From the Archives

From the Archives – Women’s Work at Smith College Museum of Art

We were delighted to see art-world activists the Guerrilla Girls on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote their exhibition at the Walker, which opened last week (on view until December 31, 2016). To round out the historical context of second-wave feminism from which the Guerrilla Girls emerged, today we bring you Lia Wilson’s review of Women’s Work: Feminist Art From the Collection at Smith College Museum of Art. This article was originally published on October 29, 2015.  

Carolee Schneeman. Eye Body #1, 1963–79; gelatin-silver print with hand coloring and scratching; 14 in x 11 1/2 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Fund.

Carolee Schneeman. Eye Body #1, 1963–79; gelatin-silver print with hand coloring and scratching; 14 in x 11 1/2 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan Class of 1953 Fund.

The exhibition Women’s Work is constructed within a historical frame. All of the included artists are introduced as individuals prominent in second-wave feminism, defined as a past era from the 1960s through the 1980s, a period with a beginning and an end. It cannot be denied that a great deal has changed in both feminist thought and social mores since then. Third-wave feminism called out the exclusions embedded in the second wave’s goals, and more nuanced and inclusive definitions of gender and sexual identity are now written into law and protected. In a 2015 interview, Gloria Steinem, a figurehead of the second wave, explained why she changed her mind about marriage. “I didn’t change, marriage changed. We spent thirty years in the United States changing the marriage laws. If I had married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost my name, my legal residence, my credit rating, many of my civil rights. That’s not true anymore. It’s possible now to make an equal marriage.”[1] With this kind of concrete change, one might expect feminist art from forty or fifty years ago to feel somewhat dated, like throwbacks to an earlier moment in a righteous narrative of progress. The work in Women’s Work is anything but that.

The exhibition groups the artworks within five themes of second-wave feminism: “Challenging Institutions and Canonical Traditions in Art,” “The Body,” “‘Women’s Work,’” “Gender and Performativity,” and “Race and Ethnicity.” Much of the work doesn’t fit cleanly into just one theme, a testament to the many dimensions of the artists’ motives and an illustration that oppression occurs on multiple, concurrent fronts. Inequity can run rampant at home, at work, and in the art world simultaneously. Such is the nature of patriarchy.

The Guerilla Girls’ iconic poster The Advantages to Being a Woman Artist remains as biting a critique now as when it was made in 1988. Statements like “Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius,” “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty,” and “Being included in revised versions of art history” continue to describe institutional conditions that keep women artists from being granted widespread cultural worth and gravitas. Certainly much more space has been made in the contemporary art world for women in the past fifty years: We can point to more monographs, museum retrospectives, gallery representation, press attention, and women in positions of power in all of these platforms. However, the ongoing, ambivalent mission to write a more inclusive and accurate art-historical record remains stalled at the doorstep of many renowned venues. Since the Museum of Modern Art’s reopening in 2004, the art critic Jerry Saltz has routinely denounced the meager percentages of works by women on view at the museum, particularly works made from 1879 to 1969, modernism’s heyday. This institution was charged with telling the story of modernism, but in the nine years Saltz tracked its galleries, its representation of women artists vacillated between 3.5 and 8 percent.[2] Some of the exclusions have been Barbara Hepworth, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, Frida Kahlo, and Yoko Ono—artists with respected practices, histories, and market worth—who are present in the collection but have never earned permanent places on the walls of the master narrative.

Guerilla Girls. The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist from Guerilla Girls, Most Wanted, 1985–2006, 1988; lithograph printed in black on paper, 17 x 22-1/8 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the gift of the Fred Bergfors and Margaret Sandberg Foundation.

Guerrilla Girls. The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist from Guerrilla Girls, Most Wanted, 1985–2006, 1988; lithograph printed in black on paper, 17 x 22-1/8 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the gift of the Fred Bergfors and Margaret Sandberg Foundation.

Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 work “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” highlighted the institutional, public preconditions for achievement in the arts and women’s basic lack of access to them. Women art students were not allowed to work from nude models from the time of the Renaissance until the end of the 19th century, “a period in which careful and prolonged study of the nude model was essential to the training of every young artist, to the production of any work with pretensions to grandeur, and to the very essence of History Painting, generally accepted as the highest category of art: Indeed, it was argued by defenders of traditional painting in the 19th century that there could be no great painting with clothed figures, since costume inevitably destroyed both the temporal universality and the classical idealization required by great art.”[3] This searing example of institutional disadvantage makes clear that being a great artist was not a role permitted for women and that the tiny band of women artists who earned success—many in their eighties, as the Guerilla Girls remind you—were aberrations, downright revolutionaries, who had a good deal of luck and a hell of lot of persistence to rise above their circumstances in order for their work to be seen at all—and then still labeled feminine. Second-wave feminism protested this kind of exclusion and patronizing interpretation, and drawing such attention continues to be essential for the foreseeable future.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973 (printed 1998); 95 black-and-white photographs mounted on foamcore with chain and dustrag; 57-5/16 x 44-7/16 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Fund.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973 (printed 1998); 95 black-and-white photographs mounted on foamcore with chain and dustrag; 57-5/16 x 44-7/16 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan Class of 1953 Fund.

