Feminisms in the Singular

John Haber
in New York City

The Sackler Center and Global Feminisms

Role Play and The Feminine Mystique

"Global Feminisms" is nothing if not single-minded. Sure, the first word amounts to a demand for pluralism. And, sure, the second gives an already capacious and powerful idea an unusual plural form. However, the Brooklyn Museum knows women when it sees them, and what it sees reduces them to one thing—bodies, especially aching bodies and smiling faces. How many feminisms does it take to light up Brooklyn? All too few.

"Global Feminisms" accompanies the March 2007 opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The works all date since 1990, leaving the future wide open. It also gives Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party a permanent home. With all this, the Brooklyn Museum has made a major effort toward giving women artists their due. Make that an effort unmatched by other museums—or, for that matter, by the galleries. Guess who still gets far more shows? Ryoko Suzuki's Bind (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 2001)

However, it does neither women, globalism, nor feminism a favor, and it adds up to a stiflingly simplistic exhibition. Women have suffered through enough categories and cages in the past without this one. Meanwhile, "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited," a group exhibition in Chelsea, looks back to some artists funny and defiant enough to break out. As a postscript, "The Feminine Mystique" at the Jersey City Museum suggests what Brooklyn's effort might have become.

Solidarity and pain

The Center's curator, Maura Reilly, selected eighty women artists with Linda Nochlin of NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. Nochlin herself did as much as anyone to make feminist art history essential reading. One passes through the Center on the way in, and it creates an imposing context. A long-term display of ceramics, from the permanent collection, affirms that "women's work" belongs in the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that boasts of its commitment to local artists and the Brooklyn community. Another show, "Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses," boasts of a granite head from the fifteenth century B.C.E. It also boasts of women as authority figures from the beginning of time.

Why, then, does "Global Feminisms" center around two attractive young women clinging to one another and smiling ever so broadly? Boryana Rossa calls her video Celebrating the Next Twinkling, but they could just as well be celebrating their junior-high reunion or their American Express gold card. True, it comes only with the exhibition's fourth and last segment. However, it hangs over the main aisle like guidepost—or perhaps like the head of aerobics class. It also serves as the show's promotional image. More important, it could stand for plenty more works like it.

Melanie Manchot welcomes an older, heavier woman to the celebration, With Blue Clouds and Laughter. Marji Geerklinks rejoices in motherhood, while Miwa Yanagi remembers My Grandmother. In the past, Catherine Opie has faced the blankness of American cities and human encounters. Her self-portrait as a nursing, tattooed, lesbian mother could present an act of defiance or an unsettling of photographic conventions. Here it seems only another happy tribute to mothers of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Tracey Rose's Hottentot Venus gives them a genealogy as long and serious as "Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses."

Others take the woman's collective from inspiration to armed struggle. Michèle Magema presents Congolese woman marching, accompanied by a revolutionary flag and a proud cheer, Oyé, Oyé. Kate Benyon likewise has a Warrior Woman Collective. Army of Me—the small, identical figures issuing from Amy Cutler herself—lends the march a rare note of irony and self-reflection. One might do well to look again at Magema's army with its heads cut off by the frame. Does the facelessness mock the male gaze and the brutal anonymity of war, or does it repeat and reinforce them?

Not everyone is having a good time, then, not even in Brooklyn. Teresa Margolles sums up both halves of what the show wishes to overcome—"insensitivity to pain, lack of solidarity." Sigalit Landau mimes the former, in her endless dance with a barbed-wire hula hoop. Parastou Forouhar paints torture in Iran, in a cross between breaking news, a Persian miniature, contemporary Iranian art or "Iran Modern," and bunny comics. Milica Tomic depicts a Serbian women's wounds, Mary Coble and Ryoku Suzuki their own painful self-binding. Anna Baumgart remembers suicides, and Rebecca Belmore enacts a ceremony for the abducted in Canada.

Men appear rarely, but they clearly spell trouble. In Julia Loktov's Rough House, the man takes his place on the sofa in front of the TV, while the woman vacuums. For Tanja Ostojic, divorce means a deceived, abandoned woman who loses her EU passport. Claudia Reinhardt's staging of Sylvia Plath's suicide could raise questions about representation and reality. Here it merely plays out the narrative of Plath as victim. Male voices cannot appear, and yet women's voices cannot sound. Once again, an attempt to "complete" feminism with a complementary agenda, here globalization, ends up marginalizing women as incomplete.

Waving feminism goodbye

Feminism does belong in the plural. One often speaks, for example, of three waves—a fluid metaphor that already sets different priorities than for men. That kind of history usually appears, in fact, in debates over yet more conflicting aspirations in the present. Each wave has a legitimate foundation in successive achievements and thus renewed aspirations, and naturally enough each has a rough parallel in art. Nochlin caught them in their early stages, with a pioneering 1971 article, later the core of a book, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?

The first wave refers to struggles for the right to vote and to work. In art, one thinks of women who competed with men on their own terms, from Artemisia Gentileschi to Lee Krasner or Joan Mitchell. The second wave means "movement" feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, with demands for equality, choices, visibility, and a reconstruction of society to match. The same period saw a bolder, more flourishing art as well, with witty, aggressive performances from such artists as Marina Abramovic before and after Ulay, Lynda Benglis, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann (when not a painter or video artist), Barbara Probst, and Yoko Ono. In the Third Wave, one argues over the costs and benefits of making femininity part of the equation along with politics. Appropriations of the 1990s introduced the same themes, with Jenny Holzer before Holzer's redaction paintings, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Mika Rottenberg, and others.

Like most linear histories, this one has problems, especially if feminism opposes male, linear histories. Does the present—with greater diversity but less confidence in the outcome—continue that third wave or begin a fourth, now that anything goes in art and politics has become a branch of the media? Conversely, can one really distinguish the generations so easily? As it happens, I have taken all my second-wave examples from "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited," a splendid group show at Galerie Lelong, and they look quite as at home as the title says with third-wave role playing and a biting irony. Then, too, so does Gentileschi. Conversely, Sheila Hicks, Lee Bontecou, Elizabeth Murray, Gladys Nilsson, and Chantal Akerman have found erotic or threatening undercurrents in the first-wave art forms and personal memories that "Role Play" leaves out.

It does not leave out much, although a museum survey of the same decade will follow soon—"WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution." Helena Almeida's cry of Hear Me, in Portuguese, or Senga Nengudi's taped body anticipates the Brooklyn Museum's global politics, although Alina Szapocznikow from Poland could belong here as well. Adrian Piper's bruised lips, which "embody everything you must hate and fear," uses text and image as effectively as Kruger or Simpson would later, and she reminds one how few African Americans appear in "Global Feminisms." Helen Chadwick turns herself into major kitchen appliances—much the kind that Martha Rosler with her garage sale stands before on video while slicing and dicing a man's world. Hannah Wilke's nude in high heels and a revolver feels very third wave indeed, and so does her clothed self strutting her stuff from the other side of Duchamp's Large Glass. Birgit Jürgenssen's fox-fur face would fit in a fashion spread by Hanna Liden now.

Mendieta's body imprints, like the pained and lyrical art of Kiki Smith or the more abstract imprints of Keltie Ferris, reflect something else that my brief history leaves out and that the Brooklyn Museum definitely leaves in. It aligns a woman's essence with flesh and blood. "Global Feminisms" has four parts, but they keep coming back to the same thing. "Life Cycles" means nurturing bodies. "Identities" means marked bodies, "Politics" means suffering bodies, and "Emotions" means laughing, crying, or hysterical bodies. Only one work after the ceramics outside alludes to craft and design, and there Tania Bruguera incorporates human hair along with fabric.

The body unites both side of the show, the laughter and the pain. It places the show well within the "eternal feminism" of pharaohs and goddesses—and The Dinner Party. In the late 1970s, back when Abramovic and Wilke were strutting their stuff and Miriam Schapiro was working with Judy Chicago at Cal Arts on the Womanhouse project, Chicago set places for fertile goddesses, Christian martyrs, and mystics along with more modern icons. As a gallery show of preparatory sketches makes clear, she thinks of them all in terms of eternal life and the eternal victim. For example, she describes Emily Dickinson as a textbook case of repression. And each dinner plate bears the stylized image of a vagina.


