The first comprehensive, historical exhibition to examine the international foundations and legacy of feminist art, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution focuses on the crucial period 1965–80, during which the majority of feminist activism and artmaking occurred internationally. The exhibition includes the work of 120 artists from the United States, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin […]
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Art Review | 'Wack!'
The Art of Feminism as It First Took Shape
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: March 9, 2007
LOS ANGELES, March 4 — If you've held your breath for 40 years waiting for something to happen, your feelings can’t help being mixed when it finally does: "At last!" but also "Not enough." That's bound to be one reaction to "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at the Museum of Contemporary Art here, the first major museum show of early feminist work.
Let me be clear: The show is a thrill, rich and sustained. Just by existing, it makes history. But like any history, once written, it is also an artifact, a frozen and partial monument to an art movement that was never a movement, or rather was many movements, or impulses, vibrant and vexingly contradictory.
One thing is certain: Feminist art, which emerged in the 1960s with the women's movement, is the formative art of the last four decades. Scan the most innovative work, by both men and women, done during that time, and you'll find feminism's activist, expansionist, pluralistic trace. Without it identity-based art, crafts-derived art, performance art and much political art would not exist in the form it does, if it existed at all. Much of what we call postmodern art has feminist art at its source.
Yet that source has been perversely hard to see. Big museums have treated art by women, whether expressly feminist or not, as box-office poison. On the market, feminism is a label to be avoided. When the painter Elizabeth Murray tried to assemble a show of art by women from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1995, she couldn't find enough to fill a small gallery. MoMA has more work by women now, and she could do her show from in-house stock. But she still couldn't write a history.
The Los Angeles exhibition, which has been in the works for at least a decade, does write a history, calling upon an international roster of 119 artists, most represented by work from the early 1970s. But because that history is endlessly complicated and comprehensive accounts of it few, this show is still a rough draft and its organizer, Cornelia Butler, chief curator of drawing at MoMA, will doubtless be fielding suggestions and complaints for months to come.
Doubters will ask whether the one- curator model is out of date for a globalist project of this kind. Others will question the mid-'60s-through-'70s time frame — why not longer, or shorter? — as well as why certain artists, including the many male artists informed by feminist thinking, are absent, and self-declared nonfeminists like Marina Abramovic are present.
The questions are sound, and we all have our please-add wish lists (Lenore Tawney and Rachel Rosenthal are on mine, along with many non-Western artists). Still, I hope Ms. Butler will accept thanks for pulling off the impossible with aplomb, and let the fallout be what it is: fodder for future drafts.
For me the "Wack!" of the title is a problem. It's meant to echo the acronyms of various feminist groups — WAC (Women's Art Coalition) and so on — that came and went over the years. But it plays too readily into an antic, bad-girl take on feminist art that diminishes it and makes it a joke.
On the other hand "art and the feminist revolution" is fine. Feminism was revolutionary. "Why have there been no great women artists?" asked the art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971. Because of a hierarchical social structure, built on privileged distinctions of gender, class and race that gave men, and only certain men, the time, education and material resources required to make "great" art, to become "geniuses."
How to remedy this situation? Upend the structure, and invent a new kind of art based on a different definition of "great." And that's what feminists tried to do, though ingrained social values were hard to change. The most visible early feminist artists were white, straight, middle class. Working-class women and women of color belonged to some other world, as did lesbians, Betty Friedan's "lavender menace."
Gradually but always incompletely, boundaries loosened up. In the early '70s, with the Vietnam War in progress, women could see their oppression as part of a larger oppression. At the same time, in different forms, with different priorities, feminism, often assumed to be a Western phenomenon, was developing in truly radical ways in Africa, Asia, South America. There never was a Feminism; there were only feminisms.
How does any show lay out this multitrack panorama? One way to start is by abandoning linear chronology, which is what "Wack!" does, though this doesn’t mean it escapes accepted models of history. [read on...]