About the exhibition

Pairing artworks from the 1970s with contemporary practices, Soft Skills critically examines interpersonal capacities like communication, cooperation, empathy, and flexibility, framing them as modes of feminized performance—and moreover, as work. Early feminist art often troubled the threshold between artifice and authenticity, using devices like masquerade and fictive personae to denaturalize the relationship between subjectivity and gender. This exhibition draws parallels from that groundbreaking work to more recent art from the U.S. and Canada, historicizing their connection in light of the transformation of labor practices in those countries over the past four decades. Together, the works demonstrate role-play and self-management as both feminist performative strategies and imperatives of post-Fordist labor.

Coincident with the heyday of second-wave feminism, the 1970s saw surges in both the service economy and the female workforce. As early as 1979, sociologist Arlie Hochschild identified the commodification of “emotion work”—the labor of managing one’s own appearance and attitude, often in order to produce for others experiences of ease, well-being, and satisfaction. Hochschild analyzed the job performance of feminized or “pink collar” workers like flight attendants, correlating their obliging, diplomatic, and patient affects with women’s work in nurturing and socializing children. Rather than confined to the domestic sphere or to private life, over the past several decades affective labor has been increasingly incorporated into a wide spectrum of waged occupations. Indeed, today’s corporations place a premium on “soft skills,” an elastic repertoire of relational attitudes and amenable behaviors.

Soft Skills exposes the effort behind these “desirable qualities,” deconstructing social suppleness into a series of postures: charm, comfort, poise, persuasion. The works on view demonstrate self-presentation as a subtle negotiation with the desires of others, playing into or subverting gendered and racialized codes. In concert, they sketch the contours of the stage-presence required in feminized work today.

The exhibition comprises works by Eleanor Antin, Endia Beal, Tasha Bjelić, Danielle Dean, Heather Keung, Barbara Kruger, Suzy Lake, Jen Liu, Martha Rosler, Emily Shanahan, Frances Stark, and Martha Wilson, and is curated by Kaegan Sparks, 2016–17 Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow and doctoral student in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY.

This exhibition is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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