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The women who changed the face of art

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Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution (!W.A.R.) hectically traces the chronological history of the feminist art movement, mostly through talking heads. Over 42 years from 1965, Leeson filmed, where and when she could, a riveting series of interviews with the likes of Eleanor Antin, Judith Baca, Judy Chicago, Harmony Hammond, Joyce Kozloff, Suzanne Lacy, Carolee Schneemann, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Rachel Rosenthal, Martha Rosler, Nancy Spero, Faith Wilding, Hannah Wilke, and Martha Wilson, as well as curators, academics, and critics.

The result is an invaluable work of retrospective agitprop that has lessons for the present. Studded with many hitherto unseen art images, augmented by a contextualizing timeline created by Spain Rodriguez, and egged on (if not exactly propelled) by the insinuating music of ex-Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein, the film is crucial viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of contemporary art. Particularly compelling are the sections devoted to performance, which liberated women’s art from gallery-museum culture, the female “body politic” with its exposure of vulnerability and trauma, and identity-juggling.

Feminist studio workshop at Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's house, September 1973.

Leeson initially presents the shameful truth that, until long after the revolution had occurred, women artists were routinely passed over for exhibition. “When artists are battling for space in the cultural memory, omission, or even worse, eradication, becomes a kind of murder,” she says in her voiceover narration. They were similarly ignored in schools and universities. “As an undergraduate of Harvard University, I don’t think there was a single woman artist whose work was discussed in any one of my classes,” says art historian Amelia Jones, who found that there had been only partial progress by 1996 when she curated the “Sexual Politics” exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. “A certain coalition of Los Angeles art critics wrote these incredibly hostile reviews that also incited negativity on the part of older feminists living primarily in New York,” she remembers. “Gee, people hated that show.”

Installation for L.A./London Lab exhibition curated by Susan Hiller and Suzanne Lacy at Franklin Furnace, New York, 1981.

But the film culminates on a triumphant note—the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles’ 2007 exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which showed 450 works spanning 1965-1980 by 119 women artists. “What’s important about the WACK show,” Rosler tells Leeson, “is that it’s the beginning of rectification of complete falsification of the history of that era, which tried to reduce, contain, and fragment the production [of art by] women.”

Guerrilla Girls poster.

Rosler adds, tartly, that it’s no accident that artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who “amplified” the ideas of women artists of the 1970s, “were speaking truth to power when you had these guys flinging broken dishes on their canvases. Although Leeson interviewed the supportive curator Howard Fox of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the artist Mike Kelley, there is, of course, a huge structuring absence in !Women Art Revolution—the male artists and the male establishment who backed them to the exclusion of women.

Far from a mere celebration, !Women Art Revolution neither glosses over Leeson’s own selfconsciousness about including her own work and the questions the film doesn’t address, nor whitewashes the conflicts that at times threatened the revolution from within. If Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” emerges as the movement’s most totemic piece, not least for the waves it made in the capital, Chicago herself comes across as a divisive figure. Wilson recalls that when she told Chicago that a room decorated with breasts and flowers made by the latter’s CalArts students looked “prescriptive,” Chicago bawled her out, making her cry. “I couldn’t believe that a feminist could act like this,” Wilson recalls. Leeson then cuts in footage of Chicago ranting about the need for students to make themselves familiar with revolutionary texts. (Below: “The Dinner Party,” 1974-79).

Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party" (1974-79).

“The first year I was teaching with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro [at CalArts], I found to be difficult because they weren’t speaking to each other,” the late art historian Arlene Raven recalled in 1979. Certain moves Chicago made “exacerbated the hostility,” Schapiro recalls. And Schapiro and/or Chicago criticized Kruger, recalls the late Marcia Tucker, who, fired from the Whitney after eight years, founded New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. “External frustrations mounted and triggered internal animosity,” Leeson observes. Jones puts a positive spin on the feminist art movement’s ructions. “[It] was always incredibly heterogenous and richly conflicted and that’s what’s made it the most important political movement in the art world of the contemporary period,” she says. As William Blake wrote, “Without contraries is no progression.”

As a narrator, Leeson speaks in an intimate undertone that’s perfectly suited to a story that, although heroic and stirring, is etched with poignancy, pain, and rage. That it’s a film about human rights as much as it’s about art comes across powerfully when Chicago recalls being shocked by the revelation that a quarter to a half of the women in the feminist art program she launched at Fresno State College in 1970 had been raped; Raven and Leeson also admit to having been raped. Wilding recalls nearly being struck by a man when she was speaking on a podium. The dialectical battle between feminism and minimalism that’s shown in a piece of performance art in which two women wrestle with each other leads inexorably to the moment in the film when Leeson records the death of Ana Mendieta, whose husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was tried for second-degree murder and acquitted.

“The kinds of systemic battle lines that were drawn were really clear at the time of Ana Mendieta’s death. Some of the best-known feminist art critics and feminist artists wouldn’t come to her defense,” recalls the film critic B. Ruby Rich who notes how the male art establishment closed ranks around Andre. “Even the Guerrilla Girls were so split in differences that they weren’t even able to put out a fucking poster in her defence. That was a sad moment….” Leeson goes on to record the Women’s Action Coalition and the Guerrilla Girls’ protests against the Guggenheim SoHo’s plan to launch with only one woman artist exhibited alongside four male artists (including Andre) in 1992. (Below: Mendieta’s “Silhueta Works in Mexico,” 1974-79).

Ana Mendieta, "Silhueta Works in Mexico" (1973-78).

Leeson is under no illusions about feminism’s waning favor with its beneficiaries in the art world. Among younger artists interviewed for the film, Alexandra Chowaniec, who is one of its producers, contends that “there’s a fear within my generation that identifying with feminism is a limitation and not a foundation.” Jones suggests that feminism has “become a red herring. I don’t think feminism successfully changed the structures through which art is made, sold, displayed and written about. I think for complex and maybe some very obvious reasons…a lot of women just wanted to be included.” Inarguably, though, without the strides made by Chicago and the others, most women artists would surely still be whistling in the dark.

!Women’s Art Revolution (!W.A.R.) is showing at the IFC Center in Manhattan. Material filmed by Leeson for the project but not included can be viewed at See also and for national screenings

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