News & Politics

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.

Chicago went on to co-found the Woman’s Building, a space in LA, in 1973. One of the testimonies in the documentary features Martha Wilson, relating her encounter with Chicago — which left her in tears. When she responded to work Chicago was championing as “prescriptive,” an enraged Chicago replied, “Can’t you see what we’re trying to do here?” It was the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about "who owns feminist art?" Wilson moved to New York and established Franklin Furnace. In tandem with the on-the-ground artistic activity, a range of feminist magazines such as Heresies and Chrysalis were launched, which examined and disseminated the movement’s work.

The film also targets the trajectory of women who began their careers from within the system, and went on to forge their own independent paths. A case in point was Marcia Tucker. She became the first woman curator at the Whitney Museum, after undergoing a barrage of questions during her interview that today would be illegal. When she found out she was being paid $2,000 less per year than her male colleague, she pushed back by suggesting the story would be of interest to the New York City media. After eight years, and without explanation, Tucker was fired when a new director came in. She turned around, rented a space on Broadway within days, and set up the New Museum, which she claimed was modeled upon feminism.

By the 1980s, Reagan was president and the Equal Rights Amendment had been voted down in the Senate. Five years into the decade, the artist Ana Mendieta died. Married to the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, she allegedly fell from the 34th floor window of their apartment. He was charged with second-degree murder, indicted three times, and acquitted in a 1988 non-jury trial. Calls for justice in her death became a rallying point for the Women’s Art Coalition.

Throughout the movie, the issues of power and exclusion are a constant. So is the subtext about diversity and if roles were open to women of color, lesbians, and the working class women who did not emanate from the predominately white, middle-class, and straight ranks.

Despite this rich history, the crop of newer feminist artists in the film note that, when they went to the library to research their predecessors, they found little to no documentation.

Yet 2007 became a watershed year for a reexamination of feminist art. The exhibitions Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution on the West Coast and Global Feminisms on the East Coast, dovetailed with the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the permanent home of Chicago’s seminal installation "The Dinner Party."

At this point, director Hershman Leeson articulates her lifelong endeavor. “I began to shoot this film 40 years ago,” she says. “I’ve been waiting all this time for the right ending.”

The art continues. The film provides history to those who were not present, and validation for those who participated in a groundbreaking period. The Stanford University Special Collections Library has digitized the footage from the archive of the film, and it is accessible online. The !WAR graphic novel written by Hershman Lesson, Alexandra Chowaniec, and cartoonist Spain, which includes a curriculum guide by Dr. Krista Lynes, Dr. Claire Daigle, and Dr. Fiona Summers, is a valuable supporting document.

With many national elected officials looking to rescind hard won reproductive rights, and global violence against women epidemic, a reexamination of the rocky road traveled in pursuit of gender equity could not be timelier.

!Women Art Revolution runs June 1-8 at the IFC Center in New York. Go !here for showtimes, guest speakers and screenings across the rest of the country.

Marcia G. Yerman is based in New York City, where she writes about women's issues and the arts.