After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art

By Patricia Briggs

Rain Taxi, Review of Books

Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota (VACUM)

Vol. 13 No. 1, Spring 2008

After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art offers a series of original essays devoted to a wonderful list of artists—Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Marina Abramovic, Judy Pfaff, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Ann Hamilton, Shirin Neshat, Ellen Gallagher, and Dana Schutz, written by prominent critics, authors, and curators Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott. This book, as well as the exhibition at Dorsky Gallery in Long Island and a public panel at The New School which accompanied it, grew out of an experimental spirit that genuinely seeks to stake out new terms of inquiry on the topic of contemporary women artists. The authors are well aware of the fact that gender, the body, and sexuality have become the stock and trade of a whole generation of artists who work with these themes and concerns without necessarily politicizing them in feminist terms. How to approach the issue of women artists in today’s climate? What questions do we need to ask today? One pressing yet familiar question arises in the introduction of this book: do women artists today stand on a level playing field with their male counterparts in terms of the attention they receive from museum and gallery curators—this being an indicator of their professional success and market value?

The status of women in the contemporary art world has obviously undergone enormous change since the early days of feminist activism in the arts. In 1971, Linda Nochlin, in a sense, investigated this question when she wrote her pivotal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, and argued that institutional structures have created obstacles for women, leading to the devaluation of women’s art as a category. One legacy of the work of feminist scholars like Nochlin is that today’s women artists are able to succeed, even hold positions at the forefront of the art world. After all, didn’t Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu and Jenny Saville quickly gain prominence after making their debuts in the early 1990s? Does the meteoric rise of a handful of contemporary women artists really translate into women’s equality within the market overall?

While difficult to track, sales are a gauge for the professional success of artists, and the purchasing patterns of private and public patrons can be linked to solo exhibitions. Accordingly, the authors of After the Revolution carried out a study analyzing the number of male and female artists who received solo exhibitions in representative museums and galleries in New York City. Tracking an increase in exhibitions of women artist from the 1970s through the 1990s, the results of this study are nevertheless startling. During the 1970s influential galleries mounted solo exhibitions of women 11.6 percent of the time. During the 1980s the percentage increased to 14.8. The percentage increased to 23.9 during the 1990s, when it peaked.

Today, the percentage of solo exhibitions for women artists has slipped to 21.5 percent. The statistics on solo shows in New York City museums are slightly better overall for women artists, but they fall into the same pattern. During the 1990s, solo shows for women reached 30 percent; yet since the turn of the century this number has dropped, with women artists receiving only one out of four solo shows in New York City Museums. Some questions, it would seem, still need to be asked, and clearly some institutional obstacles are still in place for women artists.

The authors of After the Revolution might have stressed the obvious lack of curatorial parity and the attendant market value it implies in their study of the New York City art market by offering a rant about continued subordination of women artists. But they didn’t. Reminding us that being a woman continues to be an obstacle within the art market, the authors instead focus on the positive aspects of the more welcoming landscape for women in the arts today, where new—some might say post-feminist—outlooks have integrated women and issues of gender into the dominant narratives and conceptual frameworks of art history and art criticism. In essence, they attempt to embrace this new conceptual field, where feminist analysis is not prescriptive, does not stereotype, is not essentialist, and does not impose an intrusive language of theoretical hocus-pocus.

But how can this be done? How can these authors embrace a new conceptual field that has been reformulated by feminist and postmodernist concerns while using the (now) well-worn category “women artist”? It’s a bit like fitting a round peg into a square hole. Aware of the theoretical difficulties—the potential to stereotype and essentialize that comes with the category “women artist”—Heartney et al. argue for the value in simply “look(ing) back at the last thirty-five years of art-making by a small number of key figures to gain a better understanding of how artworks by women have shaped the art of our time.” It is useful—“illuminating”—they argue, to simply look at the accomplishments of key figures with a fresh eye and to “take stock”.

These are interesting propositions, but carrying them out proves difficult. This is the case for example with Nancy Princenthal’s essay on Elizabeth Murray and Helaine Posner’s essay on Ann Hamilton. So mired in description and listing of works, these essays dull the luster of the artists’ projects rather then making them shine more brightly. Thus, some attempts to offer a fresh way of looking (that is, non-essentializing) in After the Revolution do not produce the hoped-for “illumination.”

However, many of these essays do offer enlightening views. Posner’s essay on Nancy Spero weaves a lively account of Spero’s personal views, her life, and the political and critical context for her work into a rich narrative that allows the reader to see the artist’s aesthetic development—her growth from a position of protest toward a utopian point of view—in a new light, at the same time that it ties Spero’s figurative style with artists like Kiki Smith and Lesley Dill, to whom she is normally not compared. Sue Scott’s essay on Dana Schutz presents an artist who is young enough that many readers may not be familiar with her work. Schutz is a figurative painter who might more immediately be contextualized within the tradition of expressionist painting. However, by placing the artist’s brightly colored figurative tableaux within the context of women’s art history, Scott links them with issues of identity and embodiment in ways that might otherwise be missed.

Particularly insightful is Heartney’s essay on Cindy Sherman, where many of the artists’ projects are discussed in light of their original commission for fashion magazines. Heartney  reviews the key theoretical concepts linked to Sherman’s work during the 1980s and the 1990s, yet points out that the artist’s critical reception often did not correspond with her own thoughts about her work. Suggesting instead an impulse toward play that corresponds more closely with Shermans’s own remarks about her creative process, Heartney pushes aside the now canonical critical veil which has fossilized around Sherman’s photographic projects. Heartney’s revision of Sherman’s well-known images in a sense makes them new again, and her success here advances the idea that established figures like Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman, whose work has received great attention over the years, are truly ripe for fresh eyes and a fresh read.

In short, all the authors assert, as Nochlin herself does in the foreward, that:

"Whether they are “great” or not is beside the point. There is something stodgy and fixed about the very word “great,” something that smells of the past and tradition…For the women artists considered in this book, it is vitality, originality, malleability, an incisive relationship to the present and all it implies…that is at stake, not some mythic status that would confine them to a fixed, eternal truth."

There can be no doubt that over the past four decades, feminist criticism and the work of women artists have had a revolutionary impact on artistic practice. Today art takes shape, as these authors argue, “after the revolution.” With this book, they set out to reposition our approach to contemporary art in light of this post-revolutionary context. Although a few of the essays included in After the Revolution never quite get lift-off, one cannot help but be impressed with and inspired by these authors’ gutsy attempts at proposing a new method and a new way of contextualizing the work of contemporary women artists.