In August 1971, the conceptual artist and painter Lee Lozano decided to “boycott women.” She recorded the results, that first week, in her journal: throwing out a letter by the art critic Lucy Lippard unanswered; snubbing a female colleague on the street, etc. Documentation of this most paradoxical feminist action, recognizing gender as the great divide in daily life, is included in “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution.” This unwieldy, at times didactic, yet wildly inspiring survey of women’s radical art practices between the late 1960s and the early 1980s currently sprawls over two floors of P.S. 1.
Faced with reviewing vast exhibitions of feminist art, like last year’s “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn Museum, I sometimes feel like following Lozano’s example. (The catalog to “Wack!” claims that she continued to boycott women for nearly another three decades, though that hardly seems believable.) What is it about this subject that encourages such curatorial running on? Comprehensiveness is a laudable antidote to decades of institutional neglect, but it can be wearing on the viewer. It would take several days just to see all the films and videos in “Wack!”—by Chantal Akerman, Joan Jonas, Ulrike Ottinger, Carolee Schneemann, and a host of lesser-knowns. The proliferation of art in nearly every imaginable medium by 120 women from across the globe produces, along with epiphanies and discoveries, a nagging sense of discomfort, a longing for narrative direction. Where is the center here, and where the margin?
Of course, such de-centering has been part of feminist art history’s agenda for decades. Eight years in the making, “Wack!” arose from curator Connie Butler’s perception that work by feminist artists of the ’70s and their fellow travelers were among the most influential—yet under-recognized—forces shaping contemporary art today. Photography-based art, performance, installation, video, institutional critique, artist collectives, and alternative spaces—women artists may not have invented all these forms and practices, but they took them in radically new directions, expanding and infusing them with the many varieties of feminine experience.
Some of these women were feminists avant la lettre, like Danish artist Kirsten Justesen, who claimed to be exploring formal issues in her sculpture of an open cardboard box with a photograph of her naked, crouching body set, trompe l’oeil–style, into its top, but the piece evokes a visceral sense of feminine entrapment. A few of these artists posed problems for feminism, like the photographer, sculptor, video and performance artist Hannah Wilke, who managed to push everyone’s buttons, both with her habit of taking her clothes off in public and with her art, a potent mélange of nudity, symbolic wounds, and abstracted, vulvic forms.
Sex itself, with its messy, volatile energy and resistance to ideological fashioning, could be harnessed to the cause. Witness the Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic, who, in a notorious public performance, simulated masturbation on her apartment balcony, posing a “security threat” to Yugoslavian President Tito’s motorcade as it was passing below. (A neighboring voyeur called the cops on her.) Or consider the British artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, who combined a lively career posing for porn magazines with commitment to the feminist cause.
Then there were skeptics, like the brilliant sculptor Eve Hesse (post-Minimalist, organicist forms and unconventional materials). “The best way to beat discrimination in art is by art,” she scribbled in 1969, responding to an invitation to participate in the first forum on women in art. “Excellence has no sex.”
Loosely organized by theme, “Wack!” ranges broadly over these women’s accomplishments, upending in the process many of our received ideas about first-wave feminist art. “The Goddess,” for example, that most benighted and essentialist of feminist icons, finds expression in works as diverse as Magdalena Abakanowicz’s giant, crimson vulva, woven from fibers and hanging limply from the ceiling, and Madamoiselle Bourgeoise Noire, artist Lorraine O’Grady’s raging black beauty queen, a persona she inhabited (donning a gown sewn from pairs of elbow-length white gloves) to protest the absence of African-American artists at selected openings.
“Wack!” makes a somewhat rickety case for the feminist impulse in abstract art, with works by major figures—a poured latex floor piece by Lynda Benglis, vaguely vaginal drawings by Judy Chicago—alongside “new” discoveries, some 30 years after the fact. Senga Nengudi’s nylons (an everyday feminine accoutrement), stuffed with sand and stretched between walls, anticipate the drippy biomorphism of a contemporary art star like Ernesto Neto. Mary Bauermeister’s exquisite assemblage made from pebbles of gradated size could have been made yesterday (though what it has to do with feminism is anyone’s guess).
The show also documents the collectives, like Where We At: Black Women Artists (WWA), whose founding members, including artist Faith Ringgold, organized exhibitions and seminars, conducted workshops at prisons, and the like; or the Lesbian Art Project, pet project of the late Village Voice critic Arlene Raven, which offered performances of An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism to all-female audiences at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. And it includes at least one spectacular social sculpture: Argentinian artist Marta Minujín’s Soft Gallery, a recreation of a 1973 installation consisting of some 200 mattresses roped together to create a marvelously gentle yet monumental womb/performance space.
One of feminism’s most profound legacies is the erosion of the boundaries between art and life, which remains with us today in the confessional art of Tracey Emin or Sophie Calle, or even the performances of Matthew Barney. In 1968, the artist Léa Lublin, for example, invited the public to witness her cooing to and caring for her seven-month-old son as part of an art exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. (The baby, in pictures, looks very happy.) Suzanne Lacy made a fascinating series of drawings detailing, with maps and texts, the nights she spent learning about “the life” with prostitutes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And as a young wife and mother, Sylvia Plimack Mangold painted the dirty clothes piled on her studio floor. (Behind the revolution, some ’70s female once remarked, there is always the laundry.)
Just how far we’ve traveled since those times might be measured by the fact that the female contender for the Democratic presidential nomination is perceived as the establishment candidate. (Certainly the prestige of the office of president must be seriously compromised if a woman has a serious shot at it.) But some things almost never change: It’s nearly impossible, for example, to imagine this show being staged across the river, at P.S. 1’s Manhattan affiliate, the Museum of Modern Art.
Instead, the artists of “Wack!” remain in the schoolhouse. But their contemporaries might well take a lesson from them.