This exhibition of material from The Museum of Modern Art Library, the Museum Archives, and the collection documents feminist critique of art institutions from 1969 to the present. Artists bring a particular sensibility to activism; as these documents show, feminist artists of the late twentieth century mobilized intellect, principle, material skills and, often, considerable wit to create powerful public communications, from printed matter to videos to Happenings. The diverse documentation is organized to reflect the movement’s focus in five areas—theory and debate, art-historical revisionism, publishing, exhibiting, and actions and interventions—with the broader goal of situating the feminist future in the context of the feminist past.
Organized by Jennifer Tobias, Librarian, Collection Development, The Museum of Modern Art Library.
Support is provided by The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art.
Feminist critique of art institutions began in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of the larger women’s rights movement and a period of intense interest in art theory and Conceptual art. These documents show interconnections between the two, and reveal the internal debate behind the movement’s carefully crafted public statements.
These diverse statements detail the formulation, debate, and dissemination of activist art groups’ core ideals. Manuscripts and notes reflect internal discussion, while leaflets and a printer’s markup represent refined public messages.
Critic and historian Lucy Lippard wrote the cover story about activist art in this issue of Circa. Her activism included founding the group Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) in 1979. Many works in this exhibition are drawn from the PAD/D Archive, now held in the MoMA Library.
This anonymous work says “NO” to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, appropriating a presumably official chart to reject the city’s art establishment.
In this dynamic graphic Koenig charts a whirlwind of potential obstacles to a woman artist’s success. One among many feminist appropriations of art-historical touchstones, Koenig’s diagram evokes MoMA founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s 1936 chart tracing the development of modern art.
As early as 1977 the past and future of feminist art was already under debate.
Changing traditional attitudes towards art by women involved questioning art-historical assumptions about gender. Historians, theoreticians, and artists argued for a more inclusive history, in part to raise awareness of gender bias in contemporary art criticism.
In this handmade parody of a civic award, the activist Art Workers’ Coalition critiqued MoMA founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s approach to modern art.
A Documentary HerStoRy of Women Artists in Revolution. 1971
Newspaper and journal articles accompany an essay documenting the efforts of Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), a subcommittee of the Art Workers’ Coalition.
In this early artist’s book, Schneemann, a self-described painter best known for performance art, writes, “Around twelve years old I knew a few names of ‘great artists.’…I decided a painter named ‘Cézanne’ would be my mascot; I would assume Cézanne was unquestionably a woman.” The cover drawing, by the artist at age four, shows her-or Cézanne-looking in a mirror, or possibly painting. In this context the artist reflects on herself, Cézanne, and art history. In her well-known performance Interior Scroll, first enacted in 1975, Schneemann read aloud from this text.
This cryptic set of boxes reflects Hikson’s assumption about Miró’s gender, perhaps a childhood misunderstanding. The transparent boxes may be intended to evoke children’s blocks, suggesting a desire for the ostensible “innocent eye” of childhood, or perhaps a call for historical transparency.
Schneemann’s work is a well-known milestone in the artist’s book movement. Using a stack of printed cards, alternating text with image, the artist conveys the quasi-autobiographical intimacies and tensions of an art-world couple’s relationship. On this card the reader discovers that one narrator is a historian, hurrying, she writes, to “unify my research on feminist art history” at a university, and making sly reference to “men who take up all the space and events.”
The editors alter an advertisement for an art school, juxtaposing a photo of its all-male faculty with the university’s anti-discrimination policy.
Maksymowicz creates molds of her torso embellished with canonical artworks, literally placing art-historical weight on the female body. The page was designed by the artist for Heresies. The journal regularly featured “page art,” creating a space for art outside the gallery setting.
“Forget the stale, male, pale, Yale textbooks, this is Art Herstory 101!” So begins this alternative history, which modeled the form and distribution mechanism of traditional mass-market art books.
Women’s magazine advertisements are juxtaposed with fairy-tale excerpts in this artist’s book. Here the tag line “We make history” is invested with irony: “We” refers to the collective authors of fairy tales and advertisements, and it is also a call for women to remake history by questioning images and texts such as these.
Rapid developments in feminist art engendered numerous publishing efforts, from journals to exhibition catalogues to artist’s books. Journals included Chrysalis, Heresies, and Women Artists News, among many others. Meanwhile the new genre of artist’s books presented opportunities for art beyond the gallery context.
Solanas, founder and sole member of Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), famously shot Andy Warhol in 1968. Her motives-and her state of mind-are articulated in her 1967 S.C.U.M. Manifesto, in which her opinions about art are intertwined with her extreme attitude toward men: “Almost all [‘Great Art’], as the anti-feminists are fond of reminding us, was created by men. We know that ‘Great Art’ is great because male authorities have told us so, and we [women] can’t claim otherwise, as only those with exquisite sensitivities far superior to ours can perceive and appreciate the slop they appreciated.”
