EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Something historic is happening in the Long Island town of East Hampton and it has nothing to do with suntan lotion, oversize mansions or the usual glitz.
At Guild Hall, a tidy shingled structure just off the traffic-choked main road, American feminist art is being not only taken seriously, but given its due. “Personal and Political: The Women’s Art Movement, 1969-1975” packs threegalleries full of nearly 100 works, from paintings, drawings and sculpture to photography, performance art and video. For the first time in nearly three decades, a revolutionary generation inhabits a single space, individual artists framed by a political context.
The exhibit is part of an apparent resurgence of interest in feminist art–with the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. presentations of Judy Chicago’s work and a major show of feminist art at White Columns gallery in New York’s Chelsea district.
Here Judy Chicago as well as Miriam Shapiro and the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, begun in 1971, receive a great deal of emphasis in the show, perhaps because their “program” is translatable into educational notes that adorn the walls–vaginal imagery, goddess lore, quilting, lacework, stitching and weaving–the artists’ tools for a critique of male-dominated art and the creation of a self-consciously female one.
Chicago is represented by six abstract works on paper from the series “Dreams from Compressed Women Who Yearned to Be Butterflies” and Shapiro by “Little Ox,” a miniature of her monumental painted hexagon with its pink labial interior. Photographs of “Womanhouse,” a 1972 installation in which Chicago-Shapiro’s students transformed a dilapidated 17-room mansion into a “female environment,” only hint at its impact–the pristine white, blood-smeared “Menstrual Bathroom” and the scary “Bridal Staircase,” down which a mannequin-ish “bride” descends.
Artists Incorporate African Themes, Materials and Styles
African American artists Faith Ringgold and Bettye Saar stand apart, as might be expected, in themes, materials and styles. Three large masks by Ringgold shimmer with raffia, beads and applique, blending brocade or chintz with African prints. “Kissing Witch #1” has pursed lips of red satin and “Women’s Liberation Talking Mask” wears gold-painted wooden dowels as breasts. Like the Dan masks of Liberia on which they are based, these pieces were meant to be worn–and Ringgold did so in performances three decades ago–the five-foot high pieces draping over her body like an apron. Saar has contributed a wickedly witty assemblage in a small Joseph Cornell-like box. “Imitation of Life”–the title a reference to the movie about a black woman “passing as white”–juxtaposes an idealized, bleary pastel Mammy with a bold figure of Mammy clenching a grenade in one hand, wooden spoon in the other, standing on a watermelon slice.
Hannah Wilke’s “Rosebud” is a wall sculpture of latex, rubber and snaps, its labial layers and wave structures nothing less than orgasmic. Kate Millet’s “Dinner for One” is a bistro table covered with checked tablecloth, female-shaped wooden legs and a pair of raised arms and hands holding utensils in a gesture that is ferocious, defiant and assertive.
You don’t need notes, although many are provided, to see the seeds of current preoccupations in the work of the pioneers–the idea of gender as performance and the notion that the female body is a fertile site for what today’s feminist intellectuals call “theorizing.”
However, you might need notes to be reminded that lesbian artists played a larger role in the movement than is acknowledged here and that there were other political issues that engaged the artists’ imaginations. Two photographs by Martha Rosler are the only indications of the extent to which the Vietnam War provoked art. Rosler’s “Cleaning the Drapes” is a montage combining a 1950s wifely lassie using her portable vacuum on the drapes while through the picture window, we see soldiers at alert rest. “Red Stripe Kitchen” shows a squeaky-clean kitchen being crawled through by stooped military men searching, we presume, for landmines or the “enemy.”
The curators, Simon Taylor and independent scholar Natalie Ng, both born in the mid-1960s, superbly delineate the activism that went hand-in-hand with art-making at the time–all-female galleries like AIR, magazines and journals like “Heresies,” groups like “Women Artists in Revolution” and protests about the exclusion of women from shows and decision-making at major museums and galleries. Their show notes and catalogue essays describe exactly how pioneering the first feminist generation was–influencing both male and female artists from the 1970s through the 1990s and going some distance toward “raising consciousness,” as Taylor says, “so that there is more inclusiveness and diversity in group shows now.”
And yet. And yet. Wandering through the galleries, you notice an unusually large number of artworks are from the collections of the artists, which means they have not been bought by museums and collectors. “A lot of this work should be in major collections,” Taylor says. “It’s very good art, so there is still a lot of consciousness-raising work to be done.”
The “Personal and Political” will be in Easthampton until Oct. 20. The John Drew Theater, next door, is presenting lectures, readings and films in connection with the show.
Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.
For more information:
“Personal and Political: The Women’s Art Movement, 1969-1975”:
White Columns Gallery
GLORIA: Another Look at Feminist Art in the 1970s:
Also see Women’s Enews, September 20, 2002:
“Brooklyn Museum Is Host for ‘The Dinner Party'”: