June 29, 2011 / Unity

Feminist Art, a Depiction of Equality


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Cut Piece by Yoko Ono

Feminist Art, in contrast to the art most of us were taught about in school, is art that sees women and men as equal. Instead of being depicted by men as beautiful objects, in the feminist art movement women create depictions of themselves and each other as subjects, full members of the human race.  Instead of sweetly smiling at the camera or posing for a portrait, women in feminist art create murals, disrupt beauty pageants with street theater, and write manifestos affirming the worth and dignity of women’s experience.


Feminist art also brings to the surface subjects which for many years were not spoken, let alone painted or sculpted – subjects such as domestic abuse, rape, and the silencing of women’s contributions to history. Speaking of that last, many people are not even aware of the feminist art movement. A new movie directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, an  artist herself, seeks to tell that history. In honor of that movie (!Women Art Revolution!) and that history, I have compiled a timeline of American feminist art.

American Feminist Art Timeline

•       1967: Carolee Schneemann’s film ”Fuses” showed her and her then-boyfriend James Tenney having sex as recorded by a 16 mm Bolex camera.Schneemann then altered the film by staining, burning, and directly drawing on the celluloid itself, mixing the concepts of painting and collage; the segments were edited together at varying speeds and superimposed with photographs of nature, which she juxtaposed against her and Tenney’s bodies and sexual actions. Fuses was motivated by Schneemann’s desire to know if a woman’s depiction of her own sexual acts was different from pornography and classical art, as well as a reaction to Stan Brakhage’s ”Window Water Baby Moving”.

•       1968: In an act of street theater, The New York Radical Feminists crowned a sheep as a beauty queen at the 1968 Miss America pageant. They also threw undergarments into a “freedom trash can,” but despite rumors otherwise did not set any bras on fire.

•       1969: Black Women of Africa Today (1969) was painted by teenage girls at The Alfred E. Smith housing project on the Lower East Side of New York. Process was an important feature; to develop the schema, scenes were acted out, photographed, projected, and traced.

•       1969: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a Bronx resident, trying to reconcile her artist self with her role as a new mother, wrote a Dadaesque “Maintenance Art Manifesto,” positing housekeeping—or “maintenance”—as an embodiment of what she proposed was an unsung component of the creative process: “maintaining,” in contrast to “producing.”

•       Late 1960s: Hannah Wilke first gained renown with her “vulval” terra-cotta sculptures in the 1960s. Her sculptures, first exhibited in New York in the late 1960s, are often mentioned as some of the first explicit vaginal imagery arising from the women’s liberation movement, and they became her signature form which she made in various media, colors and sizes, including large floor installations, throughout her life.

•       Early 1970s: The Women’s Video Festival was held yearly for a number of years in the early 1970s in New York City.

•       1970s: The Women’s Interart Center in New York was founded in the 1970s in New York City, and is still in operation.

•       1970: A historic 1970 manifesto by a “small guerilla unit,” Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL), demanded equal exhibition representation for women, blacks, and students.

•       1970: A full page ad in the October 1970 Artforum announced feminist artist Judy Chicago’s name change from Judy Gerowitz. The ad said she made the change to divest “herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance…”

•       1970: America’s first feminist art education program took place at California State University, Fresno in California in 1970 when fifteen female students and instructor Judy Chicago helped pioneer key strategies of the early feminist art movement, including collaboration, the use of “female technologies” like costume, performance, and video, and early forms of media critique.

•       1971: Judy Chicago, with abstract painter Miriam Schapiro, cofounded the landmark Feminist Art Program at California Institute of the Arts, north of Los Angeles, which was the only such department in a major art school.

•       1971: An early feminist art coalition, WEB (West-East Bag), was founded in 1971 by Lucy Lippard, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Schapiro, to jump-start the new movement and stimulate cadres in North America and beyond. It advocated a shifting “center,” and its newsletter was produced each month by a group in a different region. (It continued successfully through the mid-seventies.)

•       1971: Linda Nochlin’s landmark 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” asked why women had been excluded from ideas of artistic greatness.

•       1972: The students of the feminist art program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles created a month-long feminist installation in an empty house, entitled Womanhouse.

•       1972: The AIR Gallery (named, in part, after Jane Eyre) was founded in New York. Twenty co-op members renovated the space themselves; it was then very unusual to exhibit in an all-female environment.

•       1973: In Los Angeles, the Womanspace Gallery opened in a former laundromat; decision-making was arrived at through a round-robin consensus consciousness raising format.

•       1973: Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. After the brutal rape and murder of a student on campus at the University of Iowa, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, who was also a student there, staged this performance. Viewers were invited to Mendieta’s apartment where they saw Mendieta tied to a table surrounded by broken dishes and her body exposed and covered in fake blood from the waist down.

•       1972: Sheila Levrant de Bretteville founded a feminist design program at CalArts.

•       1973: The Woman’s Building which included the Feminist Studio Workshop was founded by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, art historian Arlene Raven, and Judy Chicago, in Los Angeles. Inspired by a Woman’s Building at the 1893 Universal Exposition in Chicago, at its core was a two-year graduate art program, the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). “We had a theory of feminist education,” Raven has said, “which was a transition from a situation of oppression—where women related to one another through competition, isolation, and silence—to one of support, a process evolved through criticism, and self-criticism.”

•       1973: Sheila Levrant de Bretteville created a poster/wallwork titled Pink; she handed out pieces of pink paper to friends and to women on the street, asking them to describe what this color, somewhat maligned for its associations with femininity, meant to them. She assembled the results on a poster in a quilt-like format, including blank spaces for audience response. De Bretteville, a mother and wife as well as a noted graphic designer, remarked that the visual structure also expressed “the way I felt my day was broken up into three-hour segments, as much as its form was influenced by notions of de-centering, and the revaluing of women’s work, such as quilting.”

•       1974: Mother Art, which consisted of Feminist Studio Workshop students, was founded in 1974, in part to show that feminists–at the time predominantly young single women–could be wives and mothers, too.

•       1974: Tomie Arai and the Cityarts Workshop created the mural known as the Wall of Respect for Women in New York City.

•       1975: The mural Women Hold Up Half the Sky was created under the direction of Tomie Arai.

•       In 1975, Carolee Schneemann performed Interior Scroll, a Fluxus-influenced piece featuring her use of text and body. In her performance, Schneemann entered wrapped in a sheet, under which she wore an apron. She disrobed and then got on a table where she outlined her body with dark paint. Several times, she would take “action poses”, similar to those in figure drawing classes. Concurrently, she read from her book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter. Following this, she dropped the book and slowly extracted from her vagina a scroll from which she read.

•       1975: The first performance of Spiderwoman Theater (named after the Hopi Spider Grandmother, Goddess of Creation, who taught her people to weave) was Woman in Violence (1975). This performance was full of bawdy satire, with the performers conceiving of themselves as “clowns,” using that metaphoric figure as a container to tell their stories of violence, battery, and shame. The style of Spiderwoman Theater, called “story weaving”, involved intertwining personal anecdotes, myths, and feminist insights chanted and repeated in poetic fragments, all with a touch of earthy humor.

•       1976: In I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), for two months Mierle Laderman Ukeles mopped offices and elevators in a Lower Manhattan building.

•       1977: In August, working with the national group Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), Leslie Labowitz crafted a media event, Record Company Executives Drag Their Feet. Beneath a Hollywood billboard advertising Kiss’s new album Love Gun, which was full of S&M overtones, with women writhing underfoot, a gold Cadillac arrived at the head of a motorcade, and “record executives” wearing rooster heads emerged from them, holding gold records. Behind a faux press conference table, a large-scale chart demonstrated correlations between the increasingly graphic marketing of sex and an increase in arrests for rape and spousal abuse—in contrast to a drop in other crimes. Invited local TV stations and newspapers were furnished with “shot sheets” directing the focus of their visual coverage.

•       1977: In Laundryworks, the members of Mother Art displayed artworks hung like wet clothing on lines in Los Angeles laundromats, in performances timed to the wash and dry cycle. California State gave them a $700 arts grant for this multi-event action–which ended up as a political football, however, with the funding used as an example by conservatives of “budgetary fat.”

•       1977: Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture started publishing in 1977 out of the Woman’s Building.

•       1977: The first issue of the feminist art magazine Heresies was produced in 1977. The founding members of the Heresies Collective included Patsy Beckert, Joan Braderman, Mary Beth Edelson, Elizabeth Hess, Harmony Hammond, Joyce Kozloff, Arlene Ladden, Lucy Lippard, Mary Miss, Marty Pottenger, Miriam Schapiro, Joan Snyder, May Stevens, Michelle Stuart, Susana Torre, Elizabeth Weatherford, and Sally Webster.

•       1977: In Lysistrata Numbah! (1977), using Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata in which women refuse to have sex until a war was over, Spiderwoman Theater explored the issues of sex, power, and control.

•       1977: For the piece Three Weeks in May (1977), Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz posted huge maps in a downtown mall and marked them with occurrences of rapes across the city the night before, alongside locations of rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters.

•       1978: Suzanne Lacy’s piece In Mourning and in Rage (1978) addressed the coverage given to the Hillside Strangler, a mass killer terrorizing women in the Hollywood Hills; the murders had been granted salacious attention by the media.

•       In 1978, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz founded Ariadne: A Social Art Network. The group organized the ten-day event From Reverence to Rape to Respect (1978) in Las Vegas. One memorable installation there equated bejeweled sheep carcasses in headdresses with feathered Vegas showgirls.

•       1978: While on a bus on the way to the 1978 Las Vegas From Reverence to Rape event, The Feminist Art Workers (Nancy Angelo, Laurel Klick, Cheri Gaulke and, eventually, Vanalyne Green) organized a structure of performance-related exercises, called Traffic in Women, in which they guided other passengers in a metaphoric journey from victimhood to self-realization; this involved storytelling, journal-writing, and self-reflection.

