Great Women Artists: A Conversation with Catherine Morris

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In 1971 Linda Nochlin asked the art world, "Why have there been no great women artists?" Her subsequent answer suggested that it was institutional boundaries that hindered women from having the same access as their male counterparts. Forty years later the answer to this question has changed. As Catherine Morris suggests here, "The participation and influence of women in the art world is enormous." Morris is the third director and curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Part exhibition space, part education facility, the Center is focused on raising awareness of the cultural contributions of feminism to the arts. The exhibition space is anchored by Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79), which was created at the time that ''feminism'' came into common use as a term relating to a particular political and social sensibility in art. Moreover, the Center has traced the history of feminism as far back as the prehistoric age with exhibitions like the "Fertile Goddess" (2008-09) and has gone on to document trends in contemporary video art with "Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video" (2009 10).

The looming question remains: What is feminist art? What arises are only more questions. The cycle of exhibitions that have come through the Center, and those that are forthcoming, only further challenge audience perceptions of what feminist art is and can be. Nonetheless, the task of defining both the history and current state of feminism does not seem to overwhelm Morris. She came to the Center in 2009 after serving as Adjunct Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has used her short tenure to organize "Kiki Smith: Soujourn" (2010), which examines universal experiences of life from birth to death, and a small exhibition on the 1864 Brooklyn Sanitary Fair. What makes the Center so unique and, as Morris suggests, so important, is the opportunity to present the lineage of an art practice that has no geographic or chronological boundaries.

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In the following conversation, Morris discusses her background in feminist art, her perspective of its historic and changing role and the future of both the Center and feminist art practices. This conversation took place at Morris's office on April 12, 2010.

HARRY J. WEIL: In 2006, for MIT's List Visual Arts Center, you organized "9 Evenings Reconsidered," an exhibition that examined Bell Laboratories' bringing together of a group of avant-garde artists with ten scientists. The result was a series of Happenings that took place in 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. Several of the artists are now celebrated figures, like Robert Rauschenberg, Steve Paxton, and John Cage. Among them were also some of the earliest pioneers of performance art, including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and Deborah Hay. What was it like to have both men and women working with a technology that few predicted would ever be so instrumental to the creation and reception of art?

CATHERINE MORRIS: There was a lot of openness in this group as they came together in the early 1960s in Lower Manhattan. Not only was there an acceptance of women artists, but an acceptance of dance and dance practices. This acceptance was essential to the group's development. The work of those women was on par with the men who participated. However, there was obviously a lot of sexism involved. Despite this, what made "9 Evenings" so important and influential, in addition to the engineering aspect and use of new technology, was the community aspect and the way in which different artists came together to complete this project. This was about collaboration. These artists were working together closely before that and it made "9 Evenings" quite successful.

HW: This emphasis on feminist art in technology is vastly different from the permanent installation that anchors the Sackler Center--Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, This work is so much in line with the craft movement of the 1960s. …