Featured in the “Women’s Work” section of the exhibition, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Dressing to Go Out, Dressing to Go In is a series of black-and-white photographs hung on the wall next to a dust rag mounted to a chain. The images are of Ukeles and her children as she helps them put on sweaters, coats, and boots, a repetition of the dozens of small steps she goes through every day to get them out the door. Ukeles coined the term “Maintenance Art” for her practice, which includes performances and ephemera that show her executing a range of domestic duties: “I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, up to now separately I ‘do’ Art. Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.”[4] The simplicity of this gesture—reclaiming as her artistic practice the domestic role that society expects from her—does not gainsay its potency. Ukeles balances a realistic description of the confines of prescribed maternal roles while also empowering and redefining them as a site where art is made. The expectations of motherhood remain contentious today, when paid family leave is a pressing issue on the table in presidential debates and when the government nearly shuts down due to certain efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

Martha Wilson. Goddess from A Portfolio of Models, 1974; gelatin-silver print and typewritten text on paper; 9-3/8 x 7-3/8 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Dorothy C. Miller, class of 1925, Fund.

Martha Wilson. Goddess from a Portfolio of Models, 1974; gelatin-silver print and typewritten text on paper; 9-3/8 x 7-3/8 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Dorothy C. Miller Class of 1925 Fund.

In the “Gender and Performativity” section, Martha Wilson’s A Portfolio of Models, a series of seven photo-and-text works, further describes cultural constructions of roles for women: “These are the models society holds out to me: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, Lesbian. At one time or another, I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit. All that’s left to do is be an artist and point the finger at my own predicament. The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.”[5] Completed in 1974, this work is regarded as prefiguring the philosopher Judith Butler’s theories of gender itself as a performance, and it certainly laid the groundwork for the self-portrait practice of Cindy Sherman, among others. To say this work was ahead of its time is an understatement and undeniable. However, a better characterization may be that this work is timeless—that it describes the experience of being a woman in the Western world with an outright clarity and further underscores the importance of artists who dissent from conventions of all kinds, if only to show the rest of us what it’s like to recognize how inauthentic the normative actually feels.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973 (detail); 95 black-and-white photographs mounted on foamcore with chain and dustrag; 57-5/16 x 44-7/16 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Fund.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973 (detail); 95 black-and-white photographs mounted on foamcore with chain and dustrag; 57-5/16 x 44-7/16 in. Courtesy of Smith College Art Museum, purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan Class of 1953 Fund.

Without doubt, the creators behind Women’s Work see it as a historical show, which fits its setting in an all-female college, only recently trans-inclusive, committed to educating its populace on feminist history and theory.[6] Today, conversations about gender parity in the art world continue unresolved, misunderstandings of feminism persist in pop culture and mainstream dialogues, and an all-women exhibition, whether this fact is emphasized or not, is still considered a political choice.[7] Though no direct connections to the present are drawn by the exhibition’s curatorial strategy or in its supporting materials, all of the artworks bound forth, insistent in their messages, vital in their relevance.

Women’s Work: Feminist Art From the Collection is on view at Smith College Museum of Art through January 3, 2016.

 

[1] Jane Kramer, “Road Warrior,” New Yorker, October 19, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/road-warrior-profiles-jane-kramer.

[2] Jerry Saltz, “Where Are All the Women?” New York, http://nymag.com/arts/art/features/40979/.

[3] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Art News, May 30, 2015, originally published January 1971, http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/30/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/.

[4] Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969), featured in “‘Women’s Work,’” Women’s Work: Feminist Art from the Collection, Smith College Museum of Art, http://www.smith.edu/artmuseum/On-View/Women-s-Work/Second-Wave-Feminism/Women-s-Work.

[5] Martha Wilson, text accompanying A Portfolio of Models (1974–2008), featured in “Gender and Performativity,” Women’s Work: Feminist Art from the Collection, Smith College Museum of Art, http://www.smith.edu/artmuseum/On-View/Women-s-Work/Second-Wave-Feminism/Gender-and-Performativity

[6] Daniel Reynolds, “Smith College Now Admits Trans Women,” Advocate, May 2, 2015, http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/05/02/smith-college-now-admits-trans-students.

[7] “Panel to Discuss Art-World Gender Parity at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.,” Art News, October 16, 2015, http://www.artnews.com/2015/10/16/panel-to-discuss-art-world-gender-parity-at-the-national-museum-of-women-in-the-arts/.

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