•       1978: For the event Take Back the Night (1978), the group Araidne organized a nighttime parade in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, notorious for vice and corruption. Centrally featured was a float carrying a carved Madonna in front; on its verso side was a devilish three-headed lamb carcass from whose belly pornographic texts spewed.

•       1978: In a 1978 piece by the Feminist Art Workers, “viewers” entered a city phone booth and dialed a specified number, as if to listen to an obscene phone call. Instead they heard messages of empowerment.

•       1978: The first project of a feminist group called The Waitresses, made up of people who had been in the Feminist Studio Workshop, was Ready to Order (1978), conceived as a seven-day conceptual structure, which featured satiric skits. Millie Awards were given for categories such as longest inconsequential conversation and longest smile, and the event also involved community-oriented panel discussions and workshops along the lines of Three Weeks in May, to address issues such as job discrimination and to promote skills–for example, assertiveness training. The Waitresses group was founded in 1977 by Jerri Allyn and Anne Gauldin, and joined by Leslie Belt, Patti Nicklaus, Jamie Wildman, and Denise Yarfitz.

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago

•       1979: The Dinner Party, an installation artwork by feminist artist Judy Chicago depicting place settings for 39 mythical and historical famous women, which was produced from 1974 to 1979 as a collaboration, was first exhibited in 1979.


•       Late 1970s: The New York Feminist Art Institute sponsored a workshop on collaboration in the late 1970s.

•       1981: In an iconic photograph, Heaven or Hell? (1981), the Feminist Art Workers, dressed as cherubic hunters, fed each other from the tips of long arrows. This is a reference to a fable about a sumptuous banquet whose only dining utensils were forks so long diners were only able to eat if they fed one another–a metaphor for collaboration.

•       1981: Carnival Knowledge, a New York-based collective that explored issues related to women’s sexuality, staged a carnival with a pro-choice theme, called Bazaar Conceptions, in the New School’s Graduate Center. It featured more than 20 sculptures and games, drawing an estimated 2,500 participants.

•       1984: For the satiric Second Coming (1984), Carnival Knowledge, a New York-based collective that explored issues related to women’s sexuality, created a double collaboration with a recently formed support group of female porn stars, including the later infamous performance artist Annie Sprinkle. One aim was exploring whether a kind of pornography could exist that was not degrading “to women—or men or children.” However, the event brought punitive measures launched by conservative members of Congress against the producing venue Franklin Furnace, which had received federal grants.

•       1985: The Guerilla Girls, which rose to some renown, formed anonymously in 1985 in response to a Museum of Modern Art survey that included only 13 women alongside 166 white males. The group launched a highly effective street-postering campaign, simple statistics starkly revealing the lack of representation of women and people of color in galleries and museums. The signature gorilla mask apparently was inspired by one member’s mistake spelling “guerrilla.” However, it turned into a highly effective publicity tool, even as it served to mask participants’ identities, as some feared reprisals for being linked with feminism.

•       1985-7: Suzanne Lacy worked with The Whisper Minnesota Project to create Crystal Quilt, a living tableaux performed by 430 women over the age of 60 on Mother’s Day at the IDS Center’s Crystal Court in Minneapolis. The piece aimed to change public perceptions of older women by providing a creative outlet and an open forum. The performance was staged on an 82-foot rug with tables placed on it designed by Miriam Schapiro to resemble a quilt. The women sat and discussed their lives, and every ten minutes they changed the placement of their arms on the tables thus altering the quilt’’s pattern when seen from above. Snippets of their conversations were amplified on speakers and the entire event was broadcast live on public television.

•       1994: Marcia Tucker organized the exhibition Bad Girls at the New Museum and Marcia Tanner a companion show at the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA.

•       1996: “Inside the Visible,” organized by Belgian curator Catherine de Zegher at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA), exhibited works by 35 international women artists from the 1930s, 1970s, and 1990s and presented a new theoretical interpretation for the art of the twentieth century (Inside the Visible, MIT press). This exhibition subsequently traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth.

•       2002: The exhibit Personal & Political: The Women’s Art Movement, 1969 –1975 was held at the Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY, from August 10th until October 20th, 2002.

•       2002: The exhibit Gloria: Another Look at Feminist Art in the 1970s was held at White Columns, New York from September 13th until October 20th, 2002.

•       2007: Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, curated by Connie Butler for Los Angeles’ Geffen Center or Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA, was the comprehensive, historical exhibition, examining the international foundations and legacy of feminist art, focusing on the period of 1965–1980, during which the majority of feminist activism and art-making occurred. The exhibition, traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C, at the PS1 satellite of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and at the Vancouver Art Gallery, focused heavily on artists from the United States but also included the work of a number of women from Central and Eastern Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

•       2007-2008: The exhibit Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators, at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., was held from November 6th, 2007 until January 27th, 2008.

•       2008: Carey Lovelace organized “Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art + Community” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts which featured women artists, inspired by the 1970s Feminist Movement, who worked collectively in ways that engaged communities and addressed social issues. The essay is available online.