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John Haber
in New York City

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Something funny happened around 1970. Art embraced revolution, or it backed away. It turned on a dying Modernism, or it sustained old forms through hard times. It took refuge in irony, or it legitimized sincerity after years of formalism and pretence. It opened the doors to outsiders, or it became an industry unto itself. Oh, and do not forget something about women.

Definitely do not forget women. Two themes have come up again and again recently—feminism and that earnest, scorned, and transitional decade, the 1970s. "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" not only combines them: it sees an explosion of women's art and activism as reenergizing art in bad times. A transition has become a revolution. But can a revolution in art still take hold? Marina Abramovic's Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (courtesy of the artist/Sean Kelly, 1975)

Looking backward

One needs all those alternative accounts of the 1970s to keep the issues straight. One needs them to keep up with exhibitions in just the last year or so. Museums have been recovering a decade. At least they hope to do so. They had better. Remember the story they are fighting.

Typical histories do announce a revolution. They just happen to begin it in 1980, and it has nothing to do with the New Left. Even if Minimalism's blunt objects could not put an end to art, the story goes, the efforts of painters to work within its strictures would have done the trick. As geometry reined, women fared worst of all. Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell survived, but they worked on the terms of the big boys. Nancy Holt trailed one of them, Robert Smithson, with a movie camera.

Eva Hesse offered a glimpse of alternatives, but she died along with the 1960s. Painting's last gasp in Neo-Expressionism only marginalized women that much more, the story concludes, in the face of big gestures and equally large male egos. Finally, around 1980, women themselves helped declare the death of modern art. With Kiki Smith and East Village art, they celebrated essential feelings. With Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and so many others, they turned instead to appropriation and censorship. In between, they had only frightening statistics and anonymous postings from the Guerrilla Girls.

"WACK!" includes Hesse and Sherman, although not Francesca Woodman or Mira Schor. They mark endpoints for the female gaze, and "WACK!" has to stretch for them. More interestingly, a visitor has to search for them. This show runs every which way but chronologically, for it is all about continuity. The revolution, it says, began earlier, gathered slowly, and never let up. It is an exhilarating message, and it makes me wish I were half as optimistic.

It rewrites history most by refusing the search of an ending. Sherman and her new wave certainly appeared to change the rules. It had to include photography, but photography had to include found images from advertising or art film, and those images had to include a real woman at the very center—perhaps the artist. She looks at once ordinary and iconic, demanding and in the process of transformation.

Lo and behold, not far from Sherman's sampling and just a few years earlier, Lynn Hershman is gradually transforming herself in black and white, too, in the guise of Roberta Breitmore. Another sequence on the theme of identity transformation takes a corridor upstairs, by a collective identified only as Valie Export. Audrey Flack's poses after Marilyn Monroe supply another ancestry for Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, but with reference to Flack's blackness. So in another sense does Adrian Piper in her notebooks as art. Hershman's photographs of the 1960s anticipate Laurie Simmons, too, by replacing a woman's head with a camera, although I did not see that on display. Regardless, "WACK!" argues for looking back.

Wacking off

The show's argument builds on clusters and discoveries like these, as well as on sheer numbers. The artists, all one hundred twenty of them, spill over P.S. 1, although they have to pare back to two floors come spring. Olafur Eliasson and his science experiments will get the largest spaces as part of a survey at MoMA, including the basement film room that plays extended interviews with Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager. He will also take the two-level chamber given over to a large, blood-red fabric. It looks equal parts bold, forlorn, and damaged—a covering for a woman, the extension of a woman, or the absence of a woman. Marina Abramovic has folded, crusted, and slit it like a damaged heart, perhaps her own.

The larger first-floor wing starts right in with the theme of continuity. Near the door, Mary Beth Edelson pastes the faces of famous women over equally famous paintings, such as The Last Supper. The work steels one for further hectoring, and sometimes it arrives, like advertisements for the revolution. The exhibition title alone announces a blow against the male establishment. It also derives from various acronyms for half-forgotten feminist and antiwar collectives of the 1960s. And the curator, Connie Butler, includes artists and collectives from as many countries as she can—or, in the case of Sylvia Sleigh's A.I.R., a tribute to the history of a collective.

It sounds like a recipe for tedium. In fact, it sounds exactly like "Global Feminisms," the overwrought exhibition of contemporary art last year in Brooklyn. It includes Judy Chicago, whose Dinner Party welcomes one into the Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center. Like the Brooklyn show, too, it has more than its share of raw flesh. However, unlike "Global Feminisms," it covers a period more comprehensively and far less sentimentally. It has well-known American artists and their best-known works alongside less-familiar names from further afield, and it takes that idea of fluid identities seriously.

Early on, one stumbles on Alice Neel— a figurative, even conservative painter. Before one breathes a sigh of relief too quickly, though, the context gives her an ideological role. As a painter of women family members in a state of undress, the older artist both depicts and embodies mother, daughter, or sister. A room or two later, Maria Lassnig paints in much the same style. In other words, sisterhood is powerful, but not always predictable. As one might expect from a title out of the comic books or a pun on masturbation, "WACK!" has room for irony.

