Floor work … artist Helen Frankenthaler at work in her studio in 1969. Photograph: Ernst Haas/Getty Images

Seattle Art Museum has done a striking thing. It has removed all works by modern male artists from its galleries and filled them with works by 20th- and 21st-century women artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Pipilotti Rist.

Works of art by Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock have gone into storage. Instead, you can see paintings by Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, and her fellow abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler.

Is this the best way to rebalance art history? After all, patriarchy is not the personal fault of, say, Robert Rauschenberg – another of Seattle’s vanished dead white males. Rauschenberg is a highly original, compelling artist whose work inspires artists today – male and female alike. One young artist who seems to me to work in his tradition is, for instance, Lucy Skaer.

In fact, the stunt in Seattle is only for a few months: the big macho names will be back in town soon enough. But still. This is a slightly old-fashioned political art gesture, surely?

Maybe not.

The story of art is an iceberg of gender inequality, a daunting frozen mass of male power. Before the 20th century, the apprenticeships and academic training required to learn representational skills put chilling obstacles in the way of women, who were excluded from such institutions. In the 20th century, the ice started to melt – but arguably this created more insidious and hypocritical forms of inequality.


Jonathan Jones