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A Brief History of Feminist Art: New Documentary '!Women, Art, Revolution' Reclaims Our Space

A new film shows how feminist pioneers first staked women's claim in the art world.

History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Often the individual steps it takes to get from Point A to Point B can only be understood as stops and starts — until the journey has been underway for decades. Then it is possible to look back and say with an element of recognition, “I get it.”

In the documentary !Women Art Revolution—A Secret History, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson seams together 40 years of her personal interviews with friends and colleagues to capture the untold story of feminist art in America. In 2007, that creative output was described by critic Blake Gopnik as “the most important artistic movement since World War II.”

Hershman Leeson narrates her footage, stating without reserve that the timeline for the film is her own. She is clear about the fact that “much is left out,” but watching the convergence of the feminist art movement with the rising awareness that led to women’s liberation gives plenty to view and digest.

For those who didn’t live through the tumultuous 1960s, separate dynamics are named as the factors for a seismic cultural shift. The Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, Vietnam and anti-war activism all set the stage for another upheaval. It was during the protests at the 1968 Miss America pageant, Hershman Leeson suggests, that “art and politics fused, and then transfused.”

Artists are documented during different periods of their careers. They come on camera, reflecting on and often revising their previous beliefs. At the very beginning, Nancy Spero says that at first in women’s art, “everyone felt isolated.” Hannah Wilke comments dryly, “It’s hard to know you’re being censored when you’re not in a museum to begin with.” Howardena Pindell reflects on the challenges of coming up “both as a woman and a black person.” “It was,” she says, “daunting.” Yet these single voices eventually found that they were not alone, and melded into a sort of unison. However, like any other forged alliance, there were disparate points of view and eventually major disagreements.

One element that united them was their alienation from the prevailing art current of the day, Minimalism, which promoted art as a higher form devoid of content. It was what was being exhibited and taught academically. For many women, minimalism did not reflect the landscape. Adrian Piper felt that against the backdrop of the Kent State killings and civil unrest, her work needed to be “more concrete and confrontational,” so she turned to performance art. It was a common avenue for women artists of the day. As Nazi refugee Rachel Rosenthal points out, through performance art “women were able to enter the art structure,” with women’s bodies becoming the “tool” of the work. Martha Rossler created Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained, which addressed women being measured and judged by individual parts, on both a concrete and a metaphorical level.

As the decade wore on, women began making art that echoed their reflections on identity. Consciousness-raising groups stirred up concerns, as well as anger, that had either been ignored or pushed down. “The personal is political” became the credo. Women saw they were being excluded from even the anti-establishment shows. Faith Ringgold called artists Robert Rauschenberg and Carl Andre to demand that 50 percent of an exhibit they were organizing reflect both women and artists of color. In a humorous anecdote, Ringgold relates that at the time her group, WSABAL (Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation), was actually a party of two — herself and her daughter.

Like all revolutions, there were strong leaders, cults of personality, and fervent ideological differences that led to fractures. Miriam Schapiro, who was based at CalArts in Los Angeles, invited Judy Chicago, who had started the first feminist art track at Fresno State College, to join her in implementing a feminist art program. Together, they developed Womanhouse, a woman-only art installation and performance series launched in 1971. Soon after, we learn, they stopped speaking.

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