Tag Archives: feminist art

In the September Issue of The Brooklyn Rail

This month’s Critic’s Page section of The Brooklyn Rail, organized and introduced by artist and Brooklyn Rail Managing Art Editor Kara L. Rooney, focuses on feminism and gender in the visual arts. Rooney asked a diverse group of contributors to consider the following questions:

What is it about this particular moment that has triggered a renewed interest in feminine and gendered voices? Is the recent prominence of self-identifying feminist art a sign of social progress or institutional neutralization? Is there a compelling momentum to be gained from these “victories” and if so, where do they lead us? And most importantly, why, over 40 years after the second wave banner was raised, are we still grappling with the issue of equality? What is it about the art machine that lends itself so conspicuously to the male, white perspective? And how, as women, men, trans, queer, or otherwise self-identifying individuals do we combat current (and often invisible) systems of control in a neo-liberal capitalist art world?

Because the communities of The Brooklyn Rail, A Year of Positive Thinking’s subscribers and readers, and my Facebook community don’t overlap as completely as might seem likely, here is the direct link to my contribution, “Amnesiac Return Amnesiac Return.”

*For reference to a previous, related, writing that I cite in my Rail piece, you can read “Amnesiac Return,” my contribution to the forum, “The Question of Gender in Art, Part 1,” published in Tema Celeste, Autumn 1992, here.


Interiority and reversibility

A few works on paper that I did in the 1970s are going to be shown for the first time in Four Figures, a group exhibition curated by artist Tom Knechtel at Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Beverly Hills, California, opening  Saturday July 12 through August 23.

These are part of a body of work from the mid-1970s in which the overall subject was interior language, or, coming from a more political, feminist approach, the idea that women are filled with language, rather than being empty vessels whose exterior nubile beauty as a commodity to be traded among men is the principal focus of their value in most societies.

I wanted to approach representation of women, and specifically self-representation as living inside a female body, with a mind, no longer from the point of view of figuration, whether realist or surrealist, which had been my first approach to representing myself as an agent in the world, much as a number of women artists associated with the Surrealist movement had done–I was already on that path even before I first saw works by Florine Stettheimer, Lenore Fini, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Dorothea Tanning, having found cultural permission for narrative and representation in the works of  male Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst and René Magritte as well as from early Italian Renaissance and Flemish painting, Rajput painting, and Japanese emaki–but, now, from the point of view of an interiority of thought, with the image of language as the sign for thought.


There were five groups of work done between 1976 and 1978: the first were a  group of unfolded or folded fan shapes covered with handwriting, followed by a touchstone, foundational work for me, Book of Pages in 1976, followed by a group of masks many of which kept the idea of the book so that the mask has several layers, as did a series of Dress Book pieces, and finally the Dream series, in which the image was the text of a dream handwritten in black ink, with my interpretation and associations in sepia ink. While the shapes changed accordingly, the “image” on the surfaces was my handwriting recording dreams or diaristic personal writing and in some cases directly addressing a specific person, a much bemused male muse. Some works also incorporated diagrammatic drawings. All works were made from hand-made Japanese rice papers, some diaphanously delicate and made translucent with Japan Gold Size medium which also fixed the dry pigment I used for color used as matter rather than illusion, some other paper richly fibrous and sturdy.

All the works were two-sided: each component or piece of paper was worked from both sides so that the “front” was created by material applied to the “back” in order to create the effects that underlay the writing in the “front” but in the process the brute instrumentality of the work on the “back” often ended up trumping the more intentionally produced “front,” bolder and more abstract. Because the paper was often translucent, text could be doubly difficult to decipher: my handwriting was inherently difficult to read, and  some of the text that was foregrounded was backwards, with the legible face permanently inaccessible to the viewer.

Since many of these works continued to work with the format of a book of pages that could be turned, these works were also layered dimensionally, you could turn the pages of the woman, her dress, or her face (where you might also try to lift a veil) and try to “read” the woman, but I came to writing as image at the moment when I saw that my handwriting had achieved an abstract beauty that was unrelated to easy legibility. Even the Dream pieces, one of which is in the Four Figures exhibition, though flat, were not only reversible, but sometimes contained a shape sandwiched within layers of paper so that what you thought might  be revealed if you turned the piece over never actually surfaced.



