I remember one night in college, my classmate Carol and I were cramming for Dr. Deleuze's art history exam, smoking up a storm and bitching about the absence of women in our art history texts. One of the books was H.W. Janson's History of Art. I remembered that night because I recently read an interview conducted with H.W. Janson in 1975. Women were not included in his commonly used tome, now in its 20th or so printing, because, he said, "I have not been able to find a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one-volume history of art."

Having the 17th edition sitting on my shelf, I checked. And sure enough, it would appear that from the Stone Age to 1970, women had simply not been up to the challenge of contributing to the history of politics, religion, literature, science, technology, architecture, sculpture or painting, save for two female European rulers, three Catholic saints, Marie Curie and Madame de Staál.

Luckily, not all art historians and museum curators share Janson's myopic point of view. "Latin American Women Artists, 1915-1995," the current and debut show in the new wing of Phoenix Art Museum, is an amazingly diverse and startling silent rebuttal to the boys'-club view of art history. The show includes primarily painted works, but also sculpture, fiber, photography and mixed-media installations.

The 35 featured artists, five of whom are actually European ex-pats who settled in Latin America, are female, but the show is one where the art, not gender, comes first. The featured artists are all highly regarded in their home countries and in Europe, but none, save Frida Kahlo, has made headway in the United States, where Matta, Botero, Diego Rivera, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Orozco and other men are generally regarded as the Latin American masters.

This is, in fact, the first large-scale exhibition in the United States to emphasize the contribution of Latin American women to 20th-century visual arts.

The Phoenix Art Museum's new wing, constituting the first phase of the museum's renovation by New York Āberduo Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, delivers the show with finesse. The viewer trails through room after lofty, white room whose walls reveal surprising sides of Latin American art.

In the first room, covering early to mid-20th-century painting and drawing, the figure and landscape dominate. Exposure in Europe to modern painting styles influenced the work of some of the artists. Anita Malfatti's expressionistic landscape "O Farol" ("The Lighthouse") and her cubist-inspired "Retrato de Mario de Andrade" ("Portrait of Mario de Andrade") from 1921-22 are two examples. But Tarsila do Amaral's 1928 "Urutu," with its voluptuous, Leger-inspired forms; Amelia Pel†ez's sensual studies of hibiscus flowers; and Maria Izquierdo's subtle and self-possessed "Retrato de Cathie" from 1940 (which, rumor has it, is actually a self-portrait) are much more interesting by virtue of their cultural infusions.

It's refreshing to see Frida Kahlo's work in a context emphasizing her art. Kahlo's unfortunate casting as poster child for the feminist movement has made her in recent years the hub of a craze that has worked against her artistic reputation by separating Frida the cultural icon from Frida the artist. Besides, it has gotten on my nerves, which is why, in this show, I enjoyed seeing her in the context of her art and that of her contemporaries.

One of my favorites of her self-portraits is in the show, the 1938 "Autorretrato con Mono" ("Self-Portrait With Monkey"). Bejeweled in bone and shells, the artist, with signature eyebrow, looks like she could eat you alive.

As the show moves on chronologically, it increasingly defies the term "regional." The growing threats of national socialism during the 1930s and '40s sent many European artists to Latin American countries and explosively influenced Latin art. Two of these, the English-born Leonora Carrington and the Spanish-born Remedios Varo, were writers, surrealist painters and great friends.

Aspects of Carrington's work, like the cloven-headed gazelle in "Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen," betray both her long relationship with Max Ernst and the fantastic sensibilities she shared with him, as well as her love of apocalyptically charged and highly detailed medieval Flemish art.

Varo was also evidently influenced by Ernst, though perhaps not as intimately as Carrington. By squashing a paint-laden canvas against her main canvas, Varo created in "El Flautista" ("The Flautist") the same bizarrely bubbled and dreamlike background that characterized Ernst's famous paintings of the red rocks in Sedona. In the foreground of Varo's piece, stones imprinted with fossils are lifted by the thread of a pale flautist's music, to be installed within the delicately drawn walls of a half-built tower. It is a ghostly and somewhat disturbing piece.

The later works in the show include three-dimensional pieces like Gego's "Drawing Without Paper No. 1" from 1976--a beautiful half-cylinder constructed of small pieces of wire that casts lacy shadows beneath it. Also wonderful are Marina Nu§ez del Prado's bronzes. Her "Torso" recalls the surging energy and minimal grace of Brancusi's sculpture. The work looks as though it wants to twist itself from the pedestal.

Actually, a guard scolded me because I touched it. Art that overrides one's social governor--there's a new criterion for you. Forget institutional canons of art criticism and interpretation! The greatness of art to me is directly proportional to how much I need to touch a work.

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