ARLENE RAVEN cut a complex swath through the world before she died this past summer on August 1. Indeed, she was an activist as "pluralistic" as the 1970s feminist art community from which she emerged--a quality perhaps most clearly recalled when one considers a 1983 landmark exhibition she curated at the Long Beach Museum of Art in California, titled "At Home," which brought together many of the artists and ideas she had championed for the previous decade. The show included Suzanne Lacy, who pioneered massive group performances on social themes; West Coast-based performance artists Rachel Rosenthal, Eleanor Antin, and Susan Mogul; ecovisionaries Helen and Newton Harrison, whose Lagoon Cycle, 1974-84, was an early rumination on global warming; and Betye Saar, who skewered racism in works such as her 1972 assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, where the pancake-mix icon wielded a rifle. All of these artists were born out of the tumultuous 1970s, a decade of relentless politics and the invention and reinvention of new forms of art. The catalogue for "At Home" was itself unusual--a cacophony of photographs and captions, artists' commentaries, and analytic text, all running simultaneously, as if asking readers to make their own paths through the work.
While best known as a writer in the "advocate critic" tradition, Arlene was also a charismatic lecturer, an art historian, a founder of radical institutions, a generous and inclusive editor, and a lesbian whose Susan Sontagian glamour helped bring attention to the often marginalized worlds she sought to make visible. With (appropriately) raven hair, a firm jaw, and chiseled features, the Baltimore-born Arlene Corkery (nee Rubin) exuded a kind of streetwise toughness. Involved in '60s radical politics, including a stint with Students for a Democratic Society, she got a BFA in painting from Hood College in Maryland in 1965 and an MFA from George Washington University two years later, then switched to art history and started a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University that she completed in 1975. Fascinated by the early Women's Lib movement, she began working on one of its first publications, Womyn: A Journal of Liberation, and in a women's clinic in the same building. But having married her master's thesis adviser, she was too busy juggling lives as a housewife, stepmother, and student to fully engage.
In 1972, however, she discovered that her husband was having an affair with a student. Shortly after separating from him, she was kidnapped on a Baltimore street, attacked, and raped by two men; she nearly died. (With typical gallows humor, she once told me, "I kept thinking, 'How can they do this? Don't they know I'm getting my Ph.D.?'") In between those searing events, she had attended the Conference of Women in the Visual Arts at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, a historic forum where she heard Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro speak about the new Feminist Art Program (FAP) at the California Institute of the Arts. FAP had just completed Womanhouse, a Hollywood mansion that students had converted into environments symbolizing women's oppression. Once recovered from her injuries, Arlene had an epiphany. Days later, she left for Los Angeles, where Chicago became a close friend during this extremely difficult time in Arlene's life. That summer, when Arlene decided to divest herself of her husband's surname without reverting to her father's, it was Chicago who suggested "Raven." ("Edgar Allan Poe was from Baltimore--it just seemed right," Arlene later remembered.)
At CalArts Arlene helped pioneer the inclusive feminist art history then being formulated on several fronts, including in Linda Nochlin's work at Stanford University. It incorporated women's previously ignored heritage and expressed skepticism about Western art's idees recues--attitudes, some believe, that set the stage for postmodernism. That this was the same school that launched hypermasculinists David Salle and Eric Fischl is an irony that has since been noted by alumna Mira Schor, among others. …