These works were difficult to categorize: though I thought of myself as a painter, as I had earlier when working with gouache on paper, in defiance of the rules left over from Greenbergian formalism in the New York School that made oil or acrylic on canvas the probative medium, these were not paintings. But though they were objects they were neither conventional sculptures, nor could they be folded into any type of avant-garde sculpture focused on the readymade. The use of ink on paper made them drawings, but aside from the occasional diagrammatic sketch, writing escaped back into the category of actually being writing, not drawing. Because the writing was personal, the private made public yet retaining its illegibility, and because the image was my handwriting as opposed to printed text as many conceptual artists used at the time and rather than being writing that was meta-generic, in the manner of Hanne Darboven‘s (or Cy Twombly’s) scrawls, and because they did not turn their back on visual pleasure, they were not dematerializations according to the interpretation of that term as codified at the time. They were materializations of thought.


They were things, intensely personal things, that for the fullest understanding and apprehension, had to be experienced not just optically from a respectable spectatorial distance but viewed/experienced by an individual, pages turned, a veil lifted, a work turned over in your hand, with perhaps a grain of pigment or even a trace of the aroma of the medium remaining with you as material traces.

Thus, though they were things, and even quite precious ones, rare and fragile, they were the opposite of art commodities. They were and are still best experienced by hand but practically for their protection they require special handling and framing, thus are hard to exhibit to the fullest extent of their meaning (in Four Figures for clarity of presentation and their protection a number of works from this period are assembled together under Plexiglas and thus only one view of each work is available, other solutions include two-sided frames or the treatment accorded rare manuscripts, in a vitrine, open to a selected page, occasionally turned).

Because of their basis in feminist desire for alternate representations of the experience of being a woman, because of their focus on language as subject and image, because of their interest in scale through accretions of modules (in this case pages), because of their seriality (though this was narrative rather than in relation to mechanical reproduction), and because of their thingness yet impracticality, making them both experiential and notional, they have always seemed to me like archetypal 1970’s art, feminist and otherwise.



*Works reproduced include a view of Book of Pages, 1976; and from the exhibition Four Figures, three views of Mask Book: Floor Plan, September 2, 1977, ink, dry pigment, Japan Gold Size medium on rice paper, front with page closed, page open, and a view of the back, which will not be visible in the exhibition; and Dreams, February 25-26, 1978, ink, dry pigment, Japan Gold Size on rice paper, c. 18″x29,” image of the side that will not be visible in the installation in the exhibition.


Ongoing Upcoming

I really felt that my mother understood me when, at the beginning of one of our many summers together in Provincetown, as I was getting the house and garden ready, I overheard her telling a friend on the phone, “You know, Mira is very busy, she hasn’t started working yet.”

When I say “my work” I always mean painting, next is writing which is part of the constant process of thinking, and the rest is just work work, job work. I always say that I can paint and write at the same time, the two occupations are complementary and mutually generative. I can teach + try to do all the things one must try to do in order to maintain a professional life, that is, all the things that make all of us say and feel that we are so busy that we have no time to think expansively, spend time with our dearest friends, or do much of anything that might be restful, pleasurable, or generative of new ideas–with a modicum of clean clothes and cooked dinners now and then–and also write, maybe, or maybe also paint, maybe. I can’t do all three, my work, writing, and the big busy of work work job work: this winter writing for A Year of Positive Thinking has proved impossible as I have prepared for a show which just opened and a conference to be held this week while teaching intensely absorbing new courses and the rest of the daily stuff that must get done from the never finished “to do” list.

I really miss writing for the blog and hope to return to it very soon. Meanwhile here is what I’ve been working on and some of the ongoing and upcoming events I’m involved with.

Exhibition: Mira Schor Voice and Speech

I hope you can see my exhibition at Marvelli Gallery in New York City, which just opened and is up until April 28th.

See “The Thing Itself: Mira Schor + Bradley Rubenstein,” a recent interview about the work in the show.

I will do a reading at the gallery April 21 at 6PM to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of A Year of Positive Thinking and will send out more information about that closer to the date.


Conference: This week on Thursday, April 5th:

Art Practice, Activism, and Pedagogy: Some Feminist Views

The conference will consider feminist art as a zone of multi-disciplinary art production associated with a radical critique of gendered power relations in society. The women artists participating will speak about their current work, their history within feminism, and the relevance of feminist identification and communities to their creative endeavors. They will discuss what it means to be a feminist artist today within an extended range of diverse political engagement.

