Another Look at Feminist Art of the 1970s

Curator’s Statement


This exhibition participates in a larger reappraisal now taking place through exhibitions, publications, and scholarship devoted to the feminist decade.1 However, rather than attempt a historical survey, Gloria: Another Look at Feminist Art of the 1970s focuses on media-and performance-based works in order to distill a radical operative essence that transmits fully across the decade and to today.

To young practitioners, looking back thirty years, ostensibly at one’s parents, the issues and icons of feminist art may seem remote-or worse, ridiculous. An ironic state of affairs given the currency of art constructed around images of female identity, female sexuality, femininity, and traditionally feminine pursuits, such as fashion and the decorative arts. Shortly after filling the main floor of the Guggenheim Museum with phalanxes of whippet-thin young women dressed only in high-heels and bikini parts (wardrobe by Tom Ford for Gucci, the brochure announced). Vanessa Beecroft sat on a panel discussion, subtitled “Whatever Happened to the Women Artist’s Movement.” Among the youngest by a generation at a table where also sat feminist luminaries Nancy Spero and Mary Kelly, Beecroft casually denounced her own mother as a communist, feminist, vegetarian, and everything.”2

Removing her practice from the panel’s purview, Beecroft’s spectacular Guggenheim triumph seemed Feminism’s bitter failure. Likewise, a New York Times article that appeared around the same time. “The Artist is a Glamour Puss” equated the success enjoyed by a bevy of hot young women artists with their stylish beauty and ability to exploit their own sexuality.3 “Women today are much smarter. We get pleasure from

looking sexy,” said Katy Grannan, who pays women to be photographed in self-elected poses, usually nude. Interviewed at the opening of Another Girl, Another Planet, Grannan was one of the dozen artists-all of whom looked “as great as actresses at a premiere”-in this group exhibition of photographs of women by women. Another artist at the opening, was Cindy Sherman, whose mediated self-portrait photographs and commercial success make her a role model. When asked to comment on her protégés’ “Madonna School of Feminism”, Sherman confided, “There’s something uninformed about it that is creepy and scary to me.”

Cut to Gloria at White Columns. Named for diverse figures within popular culture in the 1970s-Gloria Steinem (the founder of Ms. Magazine and former Playboy Bunny); Gloria Stivik (the outspoken liberal daughter of bigoted Archie Bunker in the television series All in the Family): the role played by Gena Rowlands in Gloria, the 1970 movie by John Cassavettes; and the Van Morrison song as performed by Patti Smith-this exhibition was conceived in direct response to both of Beecroft’s performances (at the Guggenheim and on that panel discussion) and the Glamour Puss phenomenon. Our aim was to reintroduce the efforts of pioneering artists whose influence was apparently being taken for granted, or worse, entirely written off, and to reclaim the sense of empowerment and agency that many young women now seem to enjoy as a direct legacy of feminism. At its most basic, Gloria set out to establish some parity between then and now, by showing that the art of the period was (and remains) significant, vital, sexy.

Gloria includes works by artists who emerged during the first wave of late 1960s feminism (Carolee Schneemann, VALIE EXPORT, Yoko Ono) as well as those who would catch the tail end of the second wave and ride it into the 1980s mainstream (Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman). As demonstrated by the range of work on view-from Mary Kelly’s photo-documentation of her son’s first bath to Nancy Grossman’s sculpture of a sadomasochistic leather mask-feminist art of the 1970s does not neatly coalesce along any singular formal, material, or conceptual lines. Artists were unified by their politics, implicit to which was a commitment to pluralism. The struggle for equality between the sexes meant no one would dominate. Indeed, this exhibition presents the diversity within relatively narrow strains of a movement that, at its fullest, encompassed art which is the very antithesis of the work on view. In electing to limit this survey, Gloria underscores what was common to all feminist artists, including those mining more traditional mediums, representational imagery, craft, symbolism, a female or feminine aesthetic: the activism in which they all participated.

