Tag Archives: Womanhouse

Hey Jill Soloway who you going to get to play me on your Womanhouse series?

It took a while for the full implications of a small item I read in Robin Pogrebin’s “Inside Art” column in the Times earlier this month to sink in, “Judy Chicago Does TV.”  The first sentence–“An artist isn’t typically rediscovered at 77”–fit into a category of historicization of women artists that I have commented on frequently, as recently as in a blog post here a few days ago. The article continued, “But that seems to be what’s happening to Judy Chicago of “The Dinner Party” fame, who is now going to be represented by Salon 94.” That Judy Chicago, whose work “The Dinner Party” occupies the most square footage of museum real estate devoted to a woman artist that I know of, at least in the United States, and who has been in the public eye and in feminist history for nearly 50 years, is one of these older women artists who are being “rediscovered” struck me as odd, but, OK, I had noticed recently that she has been showing in Europe, and so perhaps “rediscovery” translates here to that fact that a certain layer of the European art marketeriat is paying attention to her for perhaps the first time.

However the core of my dismay centered on the next paragraph, “Jill Soloway, creator of the acclaimed television series “Transparent,” is also making an Amazon series based on Womanhouse, the 1972 feminist art space that Ms. Chicago organized with Miriam Schapiro.”

Some younger women artists I know posted this news on Facebook saying how “AMAZING” it is. I appreciate their enthusiasm for this signal artwork of early seventies American feminist art, for Jill Soloway as someone focusing on pressing gender and trans issues in her popular series Transparent, and in general for anything feminist to get attention in popular culture.

But, I beg to differ: I was a participant of the project Womanhouse and I find the prospect of a dramatization of it something between violation and farce.

This blog post is to try to examine my own reaction and, though I speak for myself, I write with knowledge of the reaction of a number of the other women who worked on Womanhouse, some of whom I quote below, which boils down to WTF.

First the inference of the article is that Judy Chicago is the principal advisor of this project, and therefore that it is her version of Womanhouse and her views and memories of the other participants that will dominate the narrative. That is disturbing. Why? There is no question that Chicago was the co-director with Miriam Schapiro of the CalArts Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse from 1971-1972. Chicago had created/taught/directed the first Feminist Art Program the year before at Fresno State. I highly recommend the section of Gail Levin’s biography Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist that covers that year of Chicago’s most radical pedagogical experiment, it is inspiring and provocative, and having worked with her and Schapiro in the CalArts program I can vouch for the fact that although our program was pretty radical, the Fresno program was ten times more so. Thus the importance of that Judy Chicago is absolutely paramount. Nevertheless, the idea for Womanhouse came from art historian Paula Harper, and was driven as much by Miriam Schapiro’s ideas, goals, dreams, aesthetic views, and ability to proselitize and fundraise for the project as by Judy’s vision for it. Also, and of course paramount to my own sense of violation, Womanhouse was a collaborative project with 20 young women students from the Program and three or four other unaffiliated women artists from the LA community working on installations, paintings, and performances, emerging from consciousness raising sessions and discussions. In a short, difficult, and intense period of time everyone involved worked to bring the project Womanhouse to fruition for public viewing in the month of February 1972.

The students who participated in the CalArts Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse included some of the women who had worked with Chicago in Fresno, the rest were women who had self-selected to join the CalArts FAP in the fall of 1971. This was a major decision for a number of reasons. First, the program was exclusionary–only women students. The program was given a very large shared studio space with a locked door–that women held significant real estate within the school was so important institutionally. The fact that the program was exclusionary meant that one’s fellow students were only women, which not all young women would find attractive socially. It also at first meant that one was somewhat cut off from the rest of the student body and faculty. Second, it was a major decision because it was not just a class, it was a program, an experimental educational program within an experimental art school, so it represented a major commitment of time, energy, political identification, and personal allegiance as well as a challenge to established views far greater than any of the other ways of challenging art that were operative at the school at that time. Being in the program was a radical statement, it was a public declaration of identification with a political movement, Women’s Liberation or feminism, which at that particular moment was gaining importance across the country but which still was an identification with social risk.

Thus the women who chose to be in the program were unusual, every one of us, even the ones who were shy and quiet  or the ones barely sane enough to function. And we were doing all this while mostly very young. Who were we, why had we chosen to do this, how did we handle the pressure?  Which ones of us went on to lives in the arts? And which ones contributed further to writing the history of Womanhouse? Does Jill Soloway know anything about this? I am told that she does a lot of research for her projects but not one of the original participants or, in the case of Schapiro, the executor of her estate, has been consulted or indeed heard a word about this project until the notice in the Times. And if Judy Chicago is her only source she won’t learn much of who we were and are and what we know,  because Chicago of course was understandably focused on herself and her own significant struggles in the situation. One of the Womanhouse participants’ said that she thought they would only need two actresses, “Judy and ‘the girl’,” another’s fantasy is that in the series “Judy is a character and everyone else is portrayed out of focus.”

On Chicago’s website, her bio page does not mention either the CalArts Feminist Art Program or Womanhouse and her gallery of images tucks pictures of her much referenced and reproduced piece at Womanhouse, “Menstruation Bathroom,” into the bottom page section “Installations and Performances,” so it takes some work to find it. Further, since that time, Judy Chicago has not been an active participant in the many challenging directions that feminist art and theory has taken in the following decades: in fact she–her ideas and her work–was a major subject of, even a cause of, but not an active agent in the very divisive battles over essentialism that dominated feminist art discourse in the 1980s and more subtly ever since.

The little squib in the Times was vague about whether this Womanhouse based series is already in production or just in development. But, again, not a single woman associated with Womanhouse–and, with the exception of Schapiro, all of us are living–has been approached for our recollections and views and our engagements with that shared history or, for that matter, for what we might feel about this dramatization, how each one of us might balance pride in our participation in an important historical work with a sense of possessiveness or privacy about our experiences of it.

Second, it is very common in such dramatizations of real events and docudramas about famous people to focus on only a few characters that represent specific people. Thus, for example, if this Womanhouse series is an actual dramatization of the actual project Womanhouse, Soloway couldn’t get away with creating a composite character to stand in for Miriam Schapiro because she is a well documented historical figure, although some people in the know feel that Judy has done her best to erase Schapiro from the history. The struggles between the two women were visible at the time including in video documentation of the time. But it is their collaboration that creates that particular event in history. However, once past Mimi, it is likely that many of the rest of us would be lumped into generic composite characters. You know, the kind who hang around the great artist’s studio wearing period appropriate clothing and have one line, like “Pablo, that’s really a masterpiece.” In Gail Levin’s biography of Chicago, I believe I am referred to as “a strange girl from New York.”

Well, as it happens, I don’t see myself as a composite character: for example although probably I fit the bill more than I would like, I don’t think I’m the generic Jewish girl from New York. Since I hope Jill Soloway will see this text eventually, I’d just like to say that I happen to think that I’m a pretty unique and complex figure. Also, of the students who were in the CalArts Feminist Art Program and who worked on Womanhouse, I’m one of the ones who has become, with Faith Wilding, a historian of that time period. But the point is that each one of us was a specific and unique person–our choosing to be in the Feminist Art Program alone being evidence enough of that. That was one of the most important gifts of being part of that program and project, getting to know a number of exceptional and unique people with very different backgrounds from my own, but each with a perhaps atypical relation to her own history for having chosen to participate in a revolutionary program. If one is able to see Lynne Littman‘s 1972 KCET document  Womanhouse is Not a Home in particular as well as the better known and distributed film by Johanna Demetrakas, Womanhouse, you get to hear many of the young student participants speak about their intentions and desires for their installations but not every woman is interviewed and anyway even that doesn’t give you the full information about each person’s background and what drew them to the FAP. Looking back I’m not sure any of us knew all about why each of us had joined up for though we learned a lot about each other since close friendships were formed and self-revelation in consciousness raising sessions was encouraged in the search for feminist subject matter; nevertheless there were also centrifugal forces that spun us apart, in the tumult of a small group and of a revolutionary moment.

That this was a revolutionary project and moment is embodied in the reaction of yet another of the Womanhouse participants: “it makes me think about how there is nothing that cannot be capitalized, commodified, and HBO-ized.”

Third, most people who find that something they lived through is the subject of a dramatization must feel quite bemused or perturbed by the strangeness of that experience, and by the knowledge that not even  the greatest director can possibly recreate the truth of a particular moment in time. If, as a viewer, you yourself have not actually lived through the moment, you can enjoy it no matter how removed from historical veracity. Who hasn’t watched all kinds of preposterous actors play the Kennedys? Maybe even Jackie Kennedy secretly watched some of them. If you know anything about the time period of a dramatization of a historical moment, there is a sort of kick of watching both the characterizations and reconstructions as well as catching the inaccuracies, the compressions of narratives, and, yes the composite characters: Ed Harris’ Pollock, Selma Hayek’s Frida, and Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt are very creditable examples of the genre, but there are always those moments that seem inauthentic, if you know anything about the subject, especially if the character is a composite type and not the depiction of a real person, however reductive and distorted.