Speakers include Susan Bee, A. K. Burns, Audrey Chan, Maureen Connor, Andrea Geyer, Caitlin Rueter & Suzanne Stroebe, Ulrike Müller, and Mira Schor. The conference concludes the first MFA Advanced Practice course in Feminist Art taught by Mira Schor in the Parsons Fine Arts MFA Program.

This event is FREE: no tickets or reservations required; seating is first-come first-served

Parsons The New School for Design Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, Arnhold Hall

55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor, New York, NY


*9AM Brief introductory remarks

*Group 1 (9:15)

A.K. Burns, Andrea Geyer, Maureen Connor

*Group 2 (11am)

Susan Bee, Ulrike Müller, Mira Schor

*Lunch break

*Group 3 (1:45pm)

Caitlin Martin-Rueter & Suzanne Stroebe (collaborative+individual presentation), Audrey Chan

*General discussion

The conference concludes the first MFA Advanced Practice course in Feminist Art taught by Mira Schor and at 4PM there will be a screening of MFA student work from the class at the Fine Arts MFA Program studios at 25 East 13th Street, 5th floor.


Also Ongoing & Upcoming:

*I have an essay in Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment published by Paper Monument. The book has gotten rave reviews including one by Dwight Gardner on the New York Times artsbeat blog. Take a look, it’s a great resource, serious and entertaining at the same time.

*CB1 Gallery at the Dallas Art Fair–with Alexander Kroll, Chris Oatey & Mira Schor, April 12-April 15

*Take a look at Agape Enterprise‘s Kickstarter Project and support Momenta Art at their upcoming Spring Benefit 2012 on April 25th at 6PM-10PM

*And do take another look at M/E/A/N/I/N/G‘s 25th Anniversary Edition, published in late 2011. Susan Bee and I are immensely proud of it and hope that readers will continue to come to the important texts by the many artists and writers who contributed to this issue. It is also available on Amazon Kindle.







A Feminist Correspondence

Just over a year ago I wrote In Memoriam: Rozsika Parker, Feminist Art Historian and activist to mark the death of the noted British feminist art historian and psychotherapist Rozsika Parker (December 27, 1945-November 5, 2010). A conference in honor of her work was held in London December 10, CELEBRATING ROZSIKA PARKER 1945 – 2010, A DAY SYMPOSIUM ON ART, FEMINISM, AND PSYCHOANALYSIS, convened by Griselda Pollock, Lisa Baraitser, Anthea Callen, Briony Fer, and Sigal Spigel, women noted for their expertise in art history and in psychoanalytic practice and theory, in keeping with Parker’s important contributions to both fields: indeed the themes of the panels cover the range of Parker’s interests: “Art Writing & History,” “Femininity & Cloth,” Between Art & Psychoanalysis,” “Maternal Studies,” “Body Dysmorphia”–all of these topics of continued central relevance to women artists and feminist practice. [update: 300 people tried to register for the conference which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the numbers of young and old from the art and the psychoanalytical communities who came to spend the day. A podcast of the entire Conference is available here.]

In honor of this conference, I would like to reprise part of my original post, which was quite short, and then publish for the first time an extraordinary correspondence that followed over the past year, between me and Griselda Pollock. I hasten to say it is extraordinary entirely due to the quality and interest of Pollock’s writing and, in my own mind, due to my astonishment to be communicating in any way with Pollock, a brilliant art historian whose work influenced me so much at a crucial time in my personal development within one of the most significant moments in the history of feminist art.

As a final introductory comment, the epistolary form can be a difficult one to read due to the episodic stop and go pacing imposed by the time frame of an exchange of letters, as well as the formal niceties of letter writing, all the flourishes that frame the heart of the narrative at hand, though when the first major epistolary form novels began to appear in the 16th century one can well imagine how much they would have appealed to people for whom communication by letter was a more extraordinary event than we might understand now as we are buried under our crowded email inboxes. Yet perhaps just now, when emails, text messages, with their presentation in thought balloon form on the iPhone for example, and Facebook comment threads dominate our communicative life, a return to an epistolary format may be the perfect format for a feminist conversation, given that the epistolary novel has a notably feminist history, with Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley using the form.

