusion of such important Scandinavian designers such as Rut Bryk, Vuokko Nurmesniemi and Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe.

“We aim to expand the historical view of the postwar period, to showcase important artists and designers, and to introduce names that have been overlooked,” says exhibition curator Jennifer Scanlan.

The legacy of the midcentury women is conveyed through a section of the exhibition that presents works by contemporary female artists and designers that reflect and expand upon the work of the earlier generation. International and U..S-based artists and designers featured in this section include Polly Apfelbaum, Vivian Beer, Front Design, Christine McHorse, Michelle Grabner, Hella Jongerius, Gabriel A. Maher, Magdalene Odundo and Anne Wilson.

Highlights from the exhibition include:

• A striking installation of four of Ruth Asawa’s singular hanging sculptures, which attracted renewed critical attention after her first retrospective in 2006, at the age of 80. The artist’s volumetric yet delicate forms drawn in the air out of wire were groundbreaking in their use of a nontraditional material.

• Marianne Strengell’s Forecast Rug for the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). In the postwar period, Alcoa was looking for new uses for aluminum, which had seen extensive military use during World War II. The company commissioned Strengell to develop an allaluminum textile with the softness and warmth of the handwoven, bringing this industrial material into the home market.

• A wide selection of Eva Zeisel’s designs, which have come from her archives and personal collection. This includes some of her most rare designs, such as the Bellybutton room divider, a prototype that never went into production, which demonstrates Zeisel’s interest in organic form, as well as her playful sense of humor.

• Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe’s Vivianna Bangle Watch for Georg Jensen, which has no clasp, no numbers and a mirrored face. Torun, as she was known, said of this design, “The watch is open ended to symbolize that time should not bind us, and the dial like a mirror reminds us that life is now.”

• Margaret Tafoya’s signature “bear paw vessels,” which marry traditional Pueblo ceramic techniques with contemporary form. Tafoya, one of a small group of Native American ceramists responsible for reviving Pueblo pottery traditions in the midcentury, was the matriarch of a family of influential potters. She inspired generations of ceramics artists with the purity of her lines and the beauty of her burnished black surfaces.

• A portion of Hella Jongerius’ redesign of the United Nations Delegates’ Lounge, including a replica of the curtain of ceramic beads that covers the two-story window at the west end. Because of security restrictions at the United Nations, the curtain that is installed in the lounge is not as originally conceived. The exhibited curtain, re-created especially for Pathmakers and hand-knotted in her studio, is the design as Jongerius intended it.

• Polly Apfelbaum’s large site-specific installation of her textiles inspired by the 1950s publication A Handweaver’s Pattern Book, along with her handmade ceramic beads. Each of the 30 textiles is vibrantly colored with a different pattern, using a rainbow of markers and a simple stencil.

• Gabriel A. Maher’s DE___SIGN, which investigates the ways in which design reinforces, and even helps shape, the concepts of “male” and “female.” Through a garment, as well as videos of a series of collaborations with dancers and other performers, Maher looks at stereotypically male and female posture and clothing.

Pathmakers is organized by guest curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales, along with Barbara Paris Gifford, Curatorial Assistant and Project Manager. After its presentation at the Museum of Arts and Design, the exhibition will travel to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, where it will be on display from Oct, 30, 2015, to Feb. 28, 2016. The exhibition will be accompanied by a special issue of the Journal of Modern Craft, guest edited by MAD’s Windgate Research Curator Elissa Auther. The issue, to be published in July 2015, will serve as an in-depth exploration of subjects raised in the exhibition. 


The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) champions contemporary makers across creative fields, presenting artists, designers, and artisans who apply the highest level of ingenuity and skill to their work. Since the Museum’s founding in 1956 by philanthropist and visionary Aileen Osborn Webb, MAD has celebrated all facets of making and the creative processes by which materials are transformed, from traditional techniques to cutting-edge technologies. Today, the Museum’s curatorial program builds upon a rich history of exhibitions that emphasize a cross-disciplinary approach to art and design, and reveals the workmanship behind the objects and environments that shape our everyday lives. MAD provides an international platform for practitioners who are influencing the direction of cultural production and driving 21st-century innovation, fostering a participatory setting for visitors to have direct encounters with skilled making and compelling works of art and design. 

Museum of Arts and Design is located in the Jerome and Simona Chazen Building, 2 Columbus Circle, New York City.

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