The Art of Feminism as It First Took Shape
By Holland Cotter, 2007
LOS ANGELES, March 4 — If you’ve held your breath for 40 years waiting for something to happen, your feelings can’t help being mixed when it finally does: “At last!” but also “Not enough.” That’s bound to be one reaction to “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art here, the first major museum show of early feminist work.
Let me be clear: The show is a thrill, rich and sustained. Just by existing, it makes history. But like any history, once written, it is also an artifact, a frozen and partial monument to an art movement that was never a movement, or rather was many movements, or impulses, vibrant and vexingly contradictory.
One thing is certain: Feminist art, which emerged in the 1960s with the women’s movement, is the formative art of the last four decades. Scan the most innovative work, by both men and women, done during that time, and you’ll find feminism’s activist, expansionist, pluralistic trace. Without it identity-based art, crafts-derived art, performance art and much political art would not exist in the
form it does, if it existed at all. Much of what we call postmodern art has feminist art at its source.
Yet that source has been perversely hard to see. Big museums have treated art by women, whether expressly feminist or not, as box-office poison. On the market, feminism is a label to be avoided. When the painter Elizabeth Murray tried to assemble a show of art by women from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1995, she couldn’t find enough to fill a small gallery. MoMA has more work by women now, and she could do her show from in-house stock. But she still couldn’t write a history.
The Los Angeles exhibition, which has been in the works for at least a decade, does write a history, calling upon an international roster of 119 artists, most represented by work from the early 1970s. But because that history is endlessly complicated and comprehensive accounts of it few, this show is still a rough draft and its organizer, Cornelia Butler, chief curator of drawing at MoMA, will doubtless be fielding suggestions and complaints for months to come. ( … )