Last night I went to a screening of !Women Art Revolution at Film Huis Cavia in Amsterdam. It was easily the best movie I have seen all year. It was so good that my friends and I spent the next three hours talking about how the legacy of the feminist art revolution lives on today. The documentary was made in 2010 by Lynn Hershman Leeson, but it has been an ongoing project of Leeson’s for the past forty years. !Women Art Revolution details the rise of the feminist art revolution in the 1960s and its development throughout the rest of the 20th century. It is an oral history, as well as a series of interviews featuring female artists, curators, and art historians. These interviews have been conducted over the past forty years- it was a unique and special experience to hear these women, some of whom have since passed away, speak about their experiences. Throughout the hour and a half of this incredible film, I was exposed to fifty years of history I had embarrassingly been devoid of in my artistic education.
How awful is it, that I had only ever heard of TWO of these artists? I had studied Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in AP Art History in high school, and bought Miranda July’s book,”No One Belongs Here More Than You,” from the Strand Bookstore. But the names Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringold, Miriam Schapiro, Barbara Kruger, and many, MANY more, were completely new to me. I hadn’t even heard of the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists who protested discrimination and sexism in the art world while wearing gorilla costumes. Their humorous posters and literal guerrilla tactics raised awareness about these issues and put political pressure on artistic institutions to be inclusive of women and artists of color. When the Whitney put on a show featuring exclusively male artists, the Guerrilla Girls created a fake press release on Whitney stationary, exclaiming how proud the institution was to be presenting the first exhibition in New York City including 50% female artists. I could not believe I had never heard of this group of activists. I also could not believe I had never heard the tragedy of Ana Mendieta, a Cuban feminist artist who fell to her death from the window of her 34th floor apartment in 1985. It was widely believed that her husband, famous MALE contemporary artist Carl Andre, was responsible for her murder. As !Women Art Revolution points out, Andre’s contemporaries refused to speak against him. He was eventually acquitted, leading to a series of protests in Mendieta’s honor, in which posters of Mendieta’s face and the words, “Where is Ana? Ask Carl!” were scattered all over Andre’s work at the Guggenheim.
Of course, I have to recognize that I have not taken a course in contemporary art yet, and it is possible that these artists are textbook requirements today. All of my contemporary art knowledge has come from my personal exploration in books, articles, and museum/gallery visits. However, there is something to be said for name recognition. So many male artists of the same era have penetrated the bubble of academic art history to the point where they are recognizable to the general public. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Sol Lewitt, Frank Stella… the male artists who were creatintat the same time as Ana Mendieta and Lynn Hershman are ENGRAINED in my mind. I know all of their names, so why don’t I know these women’s names?
This is why we still need feminism. The art world has definitely become more progressive. Lisa Yuskavage, Yayoi Kusama, and Marina Abramovic are three of my favorite artists. Marcia Tucker, who is interviewed in !Women Art Revolution, founded the New Museum to exhibit the work of living artists, including many incredible female artists. But the art world- the way art is exhibited and the way art history is taught- still has a long way to go. As !Women Art Revolution pointed out, omission is dangerous for the legacy of female artists. It directly leads to eradication. In one chilling segment of the film, an unseen interviewer asked passerby outside the Whitney, “Can you name three female artists?” Embarrassed people stutter and mumbl before finally offering, “Frieda Khalo?” as their only answer. The age-old practice of omitting female artists while they are alive has led to their eradication from collective memory. The feminist artists of the 60s and 70s fought for their work to be included in galleries and institutions. !Women Art Revolution reports that exhibitions of exclusively white-male artists remained popular in the United States through the 1990s. Leeson and her contemporaries describe stories in which gallery-owners repeatedly refused to represent them . One artist described an experience in which she was forced to get on her hands and knees to present her portfolio to a male gallery director, a humiliation surely no male artist was ever forced to endure. Another recounted a time when a buyer returned a painting to her when he found out she was female, because he said the work had no market value. Today, circumstances are different. Women are not omitted from galleries and institutions. But we cannot forget the work of the feminist artists that we stand on today. We cannot allow these artists and their works to be omitted from history, or we risk their eradication entirely.
And so, I urge you to find this film on the internet, and donate to !WAR here.
The only way to prevent omission and eradication is by continuing to spread the work of female artists and information about their lives. Here are some links for further reading:
- A hyperallergic article about an Ana Mendieta protest last year
- An interview with the Guerrilla Girls on their website
- Lynn Hershman Leeson’s website
- Judy Chicago’s website
- Miranda July’s website
- Information about Howardena Pindell
- Faith Ringold’s website
- Miriam Schapiro’s obituary
- Information about Barbara Kruger
- Marcia Tucker’s obituary
- The homepage for !Women Art Revolution
I hope that you check out these links and are also inspired to do more reading on your own. After all, I have only scratched the surface with these artists. There are so SO many more to learn from.
If you happen to be in Amsterdam, Film Huis Cavia will be playing !Women Art Revolution again tonight at 8:30 PM! Tickets are 15 euro.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe <3
On the legacy, I just finished reading about the art of Vigee Le Brun (1756-1842) in the NYRB March 24 by Anka Muhlstein who writes “ ..Le Brun certainly poses a problem for any feminist interpretation, inasmuch as she never felt her femininity as a hindrance to her career and her creativity”. Anka has twice received the History Prize of the French Academy. I ask, perhaps the 20th century lens had dimmed ”History”. There is an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY currently. …..Leon
Thank-you for your response! However, I would still have to disagree. One woman’s success in a patriarchal system does not eliminate the fact that most women were blocked from institutional recognition during their day, and later reduced to mere footnotes in history books.
As for the question of whether the 20th century further belittled the role of female artists in history, I cannot say. It would be worthwhile to look at university art history syllabi before the 20th century and during the 20th century, to see if there was a topical shift.
It is fantastic to hear about this exhibit at the Met! If only it were not so novel that an entire exhibit be devoted to one woman’s art.
Thanks again for your response!