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Claiming Space is a small, carefully curated exhibition with a big heart and ambitious agenda. It makes a compelling argument that feminist artists working in the late sixties into the early eighties had an enormous role in defining and expanding what constitutes feminist culture, and that any history of the period—social, political, cultural, or art historical—is woefully incomplete if these artists are not fully integrated into these stories. The history of this period and the art of the nineties simply does not make sense otherwise. There are nineteen artists represented in the exhibition, including major works by Judith Bernstein, Judy Chicago, Betsy Damon, Mary Beth Edelson, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, Yolanda Lopez, Howardina Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Carolee Schneemann, May Stevens, and Hannah Wilke. Sandra Orgel Crooker, Nancy Fried, Valerie Jaudon, Jane Kaufman, Joyce Kozloff, and Cynthia Mailman round out the roster of artists represented in Claiming Space.
Viewers are invited to think about the “space” curators Norma Broude and Mary Garrard are claiming for feminism in several layered ways: first, a place at the table; then in the histories and in the ongoing discourse. The heroic scale of many of the objects in the exhibition is yet another way of claiming space.
The exhibition opens with three monumental works that announce some of the show’s significant themes: Ringgold’s Die (1963–67); Schapiro’s Big Ox (1970); and a group of drawings, photographs, and a test plate for Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979; now permanently displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art). With her lament for the violence against both blacks and whites, women and men of the Civil Rights era, Ringgold reminds viewers that feminism was born out of this struggle, stating in the catalogue, “I wanted my painting to express this moment I knew was history. I wanted to give my woman’s point of view” (46). Schapiro’s Ox series is equal parts Minimalism and the fleshy body-centric imagery writ large that is such a significant marker of this era’s feminist art. And then there is an unexpectedly intimate view of some of the processes Chicago employed in creating the Dinner Party: collages, drawings, and a porcelain test plate for the Virginia Woolf place setting. The central core imagery announced in Schapiro’s Big Ox became the generating iconography of Chicago’s work. Seeing them together in this way makes clear their formal and conceptual congruence—one that extends beyond differences of intention, message, or style.
The exhibition installation—in the new and agreeably open-form spaces of American University’s Katzen Art Center—created many such conversations among works that at times were hung in separate rooms, but that could be seen across and through various gallery spaces. Stevens’s Soho Women Artists (1978), featuring Louise Bourgeois fitted out with her multi-breasted latex suit, echoes Damon’s costume of cloth bags displayed in a nearby large photograph of her street performance as the 7,000 Year Old Woman (1977). Similarly, Stevens’s full-length portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi (1976)—which she was working on at the time—is painted into her Soho Women Artists, and appears nearby in a large photograph of its intended location, the Sister Chapel (1978). And then, rounding a corner, Stevens’s flag-draped Top Man (1975), from her “Big Daddy” series, unexpectedly appears to “respond” to Ringgold’s The Flag is Bleeding (1967).
These visual correspondences help tie together the exhibition’s several themes: The Personal Is Political, The Theological Is Political, Feminist Art and Social Protest, Power and the Gendered Body, and Pattern and Decoration. To borrow the metaphor of the spider web from Broude and Garrard’s catalogue essay, it is possible to imagine the feminist impulse at the center, with the various themes expanding out, interlocking, and reinforcing each other. In this setting, Wilke’s video performance Through the Large Glass (1976) and Bernstein’s Five Panel Vertical (1973) mock the glorification of the phallus; Lacy and Labowitz In Mourning and in Rage (1977)) attack the destructiveness inherent in such male entitlement; Chicago, Schneemann, and Fried raise very different questions about female erotics; and Schapiro, Pindell, Jaudon, Kaufman, Kozloff, and Chicago emphatically celebrate the decorative, the luscious, and the sensuous. It is worth noting here that it is a rare treat to see Schapiro’s spectacular Anatomy of a Kimono (1975–76)—a centerpiece of the show that has not been seen in the United States since the late seventies.
Altogether, Claiming Space gives a clear overview of the contributions made by U.S. artists to feminist art of the seventies and eighties. It coheres well as an exhibition; that is to say, the curators succeed in making their points visually. In this respect alone, the show is in marked contrast to both the omnibus WACK! exhibition and the Global Feminisms show that inaugurated the reopening of The Dinner Party at the Elizabeth Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007.
The accompanying catalogue has forty-eight illustrations, all but five in color, and a thoughtful, broad-ranging essay that takes up the “essentialism” debate first given voice in the seventies and eighties and that still seems to have an afterlife in the new century. Specifically, Broude and Garrard respond to the catalogue essayists for WACK! and Global Feminisms, arguing that, “It is unfortunate that the tensions that emerged in the 1970s between feminist women of different races, real and significant as they were, have in recent decades been discussed more than the fragile gender solidarity of the early feminist movement, because that solidarity held, and holds, the only real political potential for women’s equality” (11).
Claiming Space joins WACK! and Global Feminisms to celebrate the various landmarks and anniversaries of the women’s art movement. The Feminist Art Project (TFAP)—describing itself as “a collaborative national initiative celebrating the Feminist Art Movement”—is an invaluable clearinghouse for this and other feminist exhibitions and events worldwide. It should come as no surprise that curators Broude and Garrard are also members of TFAP’s Honorary Committee.
Associate Professor Emerita, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland College Park