Feminist Art (late 1960s-present)
A form of postmodernist art that emerged as part of the Women's Liberation movement in America and Britain during the late-1960s, Feminist art aimed to give women a just and rightful place in the world. In a general sense, it sought to change cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes. It sought, for instance, to challenge the spectator to question the male-dominated status quo, hoping thereby to encourage greater equality. More specifically, Feminist artists sought to enlarge the opportunities and roles available to them within the American art system, and to reinterpret the history of art from a more woman-friendly perspective. Broadly speaking, female artists deliberately avoided traditional male-dominated types of art, like painting and sculpture, although a number of them (Nancy Spero, Miriam Schapiro, and later Kiki Smith and Jenny Saville) achieved outstanding results in these areas. Instead, they explored the younger forms of contemporary art, including conceptual art and video (Doris Totten Chase, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler, Maureen Connor), along with body painting and other types of body art (Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic) and its sister discipline performance art (Rachel Rosenthal, the 'maintenance artist' Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta). Other artistic disciplines explored by feminists include photography (Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Nan Goldin), Photomontage (Anita Steckel), installation art (Judy Chicago), as well as design - especially graphic art (Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Barbara Kruger), and word art (Jenny Holzer). Born as a protest movement demanding gender equality in the arts, Feminist art succeeded in creating greater opportunity for women and minority artists. The movement established numerous alternative arts venues and persuaded several major arts institutions and museums to raise the profile of women artists. In so doing, it paved the way for later generations of female contemporary artists around the world. As a result, since the 1990s, the leading women artists have downplayed the Feminist agenda in favour of a greater focus on their art. As the Italian artist Leonor Fini (1908-96) once remarked "I am a painter, not a woman painter."
The first wave of Feminism began around the turn of the century with the Suffragette movement. Since then a number of female artists were active in raising gender-related issues, without necessarily being "feminists". These pioneers included the Impressionist Mary Cassatt, who painted a mural on the subject of Modern Woman (1893) for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago; the photomontage artist Hannah Hoch, the Mexican Frida Kahlo, and the sculptor Kathe Kollwitz, all of whom raised issues about power and representation in gender; the German-born painter Eva Hesse, the Russian-born assemblage artist Louise Nevelson, and the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who all produced imagery dealing with the theme of domesticity and the female body.
Feminist Art proper started in America and Britain in the late 1960s, during the so-called "second-wave" of feminism. Women activists of this period revelled in the "feminine experience", posed naked as goddess figures and made full use of vaginal imagery and menstrual blood. They explored media like embroidery and other crafts as well as the notion that art is essentially a collaborative rather than a solo effort.
On a practical level, the movement's aims were threefold: (1) to make it easier for women artists to exhibit their work; (2) to set up courses on women's art; and (3) to establish a number of art organizations and magazines for women. To this end, a variety of women's groups were formed, including Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and the AIR Gallery, to address feminist artists' concerns in the art community. These groups pressurized leading New York museums - including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art - to increase the proportion of exhibits by female artists. At the same time, the movement set up several venues devoted exclusively to women's art, such as the Women's Interart Center in New York (1970), and the Woman's Building in Los Angeles - which incorporated the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW) founded by Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art scholar Arlene Raven.
In addition, in 1970 at Fresno State College, Judy Chicago taught the first women's art class ever held in America. Her students included Dori Atlantis, Gail Escola, Suzanne Lacy, Cay Lang, Karen LeCocq, Jan Lester, Chris Rush, Judy Schaefer, Henrietta Sparkman, Faith Wilding, Nancy Youdelman, Cheryl Zurilgen, and others. Then in 1971, Chicago and Miriam Schapiro succeeded in establishing the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of Arts.
Feminist periodicals were also launched, including Feminist Art Journal (New York, 1972), Women's Art Journal (Knoxville, 1980) and Women's Art Magazine (London, 1986). Conferences were also organized to brainstorm and disseminate the Feminist agenda, two important events being The West Coast Women's Artists Conference at the California Institute of the Arts (Jan 1972), and the Conference on Women in the Visual Arts, at the Corcoran School of Art, Washington DC (April 1972).
