How the Feminist Revolution Changed Contemporary Art

By Roger Malbert

The Art Newspaper, No. 184, October 2007

Two major American surveys of women’s art opened almost simultaneously this year: “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (4 March-16 July), and “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn Museum (23 March-1 July). Something is in the air, in the US at least, and After the Revolution, an anthology of essays on 12 contemporary women artists by four women critics and curators, contributes to the consciousness-raising, revivalist mood. With an introduction by Linda Nochlin (who is co-curator of “Global Feminisms”), the book provides lucid accounts of the careers of three generations of artists, ordered according to their dates of birth, starting with the nonagenarian, Louise Bourgeois, and proceeding to Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Marina Abramovic, Judy Pfaff, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Ann Hamilton, Shirin Neshat, Ellen Gallagher and concluding with the 30-year-ol painter Dana Schutz. Most of these are household names in Britain as in the US and their work represents a cross-section of what are described by the authors as post-modern, pluralistic forms of practice, ranging from installation and performance to electronic texts, video, photography and (relatively) straight painting and sculpture.

This variety begs the question: what, apart from the fact that these women are all artists of the first rank who enjoy critical and commercial success and international reputations, do they have in common? What distinguishes them from male artists working in similar veins?

Linda Nochlin disposed of the essentialist fallacy in her 1971 essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” and she reiterates the point in her introduction here: no “subtle or summarizable ‘essence’ of femininity” unites the work of these artists; what they have in common is “originality, invention, complexity, and a certain oppositional stance”. Those qualities can, of course, be found in many male artists too, and it is easy to imagine a seamless extension of this list to include Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Paul McCarthy, William Kentridge and numerous others, all of whom have “created new formal languages to express intensely new ideas”.

But the point is not to distinguish women artists as uniquely capable of a certain kind of originality and inventiveness. In singling them out, the authors “hope the cumulative weight of their individual achievements may help to demonstrate an underlying institutional shift, during the past 35 years, which has helped make possible these artists’ critically successful and sustained careers”.

The aim then is to evoke the spirit of the feminist “revolution” that made this shift possible, and to remind younger women artists, who may take for granted that their gender is no obstacle to success, of the struggles and achievements of previous generations. The artists chosen are all outstanding—one or two are truly “great”—and their number could have been multiplied without dilution of quality. This in itself confirms the argument: and it might therefore be asked whether segregating women artists as a distinct group is not in some ways retrograde. The book’s title has a romantic ring of triumph and nostalgia, which perhaps need to be qualified for non-American readers. No doubt a similarly impressive anthology of women artists in Britain could be assembled without difficulty; but who in this country would refer to a successful revolution in the past 35 years—other than Mrs. Thatcher’s?

Real progress has been made on both sides of the Atlantic, even if the authors calculate a significant discrepancy in favour of men when it comes to solo shows and monographs (in the US). The astute selection of artists in this book reminds us how essential their contribution has been; contemporary art would not be the same without Jenny Holzer’s insistent, unsettling “truisms”, or the increasingly grotesque charades of Cindy Sherman, or the aggressive intensity of Marina Abramovic’s performances, or Ann Hamilton’s olfactory installations, punctuated by a solitary figure silently performing some laborious task, or Louise Bourgeois’s grand obsessions. Whether the “institutional shift” in the art world has been commensurate with their achievements is another matter.