November 22nd, upon hearing of the death of Rozsika Parker, I wrote here on A Year of Positive Thinking:

I consider Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, which Parker and Pollock co-authored, one of the most important books of feminist art theory and history that I ever read: Parker and Pollock examined how art history as a discipline had misogyny at its core, almost as one of its foundational purposes, with all its terms of value strongly gendered to condemn anything that smacked of the so-called feminine, although of course behind the naturalized frame of universalist neutrality. Their second collaboration, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 was and is a great source of information about the feminist art movement in Britain, which sometimes got overwhelmed by the American Women’s Liberation Movement’s belief in its own unique importance. Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine is also a very influential and still relevant book, considering how much we now may take for granted that knitting or embroidering or weaving are acceptable media for high art, instead of being seen as crafts or as the hobby of well brought up girls or domestic servants.

Parker was a bit of a mysterious figure for all of us in the United States who admired these books because Griselda Pollock was the public figure of the two in the context of the art world and academia, speaking at many art history symposia here in the US, while Parker continued her feminist activism working as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Britain. Because it has been possible to follow the development of Pollock’s feminist ideology and aesthetic views in the books she wrote without Parker, I always have been curious about Parker’s role and voice in their collaboration and have tried to intuit it in the way one measures a black star, almost by negation, by what was not Griselda Pollock. I formed an image of a fierce feminism tempered by a compassionate focus on the work and the cultural issues affecting women, in life and in history, rather than the approach which won out in the 1980s, one that negated the “theoretical” existence of the (biologically determined) category “Woman” in favor of an interest in (socially constructed and non-biology specific) gender.

Sadly Old Mistresses and Framing Feminism have long been out of print. I hope that they can be re-issued because the passion and clarity and sheer historical data in these books would be of great interest to young women artists now.

Last February 2011 there were a number of panels related to feminism and art at the College Art Association Annual Conference in New York City, including “Feminism,” a panel co-chaired by Griselda Pollock and Norma Broude, held on February 9 at the Hilton Hotel, as well as “The Feminist Art Project: A Day of Panels” held at the Museum of Arts and Design, which included “The Problem of Feminist Form: A Talk by Aruna d’Souza” followed by a response from Connie Butler, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings, MoMA. [As an aside, but one of general significance, at all of these panels at the main CAA conference at the Hilton Hotel and the Day of Panels at the Museum of Arts and Design, the attendance was huge: at the Museum, New York city fire laws were massively flouted, as hundreds of women were jammed together with their bulky winter coats and book-filled tote bags, crowding even the aisles and standing up along any wall surface available. The high level of interest was a bracing indicator of the continued and now renewed interest in feminism and art]

I had wondered if Griselda Pollock was aware of my blog post about Rozsika Parker but didn’t get a chance to talk to her either day. But February 10 after the Feminist Art Project “Day of Panels,” I received the following email from her, which I reproduce with her permission, followed by two more emails. I have added some links within the letters for background information and edited slightly the last letter because, not having Griselda’s permission to publish this last communication, I feel it is appropriate to publish only information I can be fairly certain she would not mind being made public.

Dear Mira,

I read with interest your brief report on the sad death of Rosie Parker last November. It was so shocking to us all that she could be snatched away so very young. But you have already experienced that grief through the loss of your sister. I appreciated your comments a a great deal as I wanted to affirm that Rosie was the original and powerful force in creating a feminist art writing shall we call it in Britain. She began alone writing her reviews for Spare Rib making it up as she went along. I keep thinking back now to what it was she gave me and what she enabled us to do in writing Old Mistresses. Collaboration is such a remarkable experience as neither party can claim authorship for what only happens when two people openly explore together, bringing their differences into creative play and each discovering their special resources and abilities only in the safety of an often hilarious as well as tough experience of pushing back the very limits of patriarchal authority which imposes such shame and fear on our minds as much as on our bodies. In your blog you rightly captured what it was that Rosie gave us and me in terms of making me a feminist writer on art: that things mattered deeply and seriously and that art touches on things that matter to us as we live them. That was what saved me from a bloodless and remote art history which i still cannot inhabit. But I wanted to correct one thing if I may: the shift from the engaged and passionate feminism that matters to real lives and real embodied people into the social construction of gender of the 1980s is both true and unfair. True I think in American academe in which intellectual women could not break through the internal shame police and made themselves respectable through a kind of intellectual transvestitism which prefers the social construction of gender because they then never have to deal with the messier aspects of our compromised and ambivalent bodies and sexualities. I began in the 1990s to engage with the work of Bracha Ettinger sharing with Rosie the continuing fascination with a feminist reworking of psychoanalysis – she went into it as a practice, I into its metapsychological domain. I remain interested in what we do not yet know about the realm of actual femininities and women’s lives and bodies and minds and what the more theoretically suggested notion of the feminine as a resource for non phallic thought, art and being might be. It is almost impossible to speak this in public without being booed off the stage or treated indulgently as a mad and embarrassing woman. I am not sure that we share similar positions on ‘woman’ or women; but I know that you too have battled against a kind of intellectual disowning of the feminine/the female, women. Ettinger is theoretically extremely difficult and arcane coming through what she has to say via Lacan and those whose works provide her with a means to insert a radical feminist rethinking of the meaning of the feminine. It is difficult to bridge the realms of everyday experience and the esoteric languages of philosophical analysis and certainly psychoanalytical theory. I know I do not succeed and people find my texts difficult and even excluding as they are written from within a realm of theoretical work few inhabit. I try to maintain some kind of deeper responsibility to bridge the realms or art and theory where important work is being done and the ordinary readers not able to spend a lifetime entering into their specialist ways of thinking and writing. I have functioned as an interpreter for Matrixial theory but I constantly find the American art historians blocking me with their discomfort with any discourse that assumes that there might be meaning in being a woman, however that has come about, or as I think Ettinger is saying that’ the feminine’ as she conceptualises it as a primordial gift of the ethical ability to share with an unknown other, to co-emerge into a coaffecting humanity.