Seventies feminism grew directly out of sixties activism, as evidenced by the ephemera in this exhibition. The public actions and institutional interventions documented by these small press magazines and newsletters (as well as the very form and distribution of these publications) were based on the tactics prescribed by the New Left to advocate civil rights and protest the Vietnam War. These tactics were co-opted by women, many of whom were directly involved in these movements, and who learned their feminism through the frustration of being relegated to the administrative task forces (ie. doing the shit work) and not being admitted onto the front lines. Paradoxically, this experience seems to have equipped women artists with superpowers of organization to create the alternative exhibition spaces, slide registries, information networks, education initiatives, watch-dog committees, caucuses, coalitions, and general consciousness-raising that revolutionized feminist artists throughout the 1970s.

It is interesting to contemplate a particular relationship between the activism of 70s feminism and the action-based works in this exhibition, works which also advance major paradigm shifts within contemporary art at large. In 1967. Lucy Lippard, feminist art’s great spokeswoman, coauthored with John Chandler “The Dematerialization of Art” in which they equated radical contemporary art with the political radicalism of the day and advanced emergent trends towards “serialism, analyses of process and procedure, and consciousness of context beyond conventional art spaces.”4 Considered one of the launch pads of postmodernism and an opening salvo for the 1970s, the essay called for artists’ liberation from traditional studio practices and for art’s freedom from interpretation based on the object per se. Given that one of the most critical challenges faced by artist members of the Women’s Liberation Movement was to have their work considered equal to art by men, is it any wonder that feminists played such a key role in the conception and creation of action- text- and photo-based works, as well as video art? All were relatively new mediums, not canonized by old masters and with little at stake in the marketplace. They were significantly available to feminist expression.

Gloria posits that it is through non-traditional mediums and actions that the feminist legacy is most fluidly expressed within contemporary art. An alternative trend that developed alongside the art of critique and social confrontation explored in Gloria, was the attempt to define an essential female iconography outside the boundaries of male culture. Almost by definition, the 70s separatist artist’s goal of developing a purely female voice undermined any effective contribution to cultural dialogue by its requirement of isolation from the mainstream, Witness the decline of women’s galleries, cooperatives, exhibitions, magazines and journals, which were so primary to the work of feminist artists, art historians and critics in the 1970s. This distancing from the dominant culture had the unfortunate repercussions of a lack of broader critical awareness and an often hostile perception of ghettoizing. Thirty years later, a certain disdain exists for exhibitions devoted to women artists, a sense that the reception of the work will suffer from being seen in an exclusively feminist context (though it should be noted that a larger political context is often accepted). While both choices-rejecting or confronting the mainstream-were radical acts, the decision to engage in evolving cultural discourses carried the cultural legacy of feminism beyond the Feminist Decade. As this exhibition demonstrates, the “F-word” applies to work that has had enormous impact and reflects an incredible range of creative and intellectual innovations.

Despite the differences presented by the objects in this show (discussed individually in the annotated checklist), common themes and images emerge rife with currency. Take the theme of transformation. Starting in the 1970s, women artists turned the lady-like application of makeup and dress into an aggressive form of masquerade, to perform and invent new identities, from the super-feminine to the quasi-masculine. They represented themselves through the definitively male eyes and voice of the media to command its authority and retool its message. They staged objective views of their everyday lives to de-romanticize, demystify, and most importantly, politicize “women’s work. They confronted viewers with birth, menstruation, abortion and rape to show the viscerality of women’s lives. And they put their own sexuality on display for the purpose of enjoying their own pleasure and power at the risk of harassment and abuse.

Over the course of organizing this show, a transformation in our own thinking took place. It occurred around a letter published in the December 1974 issue of Artforum. Written in response to the copyrighted advertisement of Lynda Benglis photographed by Arthur Gordon in the November 1974 issue, the letter was signed by a group of associate editors; Lawrence Alloway, Max Kozloff, Rosalind Krauss, Joseph Masheck and Annette Michelson. The group came down hard on the magazine for putting them in a compromising position-unless they took the moral high road and documented their disgust, they would be seen as complicit in the publication of the infamous image of the young, beautiful Benglis posing aggressively nude with an enormous double-headed dildo. Given the magazine’s “efforts to support the movement for women’s liberation,” they deemed the picture to be “therefore doubly shocking to encounter in its pages this gesture that reads as shabby mockery of the aims of that movement.” Read today, the prissiness of their response finds critics of contemporary art awkward in the role of moral authoritarians-particularly in light of another lefter on the same page, this one also from an Artforum contributor, Peter Plagens, who suggests “covering the offensive anatomy with a small Donald Judd inset.” As curators of Gloria, whose generation falls somewhere between the 70s and today, the irony of our own reaction to a presumed lack of feminism among artists today was not to be overlooked.