The dynamic cover typography of the first issue of the journal Womanspace reflects the spirited nexus of feminist art in Los Angeles, including the eponymous publisher, a gallery devoted to women artists.
Reacting to a bicentennial survey of American art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City with few works by women or minority artists, a group of critics, art historians, and artists produced this “anti-catalog,” which offers alternative, critical views of American art and collecting.
In this artist’s book by the group General Idea, staged photographs of a woman and a man are featured on facing pages of each spread. Each spread bears the same caption, with only the pronouns changed. The artists show how gender inflection can change the reader’s perception of ostensibly neutral words and images.
By imitating an artist’s publicity package, Levine suggests that journalists, gallery owners, and curators make powerful choices based, consciously or not, on gender.
In this self-published parody of the well-known art magazine Artforum, Ferentz interrogates the language of art criticism, exposing underlying sexist bias. Her “article” is composed of words that tended to be used to describe art by women, perhaps drawn from Artforum itself. These include “vulnerable,” “intuitive,” and “antilogical.” The article is accompanied by headshots of authoritative-looking white men, each bearing a provocative caption, such as, “We can’t have a woman in the gallery, they’re too difficult. Besides, collectors won’t buy women’s art.”
Fraser is well known for videos in which she poses as a museum docent or lecturer, interrogating assumptions about institutional neutrality. In this early work, an artist’s book, Fraser blends reproductions and two accounts of artworks by Raphael (Italian, 1483–1520) and Willem de Kooning (American, 1904–1997), all works with female subjects. The superimposed images resemble a technical glitch in the slide lectures familiar to art history students. On facing pages, texts by two prominent art historians overlap, making it difficult to distinguish which artist is being discussed, but making attitudes to the female subject all the more clear. In this way Fraser reveals that the “male gaze” extends beyond the depiction of women in art to their depiction by art historians.
Excerpted reviews of Applebroog’s artwork are collaged together in this artist’s book. By removing the texts from their original publications and authorship and reappropriating them into her own publication, the artist both reclaims and critiques art criticism itself.
Seeking alternatives to mainstream galleries and museums, in the early 1970s artists began to organize spaces for art by women, such as Artists In Residence, Inc. (AIR), in New York City. More recently, some mainstream institutions have offered to be the sites of feminist interventions, such as the New York Chamber of Commerce for Ida Applebroog’s 1982 installation Past Events.
In this landmark exhibition, women artists turned an entire California house into an artwork, reinventing the homemaker as an active, critical artmaker.
Critic and historian Lucy Lippard organized this early show of women Conceptual artists.
One of the first galleries organized by and for women artists was Artists In Residence, Inc. (AIR), founded in 1972 in SoHo in New York City. This brochure shows the facade as well as a photocollage of artist Howardena Pindell renovating the space.
Sillman illustrates plausible art-world conversations, satirizing extremes of both sexism and feminism.
Reflecting the political activism of the 1980s, the Juan Chacon Gallery in San José, California solicited art outside the mainstream.
Applebroog’s work often uses diverse media to explore institutional power. In this 1982 installation at the New York Chamber of Commerce, the artist made the walls “speak,” telling an unpleasant story of patriarchy. The show proved controversial: it was removed twice in one month and eventually moved to a gallery. The artist’s response: “What did they think a woman was going to do in that space?”
Deming’s artist’s book takes the form of a notebook, manual, or calendar. In ten numbered pages or steps, the artist declares, “Question everything” and “Take responsibility for your own education as an artist,” among others calls to action. The work is intended to be hung on the wall; a nail is included.
Feminist critique of the art world encompasses museums, galleries, collectors, historians, and critics. Beginning in the late 1960s, flowering in the 1970s, and continuing in some forms to the present, activists have directed open letters, demonstrations, interventions, and Happenings toward art institutions. Actions in the 1960s and 1970s were part of a broader climate of social unrest, while the activism of the 1980s and 1990s tended to be more focused on the art world itself. Throughout, artists arguably have brought a particular sensibility to activism. As these works show, protest can involve creative, biting uses of performance, installation, multimedia, writing, and graphic design.
This leaflet announces a demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Sponsors included the Art Workers’ Coalition subcommittee Women Artists in Revolution (WAR).
The Whitney Museum’s bicentennial survey of American art, drawn from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, became the focus of an extended series of protests, called Counterweight, intended to draw attention to the under-representation of women and minority artists. Through One Blood Dollar the Art Workers’ Coalition charged that museum trustees exercised undue economic and editorial power; the dollar is “only valid for established works of art” and “not valid for black, Puerto Rican or female artists.” Even the image on a promotional sign on the Whitney’s facade became an unintended lightning rod for criticism: Robert Venturi’s over-scaled reproduction of the sculpture The Greek Slave (c. 1843), by Hiram Powers (American, 1805–1873), was perceived as a symbol of oppression.