I just wanted to respond to your very insightful blog about Rosie’s feminism> Her last book was about body dysmorphia and the agony caused by this dislocation of person and body. She taught me so much to engage with what really matters and that is about suffering, pain and the strange ways we have of negotiating both. She wanted to make things better through her work and her writing, through exploring difficult issues of love and hate and reflecting upon how she fostered the emergence of feminist art writing and thinking and shaped me as a feminist thinker, I go back to that. Yet I want to find a way not to be pigeon-holed as a theoretical Brit, a social constructionist. I never understood gender theory anyway since I was always in the psychoanalytical camp of exploring subjectivity and sexual difference. At the MoMA Feminist Futures it was Linda Nochlin and Anne Wagner who disowned by daring to say that the feminine has something vital to say to our worlds, futures and us.

Perhaps we share the fate of being not the mainstream of whatever has become hegemonic feminism: but to me it is not feminism at all. Feminism is about constantly questioning ourselves and daring to stay with what we find most difficult and uncomfortable long enough to work it through: no policing of correct thinking or orthodox positions. This is one of the vices I see in US academe: I am constantly told that what I am still thinking through is over, old hat, out of date. yet we hardly started on this vast project.

I am organizing a commemorative conference in London on 7 April for Rosie and I would like to reference your blog if I may as a way into really remembering and recognizing her groundedness in what matters for women and that art matters and art that is not about what matters matters very little.

Excuse this long screed. Yrs with best wishes, Griselda

Anyone who has ever admired someone from afar will understand the degree of my astonishment at this letter. It took me a few days to answer, writing to her on February 14:

On 14 Feb 2011, I wrote:

Dear Griselda:

Thank you for your touching and quite amazing email. First of all and above all I am so glad that you found my piece on your friend Rosie, and I’m honored that you would take notice of my really very humble attempt to mark her passing. I was in the audience for your introduction of your part of the panel on Friday and was very moved by your dedication of the panel to her and, sitting next to my friend and frequent collaborator Susan Bee, I felt very keenly the importance of a friend with whom you not only share experience and intellectual discovery but also with whom you create something in collaboration.

Upon reading your email to me I returned to my brief text to figure out why you should feel in any way that you would need to defend to me your position in the 80s on some of the theoretical and political ideas about gender and feminism that were, it is true, extremely divisive and occasionally maddening. So I just want to say how important your writings have been to my second education in feminism, in the 80s, when I had to sink or swim in a new theoretical situation quite different to my first in the early 70s.

It was a very contentious polemical time –once the 80s were over I sometimes referred to them as the decade from hell but on the other hand it was an incredibly interesting time — the disagreements were vicious and with genuine real life consequences (jobs and shows or not depending on what side you were seen to be on) but at least the arguments were over ideas, not like now when the market often dominates or subsumes discourse!!! I did feel that I ended up on what was perceived as the wrong end of the argument, or rather, that I was perceived as being on what was considered the wrong side, it always bugged me that I was consigned to the second class of “essentialist” — a bugaboo my sister and I both struggled with, although in my case the problem was compounded by my being a painter and one who did seem to work with difference (not sure which was worse, since painting, as I came to understand, was itself seen as essentialist).