Fourth, so really, if it turns out that I will be or have already been written in as myself, the character Mira Schor, age 21, who can play me? I realize that I am not much up on young women actresses at this point. Over twenty years ago I had a pretty good idea: in an envelope (currently lost) that I painted, in which I cast myself and the artists associated with a gallery I was represented by, I cast Judy Davis as myself, not that I look like Judy Davis but her characterization of George Sand in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu (pure fiction at least if you look at the photograph of tubercular Frederick Chopin and compare to gorgeous young Hugh Grant, or photographs of plump plain swarthy middle-aged George Sand and compare her to slim Waspy Judy Davis but it was the Bette Davis impulse in Davis’s characterization that I responded to, the drive of intelligence and independence I associated myself with). But now, I can’t imagine. I sat with a young friend who ran through current actresses including everyone from the stars of Broad City to Emma Stone and, her first choice to play me, Kristen Stewart! Frankly I don’t see any of it. The best I can do is think of my admiration for some of the great comedians of our time–Tina Fey, Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams. Yeah, make a composite of them, and I’ll accept that person + a little Semitic New York strangeness. This will have practically nothing to do with me, but at least I will enjoy the character.

Fifth, and most important, probably I am misunderstanding the whole thing: most likely this is a series that will be based on Womanhouse, allowing for total fiction based on whatever research Soloway does and thereby handily preventing law suits. So perhaps some Semitic-looking actress portraying a scowling Jewish girl from New York or a sexy smart ass Jewish girl from New York or whatever works best for the ensemble of the plot line may float through. Perhaps imagination can create a character more cinematically interesting than my own complex self. And a Miriam Schapiro-like oppositional figure to the transformational radical pedagogue Judy Chicago-based heroine may perhaps be inserted to provide some necessary conflict. I can’t help thinking of all the survivor series, the “reality” shows that identify likeable and villainous characters for the gullible audience and that are so carefully edited and scripted to highlight the most conflict in order to maintain ratings.

The young women artists whose enthusiasm for feminism, which is so welcome, makes them look forward to this series as “AMAZING” will accept this fictionalization as reality because what other options would they have.

And why not applaud the whole thing because so few artworks by women artists are the subject of a television series or film? And, further, as an artist, I should trust in Soloway’s artistic vision and her narrative skill in re-imagining a very significant moment in the history of feminism and the American Women’s Liberation Movement–though, heads up, it really wasn’t much like that “Wimmin’s” festival in Transparent‘s Series 2 episode “Idlewild” although perhaps from the outside we were indeed just the younger versions of the women sitting around the campfire critiquing patriarchy. The casting and acting in Transparent are exemplary so why doubt that she would do a more than creditable job in representing Womanhouse?

Certainly I should recall, as a cautionary note to self, my understanding, shared by many others, that Miriam Schapiro’s desire for control of the narrative when working with potential biographers and documentarians (followed, sadly, by her later struggles with dementia) cost her in terms of historicization–for instance, Schapiro does not appear in Demetrakas’ film Womanhouse–allowing Chicago the historical field and the ground to be the one to influence this planned series on Womanhouse.

And it’s always important to remember the rule so succinctly articulated by John Ford at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a reporter is given the choice between revealing the truth of an important part of the history of the West or sticking with the story as long told, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” However, in that film, the whole story is a flashback, so we, the audience, know the legendary outcome before we learn the truth, and there is a kind of logic to the story, each of the two main protagonists “who shot Liberty Valance” is in a way a hero, so then a related ending occurs to me, of another Ford movie about the West, his 1948 Fort Apache: here the audience has experienced the story of the massacre caused by an arrogant and racist commanding officer diegetically–read Custer’s Last Stand seen from the critical point of view of US soldiers more experienced with and more respectful of their Native American enemy–so when at the end a reporter refers to the martinet as a hero, as depicted in a totally inaccurate famous painting of the event as reimagined by the winning side of history, the hero dutifully but ironically chooses not to correct the “legend,” but the unfairness is stinging.

But you never know, perhaps I will in the end find myself grinning at the contact glow of secondary fame of being in any way associated with a television series by an Emmy Award winning producer-director. Maybe the dramatization will eventually replace my own fading memories of what actually happened and what it was actually like and what I thought of it at the time. And given the simulacral aspects of contemporary life, where entertainment trumps all, that aphasic self will be a totally representative, contemporary, composite character.



I originally had planned to put a bibliography and filmography on Womanhouse here at the end of this text, but why be a goody goody? Thus I have not included any such references or pictures despite being sorely tempted to do so, except for a picture of the original catalogue.



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