A New Vision

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Organized by Cornelia Butler and edited by Lisa Gabrielle Mark
Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007, 512 pp., $59.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Elissa Auther

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution serves as the exhibition catalog for the eponymous international survey of feminist art of the 1960s and 1970s curated by Cornelia Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The impressive breadth of the exhibition, the first of its kind, includes the work of 119 artists from 21 countries, and is matched in this accompanying publication with eleven essays, substantial photographic documentation of the works in the show and contextual material, biographical entries on each artist, and an extensive chronology of all-women group exhibitions. These components document the significant contributions of feminist artists to the women’s liberation movement, contributions that are little understood by scholars outside the art world and, thus, rarely integrated into the history of second-wave feminism. This alone makes WACK! a valuable new resource for scholars, students, activists, and other readers interested in art and feminism. At the same time, the publication also responds to the need within the art world for a study that, in the words of curator Butler, “moves beyond the familiar list of American feminist artists to include women of other geographies, formal approaches, sociopolitical alliances, and critical and theoretic positions.” The result is a survey of feminist art that is as complex, open-ended, and exciting as the context in which this art emerged.

For readers unfamiliar with the state of art-historical scholarship about feminist art, the discussion has been stalled by a reduction of the field into an early phase devoted to the search for an authentic imagery of female experience in the 1970s, followed by a post-structuralist inflected critique of representation in the 1980s. In this bitter, zero-sum game, generations of feminist artists, works of art, and political strategies are divided and arranged in a hierarchy—and the work of the 1970s is often dismissed as misdirected and politically naive. The language of progress from “essentialism” to “theory” is repeatedly used to legitimate this view. Even with the recent efforts of feminist art historians such as Amelia Jones and Helen Molesworth to destabilize this opposition through revisionist histories of feminist art of the 1970s, it remains an organizing principle in numerous narratives of modern and contemporary art, feminist or otherwise.

WACK! puts this caricature of 1970s feminist art firmly to rest, hopefully for good. It achieves this by dismantling the received canon of feminist works of art, a project that involves not only highlighting the period’s diversity of practices and strategies but also, crucially, their extension beyond the borders of the US and Britain. Several essays in the text specifically address the latter priority. WACK!’s lead essay, “Chronology Through Cartography: Mapping 1970s Feminist Art Globally,” by Marsha Meskimmon, does so by tackling another form of progress narrative endemic to the history of feminist art: that which positions the US at the center of a temporal unfolding of a single feminist movement. “The chronological delimitation of 1970s feminist art,” argues Meskminnon, implies a cartography focused upon the United States and emanating outward from it—first toward the United Kingdom…then through Europe…, and, when venturing very boldly, touching upon the wider context of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. This temporal cartography elides two dubious patterns: first, a tendency for a certain kind of United States-based feminist art practice and discourse to be taken as an unmarked normative category, thereby foreclosing differences both within and beyond the American context, and second, an implicit assumption that the “feminist revolution” will come to us all, eventually. These patterns…produce not a critical cartography, but an uncritical chronology.

Instead of reading differences between sites of feminist art practice in terms of a narrative of progress, Meskimmon calls for a spatially sensitive history of feminist art that brings to light the coexistence of strategies, forms, and practices in diverse geographic locations. In the second half of her essay, Meskimmon re-examines both canonical and less well-known feminist works in just this way, juxtaposing, for instance, Sanja Ivekovic’s Triangle (1979), Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1964-1967), and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The comparison creates a complicated web of affinities and differences in the feminist exploration of female sexual agency that undermines any simplistic, linear, cause-and-effect history, not to mention the essentialist-theory binary. The positing of larger critical issues or themes to illuminate affinities between feminist art produced in diverse geographical locations is also a feature of Peggy Phelan’s essay, “The Returns of Touch: Feminist Performances, 1960-80,” which brings together a wide range of work around the politics of embodiment, both sensual and violent.

Other essays, on topics as diverse as photography and self-representation, and Italian feminism, among others, are narrower in focus, but they can also be viewed as activating Meskimmon’s vision of a critical cartography in relation to each other. A good example is Nelly Richard’s “Fugitive Identities and Dissenting Code-Systems,” an examination of the work of women artists who practiced under Chile’s military dictatorship. Richard brings together the work of women associated with the oppositional movement Escena de Avanzada, including Virginia Errázuriz, Catalina Parra, Paz Errázuriz, Lotty Rosenfeld, and Diamela Eltit, around their common thematization of the border or margin as a “location for interrogating the symbolic effects of power.” The politics of the margin these artists practiced involved carrying out various disturbances to the regulation of ideas, language, bodies, and sexuality in their work. Although a direct response to an environment of extreme repression and censorship, much of it resonates with other feminist art practices highlighted in WACK!, in which the “feminine” is deployed as a threat to the stability of official power and authority.

The goal here is not to disregard significant political, aesthetic, and contextual differences, but to generate moments of intersection that make it impossible to hypostasize feminist art, isolating artists from each other and their work from larger patterns of art world practice, debates, and discourses. Naturally one wishes for more, and WACK! provides ample material for further investigation. Thrown into relief by the diverse essays, for instance, are the large number of artists utilizing fiber—Magadelena Abakanowicz, Senga Nengudi, Faith Ringgold, Lygia Pape, and Cecilia Vicuña, to name only a few—as well as the widespread use of the female nude across media.

The latter theme touches upon one of the most controversial aspects of WACK!: the use of a detail from Martha Rosler’s photocollage Body Beautiful, or Body Knows no Pain: Hot House, or Harem (1966-1972) as its dust jacket. The choice of this image, consisting of several hundred seductive female nudes cut from the pages of discarded Playboy magazines salvaged from the trash, has generated a maelstrom of opinion, much of it documented in the online forum for the exhibition (www.moca.org/wack). The responses, which range from dismay and confusion to enthusiastic approval, point to the difficulties that have always surrounded the use of the female nude in feminist art. However, as WACK! extensively documents, the difficulty of appropriating the nude or sexually explicit female body for feminist aims did not stop feminist artists from utilizing it. Rather than dismissing Rosler’s Hot House or Harem as either an affront to the feminist critique of the female nude in art or a simplistic celebration of sexual empowerment, I view the use of the image on the bookcover as a launching point for a consideration of the female body’s wide range of purposes in feminist art. As explored elsewhere in the text, this includes but is not limited to exposing male sexual privilege and violence against the female body, engaging in the exploration of female sexual agency and physical intimacy, and critiquing women’s internalization of norms of beauty. That Rosler’s Hot House or Harem does not comfortably fit any of these themes feels appropriate for a text that seeks to shake up the standard story of feminist art.

WACK! also includes a number of essays conceived to complicate the history of feminist art in the U.S. These essays target fault lines and blind spots, constructing what Catherine Lord refers to as a “counter-archive” in her moving essay about lesbianism and feminist art and culture, “Their Memory is Playing Tricks on Her: Notes Toward a Calligraphy of Rage.” Neither [my] essay,” Lord writes, allegedly on lesbian culture between 1965 and 1980, nor the exhibition that it accompanies could be imagined without access to specific architectures of memory to the repositories of artifacts and knowledge that enable and determine both recollection and oblivion—which is to say, an archive. Like Pandora’s box, no archive is opened without an intention to reconfigure and reinscribe, which is to say, to propose and, in so doing, to institute a counter-archive.

In her essay, Lord’s counterarchive of lesbian liberation is anchored around Louise Fishman’s little-known series of works from 1973 called the Angry Paintings. Other essays examine practices that have been actively repressed in feminist art history, such as abstract painting and the eroticization of the male body. Also falling within this category of the counterarchive are studies about feminist art praxis that have suffered from inadequate documentation and contextualization, for instance the history of African American feminism and art, and the phenomenon of the all-woman group exhibition.

