An article in the Los Angeles Times recently wondered whether the new reality show auditioning scantily clad young women for the Pussycat Dolls girl group was fulfilling the promise of the feminist movement. Based on a visit to "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," the answer would be a resounding, if surprising, "Yes!"
Academically sound yet delightfully daring, this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is all about the power of pussy, so to speak. The catalogue cover is a collage of reclining, beckoning naked women. When composed by Martha Rosler, it was a critique of representation. Today, it looks like an advertisement for The L Word. That dialogue, to borrow an overused term from the era, drives the substance and style of "WACK!" Organized by Cornelia Butler, the MoCA curator who has since become a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, "WACK!" presents the art of the 1970s women's movement in all its tumultuous and untidy zeal.
During the early 1970s, women throughout the United States and elsewhere discovered in consciousness-raising sessions of unprecedented frankness that they no longer had to withhold their feelings about, well, anything. It was open season on any remaining taboos. For artists, identifying discrimination and repression in the museums, the galleries and the bedrooms, it was time for a change. The priapic expressions of the abstract painters of the ‘40s and '50s had dominated the art scene for years. Why not the juicy pleasures experienced by women? It was the sexual liberation of the 1960s that fueled the women's movement, even though the retrospective outlook tends towards wonkish news issues like equal rights, glass ceilings, child-rearing and dress codes. Back in the day, it was still about sex, and this exhibition does not shy away from that still-sizzling-hot bed.
The theme is announced in the entrance gallery of MoCA's Geffen Contemporary, where Magdalena Abakanowicz's massive red weaving in the shape of a vulva is suspended in space. An adjacent gallery bears Niki de Saint Phalle's model for a multi-hued sculpture of a woman's reclining torso where visitors would enter through the vagina. Hello!
On video, Hannah Wilke teasingly strips away her black clothing while listening to her answering machines for messages from art critic Carter Ratcliff, the artist Claes Oldenburg, dealer Andre Emmerich and her mother. Slyly titled Intercourse with. . . , the video shows Wilke with the names of the men written in black letters on her bare breasts. Along with a wall of vulviform reliefs made of buff leather with studs, the late artist's work remains profoundly of that moment, and this.
Lynda Benglis flamed onto the scene by taking out a full-page color ad in Artforum of herself posed in nothing but sunglasses and tan-lines while provocatively holding an upright dildo as though experiencing an erection. Mind-blowing for the time, and pretty damned good today, she is represented in the show by a pile of gray polyurethane mounded in a corner and wryly titled For Carl Andre, her squishy feminine response to his Minimalist floor tiles. Odalisque (Hey, Hey Frankenthaler), a poured slick of colored latex on the floor, remains jarring in its intelligent beauty.
The era's larger movement away from traditional media, along with many a woman's specific reluctance to follow the brushstrokes of the great men of art history, combine for an exhibition that is not rich in painting. One exception would be the Alice Neel portraits, including one of an epicene Andy Warhol. Mary Heilman's abstractions offer welcome simplicity. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro both re-worked geometric abstract painting around the notion of a center, an orifice. (Thankfully, The Dinner Party is stuck in Brooklyn.)
In a revolutionary period, big ideas are writ large in art. Three decades hence, they can seem obvious or worse. At a time when women were trying forcibly to insert themselves into the male-dominated history (which feminists of the day dubbed "her-story"), it made some sense to compose a collage on the theme of the last supper with Georgia O'Keeffe as Jesus Christ, flanked by her apostles Nancy Graves and Louise Nevelson. This piece by Mary Beth Edelson is emblematic of the arguments of the time – though it ignores O'Keeffe's own outspoken disapproval of the women's movement.
Similarly, WACK! represents the then-popular argument for the legalization of pornography with a gallery juxtaposing graphic photographs of foreplay with pictures of Vietnam War violence. Which is the true pornography, and which the true crime against humanity?, the installation asks. Such hopeful if naïve idealism is balanced in the exhibition by quite palpable rage. Louise Fishman's expressive word paintings succinctly capture the latter, pairing women's names with the adrenalin-charged mood of the time: "Angry Louise," "Angry Djuna," "Angry Marilyn."
The show has an anthropological ambience throughout, as though one had wandered into a device to analyze and reflect on one's own distant memories. Younger women may use this device to better understand their forebears. From this vantage, one sees the fomentation that affected so much that followed.
For instance, women using photography and video to represent themselves in various guises: Eleanor Antin, Carolee Scheemann, Barbara Smith and many others, culminating in the film stills by Cindy Sherman. Masses of video, grainy and tedious chronicles of performances, are too much for the average viewer but reflect the ‘70s emergence of the Sony Portapak, the first portable and user-friendly video camera.
Photographs combined with text reintroduced narrative into art. Alexis Smith, who appropriated her name from the movie star, was a pioneer in this arena, and her collage and text panels detail the saga of Madame Butterfly. Crafts that had been degraded by their association with "women's work" were resurrected in fiber sculpture, such as the white crocheted yarn looped around a blackened room by Faith Wilding. A stack of silver-painted shoes were stuffed with phalli by Yayoi Kusama.
In a show like this, everyone will have opinions about those who are missing. Butler made an ambitious decision to include artists from Europe, Asia and Central and South America to demonstrate how widely and quickly the Feminist art movement spread. However, the Los Angeles area, where the Women's Building and the first Feminist Art Program were developed, was an especially important nexus of the movement's beginnings.
In L.A., to extend the demonstration of women's art into the present, curator Dextra Frankel organized "Multiple Vantage Points: Southern California Woman Arts, 1980-2006" at the Municipal Art Gallery. Despite the bureaucratic title, there are works by Karen Carson, Carole Caroompas, June Wayne, Rachel Rosenthal and others who could, maybe should, have been included in "WACK!" The two shows also have some overlap -- Alexis Smith and Betye Saar -- but the show mainly succeeds by offering a range of highly sophisticated work made between 1980 and 2006 by Amy Adler, Uta Barth, Liz Larner, Catherine Opie and dozens of other women. Walking through this modest show, one realizes with a start that many of the battles of the ‘70s, seen revving up in "WACK!," have been won.
Articles in the mass media tend to make one feel as though those efforts were for naught, that the younger generation may not have learned the hard-won lessons of their elders. A visit to these two exhibitions proves the opposite. The anger, grief, exhilaration and liberation of the ‘70s, so evident in "WACK!," did indeed give birth to artists who continue to explore similar issues but in ever more complicated and evolved ways.
MoCA has mounted a tough-minded exhibition with a thoughtful, fact-filled catalogue that testifies for feminism and indirectly makes the case that the woman's movement of the 1970s has had the single greatest impact on the subsequent development of contemporary art. The art of today, made by men or women, is defined by the discussion of identity, gender, politics, autobiography, image-manipulation, style, pop culture, decoration and design, not to mention sex. All that rolled down from the Feminist Revolution. Those seemingly scandalous Pussy Cat Dolls are watered-down derivatives compared to the real thing.
"WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution," Mar. 4-July 16, 2007, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90013. The exhibition travels to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., P.S. 1 in New York and the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia.
"Multiple Vantage Points: Southern California Woman Arts, 1980-2006," Apr. 15, 2007, at the Municipal Art Gallery, 4800 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90027.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.