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Seven Women Artists Expand Limits of What Is `Acceptable'

THE Museum of Modern Art's show of new and recent work by seven female artists is at once limited and limitless. In the sense that it contains only 20 installations and sculptures, the exhibition is limited. Yet the works deny limits, asserting that anything goes by widening the scope of materials, subjects, and techniques considered suitable for art. It doesn't take long to go through the show, but what's there provides a lot to think about and leaves one wanting more.

With a nod to Jane Austen's novel, the title of the exhibition, ``Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties,'' contrasts two recent art movements. ``Sense'' refers to male-dominated Minimalism of the 1960s to mid-'70s. With its impersonal, industrially fabricated geometric forms, often arranged in a grid, Minimalism stood for reason, order, and hands-off coolness. ``Sensibility'' denotes a personal, hands-on style called Post-Minimalism. It brings emotion and autobiography back into art while retaining Minimalist elements like repetition, the grid, and geometry.

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Reacting against the excessive emotionalism and soul-searching gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism, Mini- malists like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre tried to efface all evidence of the artist's hand. Paring down sculpture to geometric abstractions, like unadorned sheets of metal, they emptied art of associative qualities.

Then along came Post-Minimalism, allied with the feminist movement, in the early '70s. Female Post-Minimalists like Eva Hesse reclaimed Expressionist tactics, incorporating feelings, idiosyncracies, and references to the body in sculpture. They used soft pliable materials as opposed to the hard-edged ``masculinity'' of galvanized steel.

Hesse, the unseen godmother of the exhibit, turned repetition into obsessiveness. She deflated the rigidity of Minimalism by using soft materials, like rubber, in handcrafted forms with erotic overtones. Before her death at age 34 in 1970, she broke the box of Minimalism, turning a macho movement inside out.

Now seven of her spiritual heirs, ranging in age from 29 to 42, are continuing to expand boundaries of acceptable art. In place of a fear of being labeled ``feminine'' and, therefore, inferior artists, they exploit characteristics that some would consider traditionally feminine, such as delicacy, sensuality, and intuition.

``Ghost'' (1990) by British artist Rachel Whiteread is a huge plaster cast - like a frozen artifact - of an actual parlor from a demolished London building. The chosen medium alludes to death masks, especially in this case where the room no longer exists except in cast form. Yet plaster casts also connote healing. This ambiguity reminds us of women artists' dual status: invisible in the not-so-distant past, yet on the mend in the present as their work becomes acknowledged.

Another artist who deals with insubstantiality is American sculptor Claudia Matzko. Her delicate materials, like wafer-thin silk squares arranged in rows resembling shingles, are translucent, verging on invisibility.

Matzko's repeated elements, like ranks of flat copper slivers protruding from a wall in ``River of Tears'' (1994), have a cumulative emotional resonance. Day after day, the artist dripped saline solution on thousands of these copper forms, shaped like tongues, to produce an accreted turquoise patina.

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Another artist who uses shadow is Mona Hatoum, a video and performance artist born in Lebanon who now lives in London. Her construction, ``Light Sentence'' (1992), is a 6-1/2-foot-tall U-shaped structure of stacked wire lockers. A bare light bulb slowly ascends and descends amid the open modules, casting wobbly shadows on the walls. The viewer feels trapped inside a living organism as the shadows seem to expand and contract like an iron lung. The work shows how Minimalism's modular units, which usually represent rationality, can be transmuted to convey unpredictability.

California artist Rachel Lachowicz interjects an element of parody into feminist solemnity. She shatters illusions in one mise-en-scene, where she juxtaposes glass slippers with broken shards of glass. So much for Cinderella's dream of rescue by Prince Charming. Lachowicz creates artworks from cosmetics, such as a gridded color chart composed of eye- makeup rectangles and sculpture fashioned from lipstick and face powder.

Jac Leirner, a Brazilian sculptor, and New Yorker Polly Apfelbaum are represented by works that are not particularly strong. Apfelbaum's patches of crushed velvet, stained with colored ovals, are an interesting cross between sculpture and painting, but they are crowded into a small room where the effect is detritus rather than design. Leirner's parallel rows of plastic museum shopping bags make a too-obvious point: Art is a commodity in our culture.

Andrea Zittel of New York explores the roles of art and technology. She offers prefab living units, purportedly to solve social problems by equalizing accommodations. ``A to Z 1994 Living Unit'' is a shipshape, all-in-one bed/vanity/dining/kitchen combo -

the ultimate in Thoreau-style simplicity. This portable habitat, exemplifying ``home is where the art is,'' asks questions: To what extent does mass-produced uniformity aid humanity, and when does it become a tyranny of taste that suppresses individual choice?

Female artists, this show argues, are no longer ghosts but visible leaders in an important movement in contemporary art. Taking off from Minimalism, they make a maximum impact in works that pack a visual and visceral punch. * The exhibit closes Sept. 11.

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