Contributing author Jenni Sorkin’s observation that the reconstruction of avant- garde feminist art relies on the exploration of “personal collections and archives,” frames these essays. In many instances, the studies are the result of artists’ willingness to share their experiences as feminists in the art world of the 1960s and 1970s and to open their personal collections to investigation, sometimes for the first time. The result is a counter-archive with the capacity to, in Lord’s words, “index not only the evanescent rage that sparked an entire enterprise but map the erotic joy that fueled a revolution.”

Richard Meyer’s investigation of women’s alternative erotic imagery, “Hard Targets: Male Bodies, Feminist Art, and the Force of Censorship in the 1970s,” is a case in point. His essay focuses on the severely marginalized strain of feminist art that privileged female, heterosexual desire and pleasure through a re-envisioning of the nude, male body. The artists he discusses, including Anita Steckel, Eunice Golden, Joan Semmel, and Betty Tompkins, among others, faced a range of hostile responses to their work: ridicule in the art world, outright censorship on the part of university administrators and government officials, and dismissal by fellow feminists who demonized the penis as oppressive to women. His recovery of the work of these women and their organized efforts to legitimate the representation of hetero women’s sexual desire in art considerably complicates the history of the feminist critique of pornography.

A focus on painting is another unusual feature of WACK!. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s, painting was rejected by the avant garde as an exhausted medium, and in the 1970s condemned by many feminists, who turned away from it as a tool of the patriarchy. Yet, women with commitments both to the modernist language of abstraction and feminism continued to paint. Helen Molesworth, in her essay “Painting with Ambivalence,” deals with this inconvenient truth through the examination of the work of three such feminist painters: Joan Synder, Howardena Pindell, and Mary Heilmann. Her argument, that their work “suffers from a kind of illegibility,” is one that must be acknowledged if we are ever to understand the place of their work in the history of postwar painting. It is a deft analysis of the silence that has surrounded feminist abstraction from this period.

Jenni Sorkin’s “The Feminist Nomad: The All-Woman Group Show,” analyzes the alternative exhibition system initiated by feminists out of frustration with an art world that largely excluded them. Her investigation of the all-woman group show (and related forms such as women’s video and film festivals, and lesbian alternative print culture that published women’s art and erotica) positions it as a form of feminist activism. Such an analysis is long overdue and stands as an important contribution to the history of women’s alternative culture. All-women group shows should be viewed alongside the production of feminist academic and literary journals, events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and institutions such as Women’s Review of Books, to name only a few examples of forums that transformed women’s participation in the academy, the art world, and culture at large. This essay intersects at some points with Valerie Smith’s investigation, “Abundant Evidence: Black Women Artists of the 1960s and 70s,” in particular, the formation and activities of the group, “Where We Art” Black Women Artists (WWA), founded in 1971. Her essay—the most thorough about this important group to date—highlights the dialogue between feminist and black liberation politics that led the group from its original focus upon creating exhibition opportunities for African American women artists to a broad community outreach mission that emphasized access to cultural experiences over the production of works of art, per se. The same can be said about women’s separatist exhibitions generally, which, as Sorkin persuasively shows, made their most lasting mark by “profoundly and permanently shift[ing] meaning away from the production of art objects…toward aesthetic participation itself as a formative experience.”

Like any large exhibition catalog that brings together commissioned essays by a diverse group of authors, WACK! has its shortcomings. For instance, the depth of the analysis across essays is uneven, the emphasis on extending the analysis to feminist art outside the US could have been expanded, and some artists and practices are, of course, overlooked. However, there is too much of value here to dwell on these points. The decentering of the canon WACK! enacts is a welcome advance over the center/periphery logic that has long dominated feminist art scholarship and the staid history of feminist art it enshrined.

Elissa Auther is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Among other projects, she directs Feminism & Co., a think tank devoted to producing innovative public programming about feminist art and culture for the contemporary art institute, The Lab at Belmar.

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