In researching the seventies, we have been struck by how pervasive the presence of the women’s liberation movement was across culture, the extent of the activism and with what commitment women artists struggled to realize the goals of feminism. And while, compared to theirs, ours is not a moment of great political activism indeed, as Beecroft’s art evinces, ours is a culture of rampant consumption-it is not devoid of feminism. Magazines like Bitch and Bust are expanding on the tradition of Ms. Artsy was recently started in response to the lack of coverage for women artists in Artforum. Flipping through the pages of these magazines, we have been made newly aware of how complex the choices are for young women who are apparently well-versed in feminist theory, watch Sex in the City, subscribe to Martha Stewart Living and Vogue, and are thinking strategically not only about if, but about when, with whom, and how they want to have children. And while, the mainstream press has trivialized these women’s politics as “lipstick feminism,” in the process of working on Gloria, we have learned that the generation we set out to instruct is already highly well-informed.

Provocation has some worthwhile results, this exhibition, for example. What started out as a reaction against a seemingly self-imposed political amnesia on the part of younger women artists developed into a greater awareness of the ongoing and increasingly complex pursuit of feminist goals in today’s world, thinking globally, feminism is more relevant than ever. As a defining feature of the West, feminism is, opposed by cultures in which women are not considered equal to men. However, even within the limited scope of this exhibition project, it has become abundantly clear that dividing the generations undermines the power that feminism has gathered over the last thirty years. Revisiting the work of some of the most compelling artists of the 1970s-the decade to which all subsequent feminist thought, action, and art inherently refers-we have come to see this exhibition not so much as a reminder, but rather as an affirmation of the feminist continuum.



  1. To cite a few recent exhibitions: Personal and Political: The Women's Art Movement, 1969-1975, organized by Simon Taylor and Natalie Ng at Guild Hall, East Hampton, August 10-October 20, 2002 is a major survey of the development of feminist art; Goddess organized by Mary Sabatino at Galerie Lelong, New York,' Summer 2002, there were six exhibitions  held in conjunction with the California State University Fresno Feminist Art Symposium: Celebrating 30 Years of Feminist Art In Fresno and Beyond, organized by Jill Fields in March 2001; Nowhere, organized by Laura Cottingham In 1996 for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art In Humlebaek, Denmark, presented works by women from the seventies alongside those of the nineties: Transfigurations: Documents and Images from Contemporary Feminist Art, organized by Fernanda Perrone, Special Collections and University Archives Gallery, Rutgers University, October 1996 through January 1997; Laughter Ten Years Later, organized by Jo Anna Isaak in 1995 for the Ezra and Cecelia Zilkha Gallery, Wesleyan University; Connie Butler at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is currently working on an international survey of feminist art of the 1970s, to open in fall of 2005. Some recent books are Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000 (Hilary Robinson, ed.), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001; and Laura Cottingham, Seeing Through The Seventies: Essays on Feminism and Art, Amsterdam: G+B Books, 2000.
  2. Beecroft's performance at the Guggenheim took place April 23, 1998, and the panel discuss on, 'The Body Politic" was held at the New Museum in December 1998. The artist and critic Mira Schor attended the panel and used Beecroft's statement to open her essay: "The ism that dare not speak its name," DOCUMENTS, No. 15, Spring/Summer 1999, pp. 28-39, See also in the same Issue, Faith Wilding's "Don't Tell Anyone We Did It" about the history of the Feminist Art Program.
  3. Elizabeth Hayt. "The Artist is a Glamour Puss,” The New York Times, Sunday April 8, 1999, Section 9, page 1.
  4. Jonn Chandler and Lucy Lippard, 'The Dematerialization of Art," Art International, February 1967