"Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris," opens Thursday at the downtown Seattle Art Museum. It will include 130 works from the original exhibition, and SAM is also putting up a companion exhibition that includes local artist Victoria Haven.

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In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin asked a provocative question: “Why have there been no great women artists?” Her essay of that title probed the history of discriminatory art training and patronage in an effort to explain why so few female artists — at that time — were considered “masters.”

Almost 40 years later, in 2009, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which houses one of the most extensive modern and contemporary art collections in Europe, completely reinstalled its permanent collection in order to question the way art history is often told: through a lineage of art by men.

Perhaps more simply and more importantly, the show (called “Elles,” French for the female version of the pronoun “they”) shone a spotlight on great art by great artists who are women.

In just a few days, a distilled portion of that huge show will be unveiled at the Seattle Art Museum (The Seattle Times is a media sponsor of the exhibition). Here, “Elles” comprises 130 works of art by 75 artists, including well-known names such as Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Sonia Delaunay and Natalia Goncharova. More contemporary artists include Niki de Saint Phalle, Barbra Kruger, The Guerrilla Girls, Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic.

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Inspired by the Pompidou, SAM is also completely reconfiguring its permanent collection and borrowing art from local collections to focus — for a while, anyway — on artists who are women. Highlights of this re-installation include works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Yayoi Kusama, Adrian Piper, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, and a solo show by Seattle-based artist Victoria Haven.

Marisa Sánchez — SAM’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, who co-organized the Seattle show with Cécile Debray, curator of historical collections at the Musée National d’Art Moderne — spoke recently about the way art history is told in museums, the tricky proposition of grouping artists by gender and the fact that we never say “male artists.”

Q: The Seattle Art Museum is the only venue in the United States for this exhibition. Why did SAM want to bring it here?

A: It is an exhibition that allows us to talk about politics, culture, gender, sexuality, the place of an individual within society, from a multiplicity of approaches. We wanted to retain a similar spirit of openness and interpretation (as in the original exhibition at the Centre Pompidou). This is not the definitive statement about women in modern and contemporary art. It is an invitation to ask questions, to participate in the writing of multiple histories, to think about where we place emphasis on certain historical markers, about who influences who.

Q: There’s a section of the exhibition titled, “Get Your Woman On.” What’s that about?

A: It’s a thematic gallery that wakes you up to realize that you’re not in a traditional chronology. Work made in the 1970s by artists like Eleanor Antin will show alongside work made in the 1920s by artists like Suzanne Valadon to explore the idea of “woman” as a construction and an ideal. An artist like Valadon appropriates and inverts the tradition of the objectified female body in art by painting a reclining woman with books at her feet, a cigarette in hand, and in her pajamas. It’s as if she is saying, “This is how I identify with this tradition.”

Q: What do you think the significance of this exhibition is now in 2012?

A: It’s complicated. We might perceive that the issues of who’s left in or out of history have already been solved. This is an exhibition that reminds us that there’s still work to be done — not just for women but for any group that might be on the periphery of whatever mainstream or dominant chord is playing.

At the same time, as a curator in thinking about the title of the exhibition, I felt that we shouldn’t be saying “women artists.” They’re artists. Yes, they are women, but we would never say “male artists from the Centre Pompidou.” That is a curiosity.

I hope that this shows that a survey of significant modern and contemporary work by women is possible but that it also prompts people to think that there should be more. These are great women artists. But there are other lists, too.

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