Artemisia Challenges the Elders: How a Women Artists' Cooperative Created a Community for Feminism and Art Made by Women

Article excerpt

In the early 197os women's separatist art collectives like Artemisia in Chicago (1973-2003) played an essential role in supporting and nurturing the careers of a whole new generation of women artists. Artemisia was established in 1973 after Joy Poe, then a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago, visited AIR, the first woman's cooperative gallery in New York City, that May and concluded the same could be done in Chicago. (1) Upon her return Poe enlisted the support of Barbara Grad, Phyllis MacDonald, Emily Pinkowski, and Margaret Wharton, and they formed an interview committee. Together they visited the studios of 150 women artists and then held a subsequent meeting of 40 women, where an additional 15 members were chosen: Phyllis Bramson, Shirley Federow, Sandra Gierke, Carol Hamel, Vera Klement, Linda Kramer, Susan Michod, Sandra Perlow, Claire Prussian, Nancy Redmond, Christine Rojek, Heidi Seidelhuber, Alice Shaddle, Mary Stoppert, and Carol Turchan. (2) The gallery officially opened on September 21 at 226 East Ontario Street, placing it in the center of the contemporary art scene. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA), was located across the street, and the commercial galleries Phyllis Kind and Marianne Deson also occupied spaces in the same building. (3) Further, Artemisia's immediate neighbor was ARC Gallery, a second women artists' cooperative, and they both sought to challenge the concept of the woman artist as a hobbyist and dilettante by providing a professional venue for their members. (4) Taking their name from the seventeenth-century Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1597--c.1651), "whose best work had been credited to her father," the members of Artemisia were determined to make their own names known to the art world of Chicago and beyond. (5)

Artemisia Gentileschi did not merely serve as a namesake for the gallery. The art critic Franz Schulze noted that the members' appropriation of Gentileschi's depictions of heroines engaged in violent acts reflected the group's militant feminist stance in its early years. (6) The artist's painting Judith and Holofernes (1611-12) was used in a 1974 advertisement for a lecture by Judith Shamberg entitled "Attitudes and Obstacles: Women Artists in History."

Therefore, it is worth considering briefly how the conflicts facing the female protagonists Gentileschi painted paralleled the societal conditions facing the Chicago women artists, ultimately stimulating the desire to form a community of women artists. Gentileschi's Susannah and the Elders (i6m) derives-from the Book of Susannah, a book of Apocrypha, where Susannah, who lives in Babylon, is bathing in her garden. (7) She sends two maids to fetch oil and perfumes for her bath, and while she is left alone, two elders begin to spy on her. They soon demand that she submit to them sexually, and when Susannah refuses, they threaten to denounce her as an adulterer, a crime punishable by death. Susannah is quickly served this sentence after being falsely accused and eventually is vindicated when Daniel questions each of the elders separately, asking them under which tree Susannah seduced them. Each man names a different one, revealing Susannah's innocence. (8)

Just as Susannah resists sexual violence, the women who founded Artemisia were no longer willing to comply with their subjugation in the art world and understood that a feminist intervention would be necessary to disarm the masculine power that maintains patriarchal governance structures. By staging this protest, they also found themselves on trial like Susannah, framed as perpetrators rather than victims of the social order. As Jen ni Sorkin observed, "Women who chose these routes faced stiff, if not severe social penalties for opting out of traditional social roles and normative behavior." (9) The members' challenge, however, was not mounted by singular figures like Susannah; instead they created a collective force, as well as a physical space, where the binary structures that enforce women's subordinate status are eliminated. …