American Women at St. Pete’s MFA 

A female-centric new show is but a preview of what’s to come.

In 2005, Jim Sweeny was attending a meeting of ASPEC — the learning community for retired professionals run by Eckerd College — when he heard a lecture by Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, curator Jennifer Hardin about the museum’s then-current Monet’s London exhibition. Afterwards, he approached Hardin with an idea for a very different show at the museum — one devoted to American folk art.

Sweeny wasn’t just talking. A recent returnee to Tampa Bay after 30 years in Atlanta, where he worked as a chemist for Coca-Cola, Sweeny had amassed the kind of folk art collection with his wife Martha that could lay the foundations for just such a show. Hardin was interested, and by 2008 they had worked together — couple, curator and other lenders — to stage Compelling Visions: Florida Collects Folk Art, a showcase of 135 20th-century works by self-taught artists, many of them African-American. After the exhibit closed, the Sweenys donated their contribution — nearly 40 pieces of art — to the MFA, establishing a new vein of collecting for the museum.

The next year, the Sweenys launched another collaboration with the MFA: a five-year project to collect fine art prints made by American women after 1960. As with folk art, they identified contemporary works by women as an area where the institution wasn’t exactly representing (though some of its most prized holdings include paintings by Georgia O’Keefe and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun).

“Being a major art museum, when you think about it, they should be,” Sweeny says.

Part of the outcome of their endeavor is on display through Feb. 2 at the MFA as an exhibition, Contemporary Prints by American Women: A Selection from the Gift of Martha and Jim Sweeny. The nearly 30 works on view represent half of what the Sweenys have collected so far for the museum — both on their own and in collaboration with Hardin, who oversees what enters the MFA’s vaults. (Sweeny prefers not to disclose the amount of the couple’s donation but says most of the prints have been purchased for $1,000-2,000 each, with the exception of works by canonical artists including Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, whose prints go for at least $30,000.) The relatively small show is a teaser for another planned for two to three years from now, when prints by American women will take over the museum’s main galleries for a major exhibition.

The creative medium of printmaking, which is sometimes misunderstood as derivative, merits that kind of attention, Sweeny says.

“Printmaking really is a separate art form,” he says. “It’s not copying a painting. In fact, many of these works could hardly be related to paintings. The artists invented the image as they were doing the print.”

The works the Sweenys have collected could hardly be more supportive of his point. One of the exhibit’s gems is “Sky Gate I” (1982), a work by Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) that translates the logic of her famous monochromatic assemblages of wood shapes into two dimensions. Or almost two dimensions — by pressing handmade paper pulp into a mold, Nevelson made a ghostly version of her sculpture (an organically-inflected grid of boxes, circles and amoeba-like shapes) stand out, as if embossed, on pale gray paper. Then there are works by younger artists — Brooklyn-based Nicola López (b. 1975), whose sculpture was recently exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, and Marie Yoho Dorsey (b. 1965), who lives in Tampa Bay and makes her prints with master printer Erika Greenberg-Schneider at Bleu Acier, a studio in Tampa Heights. López’s abstract “Urban Transformation #3” (2009) combines strips of printed paper and mylar that extend out and intertwine to create a gritty tumbleweed of construction site tape, industrial and automotive pipes and chains. By contrast, Dorsey’s “Starry Night” (2010) is painstakingly delicate — a landscape of etched mountains and haloed figures that the artist has connected heart-to-heart with red thread embroidery on thin Japanese rice paper.

Both Sweeny and Hardin say half the fun of the project has been traveling to print ateliers around the country to learn about and select works by both long-established and emerging artists. Their collecting tour has included a visit to the estate of Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), along with Frankenthaler one of the most prominent female Ab-Exers, who spent part of her career in France, living and painting at Monet’s former homes. “Her Flower I” (1981), a furious cloud of scrawling black, orange and pink line, is suggestive of that time spent abroad in the same countryside that informed Monet’s landscapes, Hardin says. In deliberating over which Mitchell to add to the MFA’s collection, she and the Sweenys looked at hundreds of prints.

“This is probably one of the most exuberant of the series,” Hardin says.

When I asked her during a tour of the exhibition whether choosing was difficult, she gestured to the surrounding prints.

“Don’t they talk to you?” she asked. “They say, pick me — I’m the best.”

The curator and donors also visited renowned printmaking studios like Derrière L’Etoile in New York — where they acquired prints by Elizabeth Murray, Georgia Marsh and Lois Lane — Crown Point Press in San Francisco and Tandem Press in Madison, Wisc. They included a piece made by June Wayne, who opened the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960, to highlight the importance of female artist-entrepreneurs in establishing fine art printmaking studios in the U.S. after World War II. Along with Tamarind, both Crown Point and Universal Limited Art Editions, another key press, were founded by women.

For one more year, 2013, they’ll continue to add to the collection, buying with an eye to organizing that future, definitive show of prints by American women. Until then, some of their more adventurous purchases — including a seven-foot-long print by Pat Steir, who is represented in the current exhibit by a drippy blue-and-red silkscreen called “Peacock Waterfall”) — remain under wraps: a gift to St. Petersburg yet to be revealed.

“When we have a major show,” Sweeny promises, “we’ll be able to bring all the art out.”

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