Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 25, 2007
Lisa Gabrielle Mark, ed. WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution Exh. cat. Los Angeles and Cambridge, MA: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in association with MIT Press, 2006. 512 pp.; 475 color ills. Cloth $59.95 (9780914357995)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Contemporary Art, Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles, March 4–July 16, 2007; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, September 21–December 16, 2007; P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York, February–June 2008; and Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia, October 4, 2008–January 18, 2009
Magdalena Abakanowicz. Abakan Red (1969). Sisal and mixed media. 157 1/2 x 157 1/2 x 137 13/16 in. Courtesy of the National Museum in Wroclaw. Photo courtesy of Magdalena Abakanowicz.

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution is an international survey of artworks featuring radical subject matter, experimental processes, and aesthetic activism from the women’s movement. This exhibition is one of the first major retrospectives of women’s artwork from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It also includes performance documents, interdisciplinary projects, and journals that reflect the many different political responses that gender discrimination provoked in the seventies. Since that decade, we have come to call this social revolution “feminism.” And like the social movement itself, this extensive collection of “early feminist art” reflects the complex set of issues and identities, alliances and factions, as well as the critique of inclusion and exclusion that continues to haunt this public inquiry and debate.

What the women’s movement asked the public to question are collective ideas about the social conditions and conditionings of “women” that create and maintain their minority status in contemporary societies. “Feminism at-large” is thus a contested and complex grouping of ideologies and activism. With its signature proclamation, “the personal is political,” the women’s movement asked us to acknowledge the complexities of our lives with a critical rigor that blurred the boundaries between private and public life. Although this slogan would become more focused on individual identity formations in the 1980s, throughout the seventies the actions of the women’s movement often worked in concert with civil rights, gay liberation, anti-war, and other counter-culture movements to challenge the underlying politics of Western social conventions that marginalized and oppressed others. Perhaps this is what the collection of women’s works that WACK! brings together demonstrates most clearly.

As these women activists raised consciousnesses and expanded their interdisciplinary social inquiry to include distinctions of race, class, and sexuality, representational inequities surfaced within the feminist ranks. Activist factions began to splinter off and form alternative allegiances. Fierce clashes arose between those who embraced the sexual revolution and those who opposed pornography, between lesbian and heterosexual politics, and between women of color and the white middle-class feminists who were more visible and vocal in the movement at large. Although some may think that this fragmentation signaled how feminism failed, the complex critical inquiry that gave birth to this fragmentation is perhaps the most important legacy that the feminist revolution still offers. In this sense the failure of feminism continues to be its most successful legacy. For even as feminist social inquiry mapped contested grounds of omission in modern Western culture, the artists of the women’s movement performed a series of critical interdisciplinary practices in the seventies that have expanded the Western artistic canon in ways that this exhibition allows viewers to acknowledge and celebrate. And this is what WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution has to offer—the opportunity to see a large selection of artworks that perform a series of feminist interventions. As constructed by Cornelia Butler and her colleagues, WACK! makes the connections and contestations mentioned above palpably present within and between works without an overriding perspective that resolves their conflicting histories. These multiple histories and the uncanny relationships that emerge within the context of this exhibition are underscored by a group of insightful essays by Marsha Meskimmon, Richard Meyer, Catherine Lord, and others in the robust catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

Yes, as others have pointed out, WACK! is problematic. Yes, the title, WACK!, is not really an acronym. Yes, even as the collection gestures to include artworks by women of color and from outside the United States, the white Euro-American stars dominate. Yes, the presence of particular coalitions, like the contingent of aesthetic projects that displays lesbian politics, is almost obscured by the way works are dispersed throughout the show. Yes, the sheer quantity of works can be overwhelming. This aspect of the exhibition is compounded by the fact that each work requires a certain amount of engagement and critical reflection by the viewer. And the ubiquitous “press a button to select a film/video work” presentation encourages surface gazing to a public that has become used to shorter and shorter media messages. And yes, because the curator selected only women’s artwork from the seventies, one might say that this body of work remains “ghettoized.”