The Dinner Party is kitsch, and once again the Brooklyn Museum is pandering. "Global Feminisms" is merely monotonous. It also misses a chance to probe the issue at its heart, the puzzle today of reconciling urgency and pluralisms. It cannot ask when globalization opens things up, as for Etel Adnan and other artists crossing continents—and when it serves market economies and international art fairs. The show has some high moments. However, they come largely from artists familiar in New York and willing to put more than their bodies on the line.

Sometimes, they allow themselves to play with sexual desire. Ghada Amer hints at porn in an abstract arrangement of threads, and Pipilotti Rist sticks her tongue up through her own grave surrounded by fallen leaves. Sometimes they play with images of women in a media-driven age. Tracey Emin interviews her notorious self, and Tracy Moffatt stages Love as a TV soap opera. Sometimes they play with bodies as pathetic as those in the real world, like Sarah Lucas's The Sperm Thing or Jenny Saville's oversized nude. Sometimes, they just play, as when Sam Taylor-Wood throws an entirely reasonable hysterical fit.

In a show supposedly about gender, Tejal Shah and Oreet Ashery supply the only cross-dressing. In a show about global politics, only Emily Jacir troubles herself with facts—a video record of crossing Israeli checkpoints, without even assistance from Yael Bartana. In a show about the plural, only Fiona Foley permits layered images and broken text. She builds a screen of words and an image of the body from hanging strips. In a show about confining alternatives, only Priscilla Monge involves the viewer, in a padded cell of sanitary napkins. Each of these artists goes beyond the singular.

This generation deserves a feminism as diverse and witty as the one that "Role Play" found in the 1970s, and for all my talk of waves and changes, it already has one. A museum should not have far to look, but it might have to deal with role playing and global particulars along the way. It could observe social constraints as real as the secret police headquarters or mental institution taped by Jane and Louise Wilson. It could face women in the Third World as frankly as Shirin Neshat. It could face women at the end of the male gaze, like Carla Gannis or Christina McPhee. It could face women at the end of a shotgun, like Maria Epes.

It could allow Janine Antoni with her tightrope and long hair, desires as naughty as those of Marilyn Minter and Nathalie Djurberg, and sexual awakening as risky as for Sue de Beer and Erzstbet Baerveldt. It could acknowledge gender instability and the ugliness of sorting it out, as for Nan Goldin and Judith Eisler. It could include the fluid universes of Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin or the solid ones of Andrea Zittel and Jessica Stockholder. It could consider women who still do worry about "male" forms like abstraction. It could see what happens when a woman appropriates the museum itself, like Amy Wilson. It could include men in feminism, like the take on Edouard Manet's bar by Jeff Wall.

What happens when a museum strips all these from feminism, along with the plural? It ends up with the damaging myth of a female essence lying somewhere between her legs. It ends up with cheerleading. Because of feminism, colleges now count cheerleading as a sport, but it does not count as art. Asked what feminism means to her, one artist in the show, Lin Tianmiao, says that she knows "only individual cases." A more daring and pluralistic show would invite them to dinner.

Desperate artists

Like most monumental works, The Feminine Mystique evokes an already remote past but refuses to go away. Betty Friedan's unhappy housewives and mothers belong to the 1950s or to her own activist past. Yet feminism was soon to advance from existentialism and The Second Sex to the culture wars and Sexual Politics. And Friedan did as much as anyone to create just that "second wave." Perhaps that is why the book itself outgrows its premise. From an informal study of "the problem that has no name," it expands to take on a woman's image and role, for herself and others.