Activist events combined with performance art were also a regular feature of American Feminism. In May 1977, for instance, Feminist artists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, gave a series of performances on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall highlighting sexual violence against women. The performance included a map of rapes committed across the city, as well as advice on self-defense.
At the same time, a number of female art critics helped the movement to address wider issues, such as the misleading stereotype of the "male artist", and the apparent failure of women to create an equal share of top quality art. The aim was to rewrite the principles of aesthetics and art evaluation - hitherto formulated by male artists - making them gender-neutral. Important contributors in this task were Linda Nochlin, who wrote an influential essay entitled "Why have there been no great women artists?" (Art News, 1971), and Germaine Greer who wrote "The Obstacle Race" (1979). In England - where Margaret Harrison had already set up the London Womens Liberation Art Group in 1970 - a similar campaign was organized by art reviewers Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker, who in 1973 set up the Women's Art History Collective in order to explain, qualify and repair the absence of women from the historical record. They examined the language used by art critics throughout history with its gender-loaded terms such as "masterpiece" and "old master". At the same time they examined the position accorded the female nude in the western canon, and tried to establish why men and women were (and are) represented so differently.
The new conservatism of the 1980s, embodied by Reagan and Thatcher, put the lid on the radical idealism of the 70s. Feminist art continued to progress but not as part of a wider movement. Instead, women artists tried to re-explain notions such as femininity and womanhood, interpreting them as a set of behaviours adopted by women to conform to social expectations of womanhood.
Three separate things from the 1980s are worth recording. First, the appearance of an activist protest group known as "The Guerrilla Girls", who protested on behalf of Feminist artists at various venues while disguised in gorilla masks, and later conducted a series of poster campaigns. Second, the use of advertising imagery and slogans to promote women-oriented social precepts, by Feminist artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Third, the huge success of women artists in the Young British Artists movement, during the late-1980s and early 90s. Three of these artists - Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing and Tomma Abts - became Turner Prize-winners, while a number of others - the assemblage artist Sara Lucas, the photographer Sam Taylor Wood, the painters Fiona Rae and Jenny Saville, and the installationists Tracey Emin, Anya Gallaccio and Georgina Starr - achieved fame in a variety of disciplines.
More theoretically inclined Feminist artists of the late 1980s and 1990s included: the conceptual artist Mary Kelly, now Professor of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work borrows from both Marxism and psychoanalysis; the contemporary German photographer Katharina Sieverding, who uses make-up and face-painting to explore gender borders; the German multimedia artist Iza Genzken, noted for her assemblages of household objects; the American postmodernist Lynda Benglis, best-known for her wax paintings and poured latex sculptures; and the English conceptual Helen Chadwick (1953-96), noted for her feminist performances and installations, but perhaps best-known for photocopying her body next to dead animals.
The growth of individualism in art continues to blunt the Feminist message in the 21st century. Despite this, progress towards greater equality for women is being made both in North America and on a global level. This has been helped by several major exhibitions of works by female artists, including "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" in 2007, which featured over 120 artists from America and elsewhere. Shortly before this, in 2006, The Feminist Art Project - a website and information resource for artists and scholars - was established at Rutgers University, New Jersey. In 2009, the original Feminist Art Program was commemorated in a retrospective entitled "A Studio of Their Own: The Legacy of the Fresno Feminist Experiment", which was held at the Phebe Conley Art Gallery on the Fresno campus in California. In June 2011, the documentary film entitled "!Women Art Revolution", directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, was released in the United States. Based on recorded conversations and archival film footage involving female artists, historians, curators and critics the film explores all the major developments in feminist art during the 1970s, and features many of the pioneering artists - Marina Abramovic, Judy Chicago, Miranda July, Barbara Kruger, Yoko Ono, Yvonne Rainer, B. Ruby Rich, Miriam Schapiro, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Ingrid Sischy, and Marcia Tucker and The Guerilla Girls - who made the movement possible.
Well known works by Feminist artists include:
Rhythm 0 (1974) by Marina
One of the best-known performances by the New York-based Serbian artist, the 6-hour event involves her lying in a prone position surrounded by 72 objects which (a sign explained) members of the audience could use on her in any way that they chose. Some objects could give pleasure; others, pain. They included a rose, honey, olive oil, a feather, a whip, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a bullet. Arguably the ultimate expression of female passivity - an anathema for feminists - the performance tested audience reaction to the opportunities presented and affirmed the artist's identity through the actions of others. By the end, Abramovic's body was stripped, attacked, and stabbed, and threatened with shooting.
Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) by Martha
Regarded as the iconic piece of feminist video art, this 6-minute feminist parody of a televised cooking show seeks to change preconceived notions about the woman's role within the home, and how this is represented in the mass media. Rosler, the host of the show, examines an array of kitchen utensils, demonstrating unproductive, occasionally violent, uses for each. The video demonstrates how the language of domestivity helps to transform women into unequal partners and people, and illustrates her focus on women's experience in everyday life.
The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy
One of the best-known examples of Feminist art, this installation is a permanent exhibit at the Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum. It comprises a large dinner table with place settings for 39 famous women from history and legend. Each setting has a gold ceramic chalice, silverware, and a porcelain plate decorated with butterfly and vulva-inspired patterns. In addition, the names of 999 other eminent women are painted on the tiles under the table. Although its historical feminist message is important, in its showcasing of textiles, metalwork, embroidery, needlework and ceramic art, the work also celebrates the value of crafts and decorative art, as opposed to male-dominated fine art. Involving contributions from more than 100 artists and craftspeople, The Dinner Party illustrates the Feminist tendency to reject the idea of an artist as an individual creative genius, preferring to see art as a collaborative experience.
"Preening in the Kitchen"
(1977) by Cindy Sherman
This surrealist photographic self-portrait of herself as a preening housewife looking over her shoulder while standing at the stove, is part of a series of self-portraits entitled "Untitled Film Stills" (1977-80). It is not 'real', yet it shows us what exists and what controls us: sexuality, beauty and power. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, bought all 69 black-and-white photographs in the series for an estimated $1 million.
"Misty and Jimmy" (1980) by Nan Goldin (b.1953)
A close-up photo of transvestites sitting together in the back-seat of a car, the work exemplifies her focus on the lives and loves of marginal communities throughout New York City. Goldin's work explores stereotypes surrounding social and sexual behaviours: her shots are part of the general trend towards capturing the deviance from cultural norms, which began during the 1980s.
"I Shop Therefore I am" (c.1990) by Barbara Kruger (b.1945)
This photo-lithographic consumerist slogan exemplifies Kruger's graphic art which questions social stereotyping, especially that involving women. Another example is the double-slogan "77 percent of anti-abortion leaders are men; 100 percent of them will never get pregnant."
My Bed (1998) by Tracey Emin
Created in 1998, this installation was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for Contemporary Art, which it failed to win. Consisting of Tracey Emin's bed, left exactly as it was since she got up one morning, its notoriety stems from the graphic nature of the accompanying items. These include bedsheets stained with bodily secretions, as well as condoms, underwear with menstrual blood stains, and other everyday objects. The work's postmodernist aesthetic derives from its personal narrative and use of non-traditional materials.
Important exhibitions of female postmodernist artists held during the 21st century include: "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" curated by Connie Butler (2007, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); "Global Feminisms" curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly (2007, Brooklyn Museum, New York City); "Rebelle" curated by Mirjam Westen (2009, Museum of Modern Art, Arnhem); "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang! 45 Years of Art and Feminism" curated by Xavier Arakistan (2007, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum); "Elles" (2009-2011, Pompidou Centre, Paris) which also travelled to Seattle Art Museum; and "Doin' It in Public, Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building" (2012, Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles).
For biographies of other important women artists active in the 20th century, not cited above, please see the following:
Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973)
de Lempicka (c.1895-1980)
Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92)
For more about Feminism and women artists, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION