No Longer Invisible

Article excerpt

NO LONGER INVISIBLE

!W.A.R.: Women Art Revolution: A (Formerly) Secret History

By Lynn Hershman Leeson

Zeitgeist Films/2010/83 mins.

This "secret history" spans four decades of American women artists' struggles. Radicalized while at the University of California, Berkeley, Lynn Hershman Leeson began filming interviews in response to the social turmoil in which the Women's Liberation Movement was fomented alongside demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the rise of the Black Panthers Party, and the many public and political assassinations of the 1960s. Both heterosexual and lesbian feminists sought recognition as artists even as they sought parity in other aspects of society.

!W.A.R. addresses what neither Sigmund Freud nor Carl Jung could resolve: what do women want? In Leeson's film, we see women artists aware that they are barred from male-oriented galleries. museums, and art historical and critical records--invisible within their own profession. But by 1970, feminist activities began to flourish, including Faith Ringgold's fictitious Women Art Students and Artists for Black Artists' Liberation, which challenged the hegemony of white male art stars. A sense of continuity can be gleaned only after many viewings of this film (aided by a chronology in the accompanying comic book); like a quilt or collage, it juxtaposes historic footage with recent interviews.(1)

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Through dance, self-mutilation, nudity, alternate personae, and gender role-playing, performance art became subversive and offered freedom to explore the forbidden, as seen in the ideosyncratic performances of Howardena Pindell, Rachel Rosenthal, Martha Rosier, and Carolee Schneeman. Pathos of the body's vulnerability was heightened by the deaths of Hannah Wilke and Ana Mendieta. Wilke conscientiously shared the slow process of her dying as art, in contrast to Mendicta's sudden death eight months after her marriage to minimalist artist Carl Andre. Mendieta fell from their thirty-fourth floor apartment, which seemed a fulfillment of her prophetic art: female body-shaped depressions in the earth filled with blood or fire. Commenting on her own impending death from cancer, Wilke stated: "Exposing truth is like nudity." Howard Fox, Curator Emeritus at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, contrasts women's use of their bodies to the men's "content-less" color field and minimal paintings dominant in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminist performance art was about process rather than product.

Judy Chicago's installation "The Dinner Party" (1974 79) presented a large triangular table set with formal place settings, the plates stylized female genitalia celebrating thirty-nine influential women in Western civilization. Unintentionally provoked male members of the House of Representatives passed a law prohibiting its exhibition in Washington, D.C., claiming it was pornography, not art. During the uproar, sympathetic Congressman Ron Dcllums observed that phallic-shaped rockets used by our military for slaughter are obscene, yet not prohibited.

Through the teaching and curating of women's art by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Judy Chicago, Harmony Hammond, Amelia Jones, Arlene Raven, and Miriam Schapiro; the writing of pseudonymous critics Gay Abandon and Prudence Juris; and journals such as Heresies and Chrysalis, edited by groups of volunteers, feminist artists began to acquire validity, if not a history.

Chicago was brought from Fresno State by Schapiro and her husband to Cal Arts. As a result, the two women opened Womanhouse in 1972 and, due to Raven and many others, the Woman's Building followed in 1973. Meanwhile, Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, and other decorative artists founded the Pattern and Decoration Group in the early 1970s. Martha Wilson left California in 1976 to found Franklin Furnace on Franklin Street in New York's SoHo, as a venue for marginalized art, which is still strong today. …