During a 1976 demonstration protesting the marginalization of women artists, Stamerra placed stamped erasers throughout the Museum.
As Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, performance artist Lorraine O’Grady protests the marginalization of women and people of color in major art institutions. The work on the facing page, A Photo Collage, is by Dolores Neuman.
Protesting under-representation of women artists in the Museum collection, demonstrators parodied an official pin announcing the completion of the Museum’s 1984 expansion. The opening exhibition, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, drew particular criticism and helped to inspire the formation of the Guerrilla Girls.
The Guerrilla Girls offer an invitation to “put this on and join us.” The paper-bag mask symbolizes the unwelcome anonymity of many women artists.
In this series of paintings, printed and mailed as cards bearing provocative captions, Harvey depicts powerful art dealers naked. Three images are covered with a sheet of translucent paper; the veil is drawn to expose the dealers as mere (male) mortals. By representing the dealers this way, Harvey attempts to visually reduce their power over the art market, power that arguably perpetuates a male-dominated status quo. The caption for Shafrazi’s card, “Thought we wouldn’t remember?” refers to the publicity generated by his 1974 vandalization of Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937), then at MoMA, in protest against the Vietnam War
Selections and commentary by Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film and Media
In this performance Rosler takes on the role of an apron-clad housewife and parodies the television cooking demonstrations popularized by Julia Child in the 1960s. Standing in a kitchen, surrounded by refrigerator, table, and stove, she moves through the alphabet from A to Z, assigning a letter to the various tools found in this domestic space. Wielding knives, a nutcracker, and a rolling pin, she warms to her task, her gestures sharply punctuating the rage and frustration of oppressive women’s roles. Rosler said of this work, “I was concerned with something like the notion of ‘language speaking the subject,’ and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity.”
Freed re-creates on video a series of historical paintings, mostly portraits of women, by placing herself in the role of the central figure. She blends her image with the original portrait then breaks out of character, speaking as if she were the subject of the painting or joking with the other actors participating in the scene. She disrupts the accuracy of the re-created mise-en-scènes by wielding a video camera. Time and history are flexible; she plays with her image and identity as something of the past, the present, and the future. Throughout the work Freed poses a series of questions about the institutional role of art history, while observing changes in her own perspective. She asks, “What do these images say as the immediacy of time is past?”
This brochure-poster makes a broad appeal to all women involved in the arts. The program offered a lively mix of classes, art spaces, and political advocacy.
In this work a still life represents inertia and silence in the face of social injustice, including “male against female.” Here, “in art, as in life, neutrality perpetuates the status quo.”
This send-up conveys both the dynamism and the pitfalls of artist collectives, emphasizing a woman’s point of view. The use of the film still satirizes romantic notions of the activist as hero.
The Guerrilla Girls’ sharply satirical posters are key examples of feminist art-world critique. This poster demonstrates that the group’s anonymous, gorilla-masked leaders speak for a much larger group of contemporary women artists.
In feminist critique of the art world, canonical artworks are often repurposed as rhetorical arguments for a more inclusive history. Here Nameless and Friendless (1857), by the British artist Emily Mary Osborn (1834–1913), is a reminder of the longstanding difficulties women have experienced in the art marketplace. In this appropriation, the artist’s eyes are modestly downcast but her thoughts suggest a coming storm.
A pathbreaking journal dedicated to feminist art and politics, Heresies (1977–1993) questioned cultural and scholarly assumptions about women’s role in art history. This poster reproduces the cover of issue 14, devoted to “page art,” in which individual artists had free reign over a given page. For examples see pages by Dolores Neuman and Lorraine O’Grady in the Actions and Interventions display case in this exhibition.
By rendering pithy quotes in elegant typography and enticing colors, this gallery poster indirectly expresses support for women artists.
Thanks to The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art for supporting the exhibition.
For curatorial, editorial, and administrative support thanks to Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film and Media; Sara Bodinson, Associate Educator; Allegra Burnette, Creative Director, Digital Media; May Castleberry, Editor, Contemporary Editions, Library Council; Elizabeth Elsas, Graphic Design; Jessica Fain, Intern; Sarah Ganz, Director, Educational Resources, Education; David Hart, Educational Media Intern, Digital Media/Education; Milan Hughston, Chief, Library and Museum Archives; James Kuo, Senior Graphic Designer, Graphics; Rebecca Roberts, Assistant Editor, Publications; Alexandra Schwartz, Project Curatorial Assistant; Maggie Portis, Library Assistant; Deborah Wye, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books; the Museum Archives; and the Exhibitions Department.