When a show of contemporary artists calls itself "The Feminine Mystique," something else changes, only starting with its place in feminism's third or fourth wave. Once the subject becomes art, the feminine mystique become less a critical category than something elusive, ironic, and real. Besides, desperate housewives are on TV now, with lots of sex. Naturally, then, the twenty-six artists expand their own focus as well. Perhaps Sandra Bermúda die cuts metal into the word Wife, without adding much to its meaning or allure, and Megan Malloy photographs a woman trying on her wedding dress, but mostly these women have other things on their minds than a sordid but placid past.

Jeanette May sets Polaroids of suitably compliant homemakers against pages ripped from the 1963 book, and Ayakoh Furukawa fashions Friedan's words into finely shaded but clichéd drawings of hotties. Even here, however, the emphasis is on the female body more than old texts or contexts. Children appear primarily as stand-ins for adult sexual beings, as with Noelle Lorraine Williams's reimagining of Condoleezza Rice as Alice in Wonderland, and men do not appear at all. Meanwhile, links from gender to sexuality are everywhere. And when Jennifer Mazza paints women devouring cherries, Jennifer Sullivan inserts herself into magazine spreads, or Jessica Lagunas applies cosmetics on video for three hours, sexuality looks an awful lot like a consumer good.

The exhibition keeps circling back to a few visual motifs, sometimes too few, but it does not write off The Feminine Mystique as a thing of the past—or simply a horror story. Often as not, it treats a generation of mothers knitting and baking as a loving memory. Margaret Murphy and Aliza Augustine both create setups with dolls, and Murphy, Shelley Bahl, and Rachel Serbinski all depict less than G-rated images of women against patterns like old wallpaper. Juana Valdes, Babs Reingold, Heather Hart, Nancy Friedemann, Carson Fox, and Gema Alava-Chrisostomo as well as Bahl and Serbinski all either indulge in weaving, sometimes with human hair as material, or mime its patterns. Hart's crotched gun feels more warm than loaded, and Friedemann's Byzantine Grid in blue ink is a marvel of intricacy. Photographs by Justine Reyes and cake frosting on canvas by Meghan Wood both pay tribute to the artists' mothers.

Choices like these reflect an ambivalence inherent in a third wave, not to mention inherent in museums eager to present feminism as uplifting. Art as community outreach also requires looking beyond Friedan's pampered middle-class America, to black and Hispanic artists, much as in "Global Feminisms" (or Rafael Ferrer at El Museo del Barrio). In fact, "Feminine Mystique" suggests what Brooklyn set out to do, before drowning in sentiment. For all its limits, the show in Jersey City focuses on fewer artists, a greater closeness to New York's communities, and a healthy respect for irony. Serbinski's semi-pornographic images make me think of Ghada Amer's, for example, rather than the Brooklyn Museum's long of procession victimized bodies. Augustine's woman in a kitchen, leaning back from a bottle of scotch, uses the inanimacy of a doll to make Friedan's story no less funny for being real.

The choices leave out a great deal, including the kind of pioneering feminist art that Friedan herself helped bring into being. Three older artists, in selections from the museum's permanent collection, might stand for the choices that remain. Mary Beth Edelson's litho of The Last Supper, with familiar women artists in place of Jesus and the apostles, handles the cheerleading, like literally yet another dinner party. Lorna Simpson and Adrian Piper, in turn, handle the world of ideas—an art in which women's desires appear as hesitantly as in the male mind. When Pam Cooper creates a floating house of paper and pins, when Caroline Burton mimes a Jasper Johns white target in bubble wrap, or when Alison Weld pairs a thick abstraction with fake fur, finding a protective separation between male and female spaces grows a little more difficult. I appreciate the challenge better for that.

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"Global Feminisms" ran at The Brooklyn Museum through July 1, 2007, and "Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses" through September 16, in conjunction with the March opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited 1960–1980" ran at Galerie Lelong and Judy Chicago's preparatory work for "The Dinner Party" at ACA Galleries, both through April 28. "The Feminine Mystique: Contemporary Artists Respond" ran at the Jersey City Museum through February 24, 2008. Related articles in this webzine—along with those linked within the review and others listed here—consider varieties of feminism, men in feminism, Freud and feminism, and difference feminism, the last with a brief bibliography.


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