Exhibitions are selected collections, and, similar to archives, they are inherently political, no matter how inclusive we might wish them to be. What is not often present in a major archive of feminist art are the conflicts and coalitions that produced effective critical engagement and different activist networks throughout this particular political and aesthetic revolution. WACK! accomplishes this by juxtaposing artworks while refusing to impose an overriding didactic that seeks to resolve the inherent tensions between projects or to historicize the work within an evolutionary developmental paradigm. In this manner, the exhibition takes its cue from the artworks it contains, operating like an open text that invites the participation of the reader to establish meanings. “Art and the Feminist Revolution” encourages the viewer to make intimate associations across the thick, overlapping social terrains of the women’s movement.

As set up in the MOCA Geffen, WACK! is a dense but surprisingly spacious labyrinth of art objects and documents created by over 125 women and women’s collectives. The exhibition brings together a plethora of early video/film works, sketches, diagrams, collages, sculptures, paintings, and other documents of performance and interdisciplinary actions rarely seen outside specific research libraries and personal collections. The works are loosely arranged in thematic areas without distinct boundaries, so that one theme bleeds into the next. Aside from a discreet pamphlet that lays out the thematic structure, there is no specific map to follow as one wanders through this remarkable warren of interrelated artworks. While the arrangement may feel chaotic to some, others may find that it encourages unusual visual conversations between works and with viewers making their way through the installation.

WACK! is so expansive that I cannot adequately provide a full description of, or even summarize, the many engaging works presented. The abundance of materials collected and their volatile arrangement create proximate relationships and allow peri-performative statements to emerge that can be somewhat jarring as they interact with a more generalized memory or impression of the women’s movement. My own journey began in front of the enormous red materiality of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s textile sculpture, Abakan Red (1969), which hangs above the main entrance of the installation. From the abstracted body of that work, I turned toward the tactile traces left behind by the performing bodies of Lorraine O’Grady in the supple texture of her white kid-glove dress from Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1981) and Ana Mendieta in the long bloody hand trails left behind on a video screen of Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks) (1974). Reflecting on the corporeal memories that these disappearing bodies evoked, I meandered through the “Goddess” section and up some stairs into “Family Stories.” Several parts of Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–79) stretch out across a long wall whereon the absent bodies of mother and child are vividly present in the socializing details and labors of motherhood. These are works I have only seen reproduced in books. I find myself engrossed in the details and the ways in which the project accumulates meaning. Behind me, on the video screens of “Labor,” are many images of women talking and doing. Putting on a pair of headsets I can hear the voices of the workingwomen that the Berwick Street Film Collective interviewed for Nightcleaners (1970–75).

Leaving this video viewing station, I stop to look at a group of women’s journals collected and displayed in a vitrine. A sense of historic purpose and action attends my conscious reverie as I step down into the collective bodies represented in Judith F. Baca’s mural, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, Farewell to Rosie the Riveter (1973–83 and ongoing), and the posters of Spiderwoman Theater (1976, 1977) and “Where We At” Black Women Artists (1980/2007). Next to these are the “Social Sculptures” of Lygia Clark, Mónica Mayer, Suzanne Lacy, Cecelia Vicuña, and others. The corporeality of this set of works resides in the actions and memories of a collective body. From one to many, from critical reflection to social action—my trajectory through the exhibition began with projects that absent the body in some way so as to highlight the social conditioning that makes a woman’s body have historical meaning. It was from this heightened state of critical inquiry and reflection that I moved into the installation of intersubjective works I am much more familiar with and more easily identify as feminist artwork.

If one can tolerate the anarchy of abundance and complexity and the different yet parallel politics of the artworks collected for WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, one will begin to appreciate the far-reaching influence that feminist inquiry tenders. As Meskimmon astutely suggests in her catalogue essay, a retrospective like WACK! provides an opportunity to chart new and different cartographies through the manifold histories represented in the aesthetic interventions of this generation of women artists. The unstable boundaries of WACK!’s presentation made for some very complicated interactions and associations that gave me further insight into the work of these artists and the work of this pivotal social movement.

Carol McDowell
PhD candidate, Department of World Arts and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles