All Representation Is Political: Feminist Art Past and Present

Josephine Withers. Feminist Studies. Volume 34, Issue 3. Fall 2008.

The year 2008 is an exhilarating and challenging moment to be reflecting on feminist art, feminist artists, their impact on our culture, and their place at the table. In the past two years, two major exhibitions circulated in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D. C, museums, assessing the history of Second Wave feminist art and presenting a global view of contemporary art: WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution; and Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art. Judy Chicago’s monumental Dinner Party (1979) opened in its now-permanent location at the Brooklyn Museum as the centerpiece of the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Both WACK! and Global Feminisms in their turn were riding a long wave with other ambitious retrospective feminist shows stretching back to the Inside the Visible exhibition of the mid-1990s.

In the past five years alone, three other exhibitions assessed the legacy of 1970s feminist art, and two others connected that legacy to the work being done by young artists today. One of these, Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators, at American University, was explicitly intended as a counterpoint to the WACK! exhibition being shown concurrently in Washington, D. C. More on that later in this essay.

Depending on what critic or journal you read, feminism is thoroughly imbricated in mainstream thought; or, the careers-especially mid-careers- of women artists are stalled; at the same time feminists are taking charge in major cultural venues; but then younger women roll their eyes at the mention of the “F” word; at the same time, younger artists are flocking to these and other shows presenting historical and contemporary feminist work. Feminist art is either “so over,” or it is gathering momentum.

Overlaying this commentary is a mostly cranky press inclined to trivialize and belittle with snide one-liners. The Global Feminisms show was a particular target: “Sisterhood Is Dispiriting: Power to the Curators at Brooklyn’s New Feminist Enclave”; and “They Are Artists Who Are Women: Hear Them Roar.” But as a more sympathetic critic observed, “[Although] tagged ‘ADHD’ by one old school art critic, I personally find the mix [of video, photography, sculpture, and painting] fitting and illuminating. How could an exhibition dedicated to such weighty themes and confronting such daunting competiton for the attention of authences (we are living in the age of info overload after all) be anything but chaotic?! Expect self-mutilation, violent sexuality and disquieting body images. Expect to be shocked. Expect to feel, to gasp, to think.”

The WACK! and Global Feminisms exhibitions were very large, very ambitious, and very different. Although they were conceived independently of each other, that they circulated at the same time invites our considering them in relationship to one another and from there assessing where they are situated in this cultural moment.

The curators of the big sprawling Global Feminisms focused on transnational feminist artists born since 1960, and they selected work created since 1990. In several ways Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin sought alternative structures for selecting and organizing the show in order to escape familiar hierarchies of center/periphery or linear chronology, opting instead for dissonant and dialogic relationships between artists. They aimed to provoke viewers “into asking themselves … hard questions about their usual assumptions about contemporary art” and positioned themselves as “mediators of cultural exchange” rather than attempting an integrated perspective. The idea was to escape a priori ideas about what feminist art might be or look like, say, in Jakarta, Guatemala City, or Kinshasa. To accomplish this, they began their research and selection in countries outside Western Europe and North America and turned to a multinational and multidisciplinary team of specialists to create de novo what global feminisms might be communicating.

The exhibition and the catalog were organized very differently, producing quite different experiences. The exhibition was divided into four themes: Life Cycles, Identities, Politics, and Emotions. Creating surprising, congruent, or dissonant relationships between individual works was the obvious intention. This worked by fits and starts. If two or several neighboring works could speak to each other in such a way as to offer new contexts and meanings that might not be produced otherwise, yes, this thematic grouping was helpful. In many instances, however, I was hard pressed to perceive any such relationship, either to other works or to the theme. In these cases, the whole thematic/relational scaffolding melted down, and at times I felt adrift, at which point I even questioned the usefulness of such broad and ultimately vague categories. I give Reilly and Nochlin a lot of credit, however, for breaking out of the safe harbor of the curatorial metanarrative and reaching for new ways to think about difference across the spectrum of feminist sensibility. The ideal viewer of this exhibition (which I was not) would be someone able to make multiple visits to the show and from those experiences piece together their own narrative, their own knowledges, in good postmodernist fashion.

What, then, did this exhibition, inaugurating the Sackler Center, convey to this one-time visitor? Perhaps I forgot to mention that the centerpiece in these new galleries was Chicago’s newly installed Dinner Party. And that was what initially drew me and many other visitors to the center in the first place. It would be almost impossible to see and think about either of these exhibitions separately from the other, particularly at this inaugural moment, but this apparently was the curators’ intention. When asked to comment on the relationship, Maura Reilly (also the director of the Sackler Center) stated that “although the show was placed around the Dinner Party, it had no formal relation to it other than that it was in the same space.”