As I think I can see from your comments, and as I experience myself, the divisions continue, somewhat the same though masked by new terms and conditions, with all the possibilities for (and exploitations of) misunderstandings that Sharon and Miwon seemed to underline yesterday. [I arrived at the very tail end of Connie’s and Aruna’s conversation, due to total stoppage of several subway lines because of what I later learned was the tail end of a murder spree, so I wasn’t clear on the issues you addressed in your response from the audience].

Griselda, I don’t know if you read my piece on Rozsika on The Huffington Post or on my blog A Year of Positive Thinking. I cross-posted the same piece since each site reaches a very different audience.

I designed my blog without a comments section, in part because I think they are unsightly and also because they are often too vicious. But I wonder whether you would consider letting me publish your email on my blog along with information about and a link to the commemorative conference you are planning for April–edited as you would wish, but I hope you would not feel the need to edit it too much because it is so insightful & touching about the nature of collaboration and so interesting as to past and present debates over gender and the feminine, and, as always, brilliantly written even as an email. It is really quite an extraordinary document and I continue to be astounded to have it addressed to me. On the blog I would recall my previous post on Rozsika (don’t feel I can call her Rosie but will think of her as such) with a link, would present your email as an extraordinary response, and give some information on the conference on her with a link to it if there is one. Do let me know if you would consider this. I hope you will.

And thank you for remembering my sister. That means a great deal to me.

All the best,


I didn’t hear back from Griselda for several months, until September 1, 2011:

Dear Mira,

I am so sorry for the long silence in reply to your email. Many things got int the way of our organizing a conference about Rosie. At last we have got this planned for 10 December 2011 in London. Details are below. I really like the idea of including my reply on your blog to open this all up a bit. I have no money for this event at all. But I wondered if we could circulate your piece on Rosie in the event or include it in some form, for instance you reading it – a digital recording or even a dvd recording as it would really add to the debate so much to have some transatlantic feminists involved.

I wonder what you think or we could read it out with a painting by you on the screen.

There are so many issues raised in your reply as well – notably about painting. What irritated me at the CAA event […]’s exploration of the question can painting be feminist as if this had never really been raised. It was a big issue with the usual misunderstandings in the later 1980s and early 1990s in Britain and Hilary Robinson wrote powerfully about women and painting as did my beloved friend Judith Mastai in Canada. Katy Deepwell was involved as was Rebecca Fortnun. I find myself now writing about painting amongst the many other practices and I felt once again the typecasting of British feminism and the fixing of boundaries and camps at the CAA – instead an openness to constantly revisiting the very varied landscapes of feminist thought and practice and building on bodies of debate.

The good news is the Old Mistresses will be reprinted in a new edition with a new preface sometime next year so that Rosie’s words and inspiration will be back with us again.


all the very best Griselda

My thanks to Griselda Pollock for her permission to reproduce this correspondence and my best wishes to all the participants of tomorrow conference in London.




MoMA Panel: “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now”

The overall atmosphere of Friday’s symposium at MoMA, “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now,”  was more low key than the 2007 MoMA symposium The Feminist Future: Theory in Practice in the Visual Arts. Although the museum claimed the event was sold out, the auditorium never seemed completely full and the overall sense of buzz was subdued, curbed also perhaps by a certain atmosphere of self-censoring professionalism and politesse that was one of the underlying threads of the event in keeping with its focus on art institutions — art institutions in general and MoMA in particular.

MoMA Curators on the Modern Women's Project, May 21, 2010

This was summed up in the third and last event of the day when eleven women curators and Associate Director of MOMA Kathy Halbreich sat at a long dais, with curator Connie Butler and others joking it looked like the Last Supper. Halbreich quipped that however Judas was not invited! She seems like a big personality, warm and funny, with a little looser sense of how things could be done. She noted that 24 out of the 35 curators at the museum are women. For several years women curators working with the encouragement of the Modern Women’s Fund established by benefactor Sarah Peter have been meeting on a regular and intensive basis to reevaluate the collection, go through the museum’s archives in order to discover what work by women artists the museum does own, seek out the gaps in the collection, target acquisitions, and organize exhibitions of work by women artists in all media in an effort to normalize the display of women’s participation in the history of modern art in an incremental manner rather than in a one-shot total museum square footage WACK! or elles@centrepompidou model, to reassess their own canon on a longer-term basis (see my recent post, Stealth Feminism at MoMA).