Each wing has a theme, but a loose theme, and one has to find it and state it for oneself. Perhaps in line with the ideal of collective action, the museum walls do not let on. Neel, Edelson, and Sherman occupy the large first-floor wing and the most disjointed one. One might call it the image of woman as historical and cultural fiction. Martha Rosler supplies her collage of ads from the 1960s, Ulrike Rosenbach her Venus to the tune of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Betye Saar her Aunt Jemima, and Lorraine O'Grady a beauty queen by the name of Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire. Pattern, decoration, and echoes of traditional craft start here, too, with Joyce Kozloff's tiling and a wonderful recreation of Faith Wilding's Crotcheted Room, the white fabric crossing like an abstract drawing, a warm blanket, or a spider's web.

Sex and violence enter here as well, decades before a group show announced "The Brand New Heavies"—perhaps from the moment someone else is looking. Here one encounters Chantal Akerman's personal histories and Lynda Benglis's performance with penis. Joan Jonas and Barbara Probst surround themselves with mirrors, while Ana Mendieta presses them into her flesh. Threats are lurking, as with what resemble stocks for punishment by Colette Whitten. Still, the artists assume at least some responsibility for letting go. Mendieta's work in gunpowder shares a room nearby with Nancy Spero, and for once she does not dismember a single chicken.

Fascist feminists

In the other large wing just overhead, the performances continue, but here with the artist not as found image but as sculpture or brute fact. Here Mary Kelly lays out her Postpartum Document. Here Abramovic brushes her hair, Rebecca Horn strokes herself with feathered hands, Carolee Schneemann pulls a feminist monologue out of her vagina, and Shigeko Kubota creates a drip painting with hers. "WACK!" prefers a woman alone rather than, say, Abramovic in collaboration with a man, Ulay. However, along with a fly crossing her naked body and a black dress gradually snipped away, Yoko Ono has a video directed together with John Lennon. The camera closely trails a young Austrian women through a graveyard and homeward, until the two-man crew changes in her eyes from co-conspirators to stalkers.

Another section has fluid abstraction, most notably Bourgeois. Another adds up to a kind of vaginal psychedelia, from Judy Chicago to Miriam Schapiro. Another has, perhaps, formless formalism, including Hesse, Benglis's poured Latex, and Mary Heilmann. I cannot imagine the collision of new and old forms and media in "Global Feminisms." Even here, though, the work refers to physical constraints and personal exposure. Louise Fishman scrawls "Angry" over and over, Senga Nengudi turns stockings into distended breasts, and a near abstraction by Joan Snyder centers around her crotch.

Conversely, although one wing gets overtly political, it has a few soft edges. Along with Prostitution Notes from Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, Nil Yalter's transnational prisons, and a couple of large murals in the style of Diego Rivera, Marta Minujin and Richard Squires invite one to enter quite another kind of confinement. Built of mattresses, it has aspects of both comfort zone and prison. The show's concept means that few artists have room to themselves, rather than as part of a de facto collective. However, exceptions round things out, including a pretend horror film by Sally Potter and Hannah Wilke's laugh-out-loud Intercourse Answering Machine. Her warning to "Beware of Fascist Feminists" mocks the rhetoric of contemporary talk radio years in advance.

Why the 1970, and why, as I proposed at the start, so many versions of it? In part, the trend comes with age. When Dia:Beacon opened, Michael Kimmelman in The Times declared Minimalism the "greatest generation," just as Abstract Expressionism had bolstered the status of American art before. A couple of years later, Richard Serra and Brice Marden get their turn. In part, too, however, people are wondering how art did not just survive those years, but end up spanning several hundred galleries in Chelsea alone. In different ways, "Summer of Love" at the Whitney, "What Is Painting?" at MoMA, and the abstraction in "High Times, Hard Times" at the National Academy all wanted to know.

"WACK!" has another answer—and not just about women. Because it sees women as always on stage, even when making art, it has a particularly strong collection on performance and video. One does not often see four works by Yoko Ono in succession, as with "The Riverbed" in 2015, and it pays to wander from room to room until one gets a fair sense of it all. At the same time, the show prefers answers at home in today's less than revolutionary art world. The last time a show took over all of P.S. 1, it was "Greater New York," a boost for emerging artists. Like "Global Feminisms," it speaks to a time of greater interest in other cultures, but also of global markets.

The very idea of continuity rather than conflict goes down too easily for my taste, and it comports with today's marketing of art as well. The show can feel way too large, where a simple gallery show last year with many of the same works, "Role Play," brought out better a generation navigating irony, formalism, and underexposure. It can even feel too small, without space for the survivors that I mentioned or for the nasty confrontation of the Guerrilla Girls. It has no interest in artists trying to reinvent Modernism from the ground up, such as Jennifer Bartlett, Valerie Jaudon, Dorothea Rockburne, or Elizabeth Murray. Still, the show, which originated at MOCA in Los Angeles, has an interest of its own, and Butler has now joined P.S. 1 herself. After so much sprawl, tendentiousness, and creativity, she should fit right in with the streets of Long Island City.

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"WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" ran at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through May 12, 2008, but with some events, four film interviews, and one sculpture through March 16 only. A related review looks at "We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women."


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