Curatorial intentions aside, visitors perforce created their own as they navigated these exhibitions. The most apparent relationships were oppositional and mutually clarifying. The Dinner Party: enclosed in its own pristine, carefully controlled theatrical space; giving a sense of being closed off from the world outside; hushed, contemplative, reverential ambience; a linear progression around the triangular table from prehistoric goddess to artist Georgia O’Keeffe (still living at the time of its making); a sense of crystalline completeness. Emerging from this chapel, the white-box, brightly lit spaces of Global Feminisms was cacophonous-orally and visually-and messy, prompting us to wander, loop back, criss-cross; many of the most memorable pieces dealt graphically with mutilation, pain, and psychic disconnection; yet the strong pulsation of the show did lend a coherence so carefully avoided in its conceptual design. The tough subjects notwithstanding, I came away energized and newly confident that these feminist artists knew how to make themselves seen and heard and that this exhibition gave them an expanded space in which to speak their many languages.

The catalog-which is what endures, after all-is more academically organized. Here the artists are grouped regionally, rather than thematically, with essays by scholars and writers with on-the-ground familiarity with the local cultural contexts. In her extended introductory essay, “Toward Transnational Feminisms,” Reilly does a great service by clarifying the goals and intentions of Global Feminisms and by situating it within emergent transnational discourses of the past twenty years and feminist art history of the last thirty years.

The ur-event we always return to is Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris’s groundbreaking exhibition and catalogue, Women Artists: 15501950, which opened in Los Angeles in 1977, right at the moment the Dinner Party was taking shape in nearby Santa Monica. They are born of the same historical moment in seeking to reinsert women into a history as seen from a Western perspective, with its linear progression and periodization. At the time, we already knew that the recovery strategy of “insert women and stir” was inadequate but nonetheless foundational. More than that, it was an ironic coincidence that as women began to emerge into history and were no longer “anonymous,” other voices now proclaimed the “death of the author.”

A few years later, a big hullabaloo erupted around the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) rigorously macho International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture (1984), the big show that inaugurated the reopening of their expanded galleries. Out of a total of 169 artists selected for the show, only 13 were women. When the curator, Kynaston McShine, was questioned on this, he responded, “any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his [sic] career.” The newly formed Guerrilla Girls weighed in with this message: “I’m a Guerrilla Girl and I’m not at all incensed that the Museum of Modern Art showed only 13 women of the 169 artists in their International Survey of Painting and Sculpture show … I know these figures occurred only by chance, there was no sexism, conscious or unconscious, at work.” A few years later there was an even broader spectrum of criticism of the MoMA’s neocolonialist “Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1988).

The fallout from both these exhibitions helped to consolidate the new thinking-by negative example-around the interwoven discourses of gender, race, and class. The fruits of this public conversation emerged in the exhibitions Magiciens de la terre (1989), The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s (1990), and the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Magiciens presented contemporary work and tribal art in a more egalitarian relationship than had MoMA’s “Primitivism” show. The Decade Show further dismantled modernist hierarchies as it focused on the identity politics announced in its subtitle. And the Whitney Biennial of 1993 became the cri du coeur for many emergent postmodernist voices, coming as it did in the midst of the so-called culture wars. Even as these shows were being targeted by an exasperated press yearning for more order, more visual pleasure, less politics, and more “art,” there was wide acknowledgment that something big was afoot that transcended any particular movement.

The feminism in Global Feminisms would not have come about without these earlier exhibitions; and just as surely, these earlier shows are thoroughly indebted to an expanded feminist discourse. This mutuality undergirds one of the most important arguments of this show: that the strategy of relational analysis “allows us to re-read political, activist, religious, anti-colonialist, environmental, and other work as a kind of ‘subterranean, unrecognized form of feminism.’“

The experience of being in the space of WACK! was not unlike Global Feminisms: emotional, rambunctious, sobering, hilarious, life-affirming. Their almost simultaneous openings in March 2007 in prestigious museums on opposite coasts coincidentally marked the thirtierth anniversary of Nochlin and Harris’s Women Artists show and the completion of the Dinner Party. As twinned as they appear to be, however, the conversations they engender and respond to carry us down different pathways.

As its subtitle hints, WACK! is a retrospective show, specifically showcasing Euro-American art of the 1970s. Cornelia Butler, the show’s curator, writes:

My ambition for “WACK!” is to make the case that feminism’s impact on art of the 1970s constitutes the most influential international “movement” of any during the postwar period- in spite of or perhaps because of the fact that it seldom cohered, formally or critically, into a movement the way Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, or even Fluxus did. For that reason, I want to invoke bell hooks’s proposal to resignify the term “feminist movement,” to deliver it from its nomenclatorial fixity and reconnect it to the verb “to move”—with all the restless possibility that word connotes.”

For a veteran of Second Wave feminism like myself, the show had a comfortable familiarity about it, despite its edginess. I could readily see my own narratives confirmed in the selection and organization of the show, even as I was introduced to new artists and unfamiliar work. Near the entrance was an historical timeline of the period (unfortunately not included in the catalog) that invited multiple connections to the thematically grouped work in the exhibition. I had the privilege of playing cicerone to two different groups-one, women’s studies graduate students from the University of Maryland; the other, Veteran Feminists of America-Second Wave feminists like myself. All of them reflected back to me in a multitude of ways that what we accomplished in that decade or so may be history, but it’s not over and done with. As with the music of that period, this art can reconnect us to the promptings of our hearts.

Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators- a smaller exhibition at American University-ran concurrently with the Washington, D.C., showing of WACK! and while participating in this ongoing historical project, chose a different strategy. If we can liken its bigger sisters—Global Feminisms and WACK!—to a sprawling mansion, each room with its own theatrics and with hidden nooks and a few trap doors, Claiming Space would be an exquisitely crafted jewel box, with each element chosen to create a pleasing and visually integrated narrative. Although curators Norma Broude and Mary Garrard did not pull back from the ugly and painful subjects of rape, social upheaval, or racism endemic to 1970s feminism, their objective also was to present visually stunning and monumental works.’3

The curators invite us to think about the “space” they are claiming for feminism in several layered ways: first, a place at the table, then in the histories and in the ongoing discourse. The heroic scale of many of the objects in this show is yet another way of claiming space. The exhibition opens with three monumental works that announce some of the great themes of this show: Faith Ringgold’s Die (1963-1967), Miriam Schapiro’s Big Ox (1968), and a group of drawings, photographs, and a test plate for Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979). With her lament for the violence against both blacks and whites, women and men of the civil rights era, Ringgold reminds us that feminism was born out of this struggle. Schapiro’s Ox series is equal parts minimalism and the fleshy body-centric imagery writ large that is such a significant marker of feminist art of this period. And then there is an unexpectedly intimate view of some of the processes Chicago employed in creating the Dinner Party, collages, drawings, and a porcelain test plate for the Virginia Woolf place setting. The central core imagery announced in Schapiro’s Big Ox became the generating iconography of Chicago’s work. Seeing them together in this way makes clear their formal and conceptual congruence-one that extends beyond differences of intention, message, or style.

Claiming Space makes a compelling argument that feminist artists working in the late 1960s into the early 1980s had an enormous role in defining and expanding out what constitutes feminist culture and that any history of the period-social, political, cultural, or art historical-is woefully incomplete if these artists are not fully integrated into those stories. The history of this period and the art of the 1990s simply doesn’t make sense otherwise.

We are all perforce storymakers. So how do we continue to create narratives that eventually become history, without embalming them in canonical thinking? As Feminist Studies’ associate editor for art from 1978 into the 1990s, I introduced many of the artists featured in these exhibitions to readers of this journal: Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Audrey Flack, Nancy Spero, May Stevens, Eleanor Antin, Mary Beth Edelson, Louise Bourgeois, Donna Henes, Joan Semmel, and Bonnie Sherk. Was I creating a canon? Are these exhibitions creating a canon?

As storytellers we continually risk letting our stories fossilize. Over the past thirty years and in every cultural arena, we have struggled to move beyond hegemonic or single-perspective thinking and to create more supple and holistic models. In destabilizing received truths, these exhibitions can be judged successful. They are polyvocal, and precisely because of this our epiphanies are likely to be partial, perhaps enlivened by only some of the voices. I contend that it is not the curators’ intention to create a new canon, but to invite our continued questioning of the litany.

The polyvocal approach of these exhibitions has a lineage going back at least to the 1990s, most notably in Catherine de Zegher’s Inside the Visible. The subtitle, An Elliptical Traverse of the Twentieth Century in, of, and from the Feminine, suggests what is more clearly enunciated in the curator’s introduction to the exhibition catalog. The exhibition “traverses” a European and New World landscape that is rendered fresh and unfamiliar and, as with the Magiciens de la terre (which de Zegher explicitly acknowledges) and the 2007-2008 shows we have been discussing, organizes the material in “several recurrent cycles, rather than a linear survey with its investment in artistic originality and genealogies.” De Zegher likens her curatorial process to “an excavation of material traces and fragmentary histories, which would be recombined into new stratigraphies.” The task was to challenge the modernist narrative without simply falling into oppositional binarisms prompted by that very story.

Whether or not these and other feminist histories are invisible and unrecognized, or celebrated and duly footnoted, they have, and will continue to exert their gravitational force. We are learning from cosmologists about the irrefutable power of dark matter in the universe, even though we haven’t figured out how to measure it directly. Similarly, feminism continues to shape activist strategies in the ecological, political, and cultural arenas, often in unseen and immeasurable ways.

The exhibitions of both historical and current art discussed here are best thought of as soundings-contingent, parts of a conversation, openended. Each such project mirrors back to us who we are becoming. On the difficulty of writing our own story, Shoshana Felman writes: “none of us, as women, has as yet, precisely, an autobiography. Trained to see ourselves as objects and to be positioned as the other, estranged to ourselves, we have a story that cannot by definition be self-present to us, a story, that, in other words, is not a story, but must become a story.” And the way it will become our story is by our participating in a collective reading/gazing and speaking.