According to Roxana Marcoci, Curator, Photography, these curatorial discussions and initiatives emerged from a desire for greater transparency within the institution; she described the participants’ organization as non-hierarchical and cross-generational. The nature of this feminist work had forced departmental boundaries to be breached  as researching work by women forced a greater transdisciplinarity. Marcoci said that. before, “departments functioned like Federations,” and Barbara London, Associate Curator, Media and Performance Art, said that before this women’s initiative they were bureaucratized by medium but now there was much more interdepartmental engagement. I wish there had been more time to develop this point further, that is, why looking for women in the collection would impose the necessity to transcend departmental fiefdoms and to what extent now common ideas about collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and the non-hierarchical are part of the legacy of feminism’s critique of monolithic patriarchal power. Marcoci also noted that the curators involved in these weekly meetings “didn’t have the power of governance but of thinking,” and that they “created intellectual capital for the institution to redefine canonical narratives.” I think she was the one who said also something funny, that it was no longer a “become like me and I’ll respect your difference” kind of  situation but something more open.

The curators noted the importance of Kathy Halbreich’s role in emboldening them in their efforts on this project and in “creating peripheral vision broader than vision.” But Halbreich’s response disclosed part of the problematic of women striving to insert a feminist discourse and investigation into a major institution: she said that when she first arrived she had gone around and asked each person “what do you want to do?” and then, leaning in, “what do you really want to do?” She gleaned from this exercise and reported to museum director Glenn Lowry that there was “a lot of self-censorship going on in this organization, do you want to keep it this way?” She said that he gave permission for her to give permission. That feminist activism is often dependent on permission from a more or less enlightened or benevolent individual or set of individuals in an institution is one of the well-known ironies of the history of feminist art in this country certainly: you have the example of Dean of the School of Art at CalArts Paul Brach inviting Judy Chicago, working with Brach’s wife Miriam Schapiro, to bring her feminist art program from Fresno State (Chicago’s Fresno program enjoyed an aberrant degree of autonomy for a state institution) as well as the counter example of the Women’s Building which Chicago co-founded with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven precisely to create an institution where women would do everything and owe nothing to male power or agency.

This question of permission is both the positive and negative side of the whole story: better to get the permission — which can only come from an activism brewing from below anyway — than not get the permission. But any freedom or rights based on patriarchal noblesse oblige or realpolitik can be withdrawn when it serves the institution, which is why continued vigilance and activism are always necessary. Some might take issue with the idea that it is better to get that permission and get some feminist action in a dominant institution such as MoMA but I think it all has to happen all over all the time and over and over again (over and over because feminism has tended not to have a good institutional memory, even if you take into account that we live in an ahistorical time).

Nevertheless, despite the notion of needing institutional permission for feminist activism and clearly having to work within the rules of a large and uniquely important and self-important institution, it was evident that things really had changed in terms of the institution’s sense of responsibility to women artists’ contribution to the history of modern art, in all fields. Here was a cohesive group of highly capable, intelligent, dedicated women who were involved in a long- term concerted development project.

On the other hand there were also indications in the three panels that some things don’t change, that many struggles for and within feminism are ongoing.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Frankfurt Kitchen, Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt, Germany (reconstruction). 1926–27. Various materials, 8’9” x 12’10” x 6’10” (266.7 x 391.2 x 208.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art.

Even on the panel of curators, I occasionally wondered how much history of feminist art was in play (or how much rediscovery of the wheel in the midst of sophisticated curatorial practice) when the curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin was speaking about a show opening next fall Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen. The kitchen was a contested site, she said, a space of projections. Her enthusiasm was so great the other curators teased her about it but the first major scene of Johanna Demetrakas’ 1974 documentary film Womanhouse came to my mind, the participants talking in 1971-72 about their consciousness raising sessions on the kitchen as a gender-coded site in preparation for a collaborative installation within the actual former kitchen of the house, during which the diverse and conflicting associations the kitchen evoked were discussed in order to develop artworks: for some it was the site of domestic warmth, for others a locus of primal hostility and danger. The kitchen is a contested site, well yeah …

