Los Angeles Exhibit Shines Light on Women in Art

A new major exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles called "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" includes works from 117 artists from 21 countries. The show explores the years between 1965 and 1980.

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Despite advanced degrees and years of work experience, women are still under-represented in the higher echelons of business. The co-called glass ceiling is as much of a problem for women in the fine arts. NPR's Laura Sydell visited what is considered the largest display of feminist art ever in the United States and explored the journey women artists have taken over the decades.

LAURA SYDELL: In the 1960s, women were generally not accepted in the workplace, nor were they welcome in the art galleries unless it was as the subject of work by men. Artist Judy Chicago remembers the words of a potential financial donor.

Ms. JUDY CHICAGO (Artist): I needed $1,500. I can still remember him saying, well, if you were a man asking me I wouldn't give it to you because it would be degrading. But since you're a woman, I'm going to give it to you. And I had to sit there and decide, do I want to take the money and finish my piece or do I want to punch him in the face?

SYDELL: She held her tongue and took the money. Artist Monika Meyers(ph) says the world wasn't much different in Mexico City. All of her professors were men and few women were mentioned in the art history books.

Ms. MONIKA MEYERS (Artist): I was in a class and my fellow students said that women were less creative because we gave birth, which I thought was not just kind of stupid, but very unscientific.

SYDELL: It was into this world that the feminist art movement of the 1960s and '70s was born.

Unidentified Female #1: Okay, those who do not have ear pieces...

SYDELL: Last weekend the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, or MOCA, ran out of amplifying devices for a tour of its show WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. The show documents work between 1965 and 1980 and includes well over 100 artists, several of whom were there for the tour. Many told stories of how their art was poorly received. Mary Kelly's piece, called "Post Partum Document," which was displayed in London in 1976, is a detailed account of the first five years of caring for her son.

Ms. MARY KELLY (Artist): And when I kept the dirty nappies, as they say in England - the dirty diapers here - it caused a huge outrage.

SYDELL: Kelly says "Post Partum Document" and her other works on display, which use text and film, comment on the invisibility of women's labor.

Ms. KELLY: That try to understand what women's lives were like at that time and what it meant to look after children and the whole - all of the problems about domestic labor, for instance.

SYDELL: Many pieces in the show explore the female body. While some of the work is no longer controversial, other pieces probe expressions of female sexuality so explicitly that they continue to provoke. Tracy Wolverton(ph), who worked with the Lesbian Arts Project in the 1970s, told the large group of people on the tour how they were very consciously using art to break down all kinds of barriers for women.

Ms. TRACY WOLVERTON (Lesbian Arts Project): One of the things that's so important to know about feminist art is that art and life were no longer these separate things. We were changing our lives as we were making the art.

SYDELL: The MOCA exhibition has the sense of a sprawling romp through 15 years of exploration and inquiry into self - history, gender roles, sexuality, community, identity. That same exploration was brought to the materials and forums used to make art. There are collages, film and video documentation of performances, pieces that use latex, hair, rubber, mattresses, string, and there are traditional paintings and drawings that challenge the male point of view.

Sylvia Sleigh, now in her 90s, remained a figurative painter throughout. But her piece "The Turkish Bath" stirred up controversy anyway. It's a satirical painting of male artists and critics in a bath depicted in the traditional way that women had been, as objects of desire.

Ms. SYLVIA SLEIGH (Painter): (Unintelligible) desire part is the object, which is not really nice, and I wanted to paint men in a way that I appreciated them and they were dignified and intelligent and nice people.

SYDELL: This international show is unprecedented in its scope and size, says Catherine Lord, a writer, artist and professor of studio art at University of California at Irvine.

Professor CATHERINE LORD (University of California at Irvine): Nobody's ever put these objects and these video works and these documentations of performances in the same room so that you can look at the relations between the work to see what the work actually does, what it's like.

LAURA SYDELL: While the work in the show varies in quality, the exhibition's curator, Connie Butler, believes the feminist art movement was the most influential force in art in the last 50 years. She says the forms and themes taken up by many of today's most successful artists, male and female, owe a debt to these women.

Ms. CONNIE BUTLER (Curator): The arts that I was the most interested in were referring rather directly to this work: Jeanine Antony(ph), Beverly Simms(ph), Bob Gover(ph), Matthew Barney. And I felt that all of us kind of collectively were looking back at this period without any real knowledge of what had gone on and with a sort of, you know, searching around for information.

SYDELL: While some artists in the exhibition are little known today, others have recognizable names: Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, the filmmaker Sally Potter, and Louise Bourgeois, just to name a few. Others were less successful. Still, their impact is felt by younger artists.

In response to the show at MOCA, students at the California Institute of the Arts, known as CalArts, are organizing an exhibition of their own feminist work. Last weekend dozens of students hung art, put up installations and rehearsed performances in the school's atrium.

The work on display is certainly influenced by the artists of two and three generations ago. Alana Mann(ph), a 26-year-old MFA student, is one of the exhibition's curators.

Ms. ALANA MANN (Curator): There are some pieces in our show that are drastically different than work that was made then, and then there's some pieces that are very - you can see a very clear connection.

SYDELL: The connection can be seen in a video by Lindsay Foster in which a woman in a kitchen is relentlessly combing her long hair. In a series by Angie Cardone(ph) of weapons knitted from wool. Still, Mann says many of her contemporaries are uncomfortable calling themselves feminists.

Ms. MANN: The art world's a pretty conservative place, and so if you call yourself a feminist, you tend to get blacklisted by a lot of people.

SYDELL: Mann says many young women feel they don't need feminism because they believe they have their rights. Artist Judy Chicago is probably best known for her work, "The Dinner Party," which is an immense, triangular table with place-settings of the names of historically important women. Chicago thinks these young artists may have a rude awakening in their 40s.

Ms. JUDY CHICAGO (Artist): It's like a glass ceiling. It's just exactly like it is in the corporate work. It's no different, actually. So it's deceptive to young women because at entry level, it looks like there's no problem.

SYDELL: While more than 50 percent of art-school graduates are women, there's little disagreement about the fact that they are under-represented in major museum collections and as subjects for retrospectives.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, less than 20 percent of the collection is work by female artists. The MOCA exhibition may be a sign that there is renewed interest in feminism among artists. Earlier this month, there was a sold-out symposium on the topic at MOMA in New York. The Brooklyn Museum is about to open a center for feminist art, and many of those artists would agree that the revolution that began in the 1960s is still underway. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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