Robin Welsch et al, Womanhouse, Kitchen, detail, 1972

As further evidence of how little has changed in the world of feminism, several speakers mentioned the continued problem posed by the very term feminism, which mostly boils down to the fact that other people don’t like it, therefore it unfairly ghettoizes women who have the justifiable ambition to be seen as operating on as broad a field as anyone else (the male universal where true success exists). On the first panel, “Collections and Exhibitions,” Camille Morineau, curator of elles@centrepompidou, made it clear that the show was accomplished despite considerable resistance from her male colleagues and superiors. She said that despite the fact that French feminist theory (de Beauvoir, Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous et al) has been so important outside of France, “the word feminism is still completely taboo in France. ” Thus a certain amount of deception about the goals of the exhibition had to be built in to its planning: in fact, it was a guerrilla process, “a feminist gesture that could absolutely not appear that way.”  (As an aside, the show by March had clocked in over a million visitors!). Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society, pointed to reluctance on the part of Asian women artists to being associated with feminism or women’s issues, despite clear evidence in their work, at least to western feminist eyes, of engagement with just such issues as well with many of the tropes of feminist art — the body, nudity, woman as sexual commodity, personal experience, domesticity —  — not all that different than the many women in the US who will say they are not feminists but who support many of the elements of what might be considered a feminist agenda and certainly no different than all the women in the western world who do not want to be considered feminist or even women artists but just artists.

Tania Bruguera began her talk on that familiar note, “I am not a feminist artist.” Marina Abramovic began her talk at the 2007 Feminist Future with the exact same statement, different accent, so my ears pricked up . But Bruguera walked that statement back and forward in a vivid, smart and funny way. She had the audience roaring with laughter, which is so great and so feminist, just the sheer joy of seeing things as they are and speaking out fearlessly. Her comments and her activism are always contextualized and her presentation of her various decisions was hilarious: she announced that she had developed a list of career rules, the first was that she would never sleep with a curator — big laugh– well she did once in 1995 — bigger laugh; never sleep with married men (a recent decision — another big laugh); would try to acquire power — said she does not want to react to power but create power; would do the work she wanted to do without thinking of what it meant for feminism. She made the decision that it was more important to be a strong feminist woman rather than a feminist artist. She asked all the men in the room to stand up. About 5 guys stood up in MoMA’s largest film auditorium. If they were straight, they should sit down. That left about 2 guys standing. How many were there for other reasons than having worked on the forthcoming MoMA publication, Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art? I think that left no man standing. “I’ve made my point.”…  And she is right about that: for the thousandth time, why is it that most men think anything regarding feminist art is of no concern to them? Since so much contemporary art by men owes such a debt to feminist/women predecessors, in terms of content, form, and materiality, and so much now fashionable institutional critique has its roots in less fashionable feminist critiques of power, the question becomes ever more absurd.

Other good presentations included Catherine Lord’s very interesting statement on queering the classroom. I look forward to this being online, which I assume it will eventually, perhaps on ArtOnAir.org, which archives many MoMA events. However, fair warning, the afternoon panel “Pedagogy and Activism,” on which Bruguera, Lord, and Indian performance artist Sonia Kuhrana appeared was derailed [warning, we’re going negative for a minute] by a performative but, to my mind , manipulative and self-indulgent, action by Michelle Wallace, who was to be the final speaker on that panel, who was not there when her turn came (and the Oscar goes to, —- … awkward silence, anxious whispered discussion amongst the hosts … —- could not be here tonight so the Academy accepts the award for —-) so the audience was treated to a twenty-minute long silent, amateurish Powerpoint presentation about Wallace’s family and her mother Faith Ringgold‘s work, at the exact end of which, surprise surprise, Wallace wandered down the aisle, and was then given the opportunity to ramble on further (she was “late” because she was so moved/upset/something by a show at the International Center Photography that she had overslept — it was 3PM). ..One thing crosses gender borders: the bad boy or girl always gets more attention. Proof of that, some younger women thought it was the best thing. (I walked out briefly but am glad I went back in to hear the curators’ discussion.)

The photo curators had mentioned that for the first time they had been able to organize a comprehensive survey exhibition on the history of photography solely through the work of 120 women photographers in the collection of the Museum, perhaps because from its inception photography was a more democratic medium and thus more accessible to women (and most likely also, because of the relatively lower cost of acquiring photography, easier to acquire in depth particularly in the earlier years of the institution). There are indeed many wonderful photographs representing major movements in the history of photography in Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, including this self-portrait by Ilse Bing, the woman artist in the act of looking at herself looking, owning and refracting the gaze.

Ilse Bing. Self-Portrait in Mirrors. 1931. Gelatin silver print, 10 1/2 x 12" (26.8 x 30.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York