Most people who remember the glory days of feminism in the 1970s think first of the consciousness-raising sessions, of Betty Friedan and Kate Millett and of Jane Fonda in a shag-helmet haircut. But if you spend much time in galleries and museums, you know that feminist ideas roared through the art world too, at a time when it was even more of a boy's club than it is today. How much more? Until 1986, H.W. Janson's History of Art, the standard college text, did not include a single woman among the 2,300 artists mentioned in its pages. That year it was revised to admit 19.
Nobody is saying the word equality yet, but a lot has changed since then, a lot of it thanks to women artists and scholars in the '70s who proved that art was women's work too and could go places the guys hadn't taken it. Nudes with a woman's point of view, works that use household arts like weaving, videos and photographs that ask what gender is all about in the first place--there's plenty of that around now, some of it even made by men, all of it indebted to the feminist explosion of three decades ago.
Suddenly, this has become the year to look back on all that and take stock of the ways feminist ideas have entered the bloodstream of art for good. Not only are there big, boisterous exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York City, but on March 23 feminist art's most resolute artifact, The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, goes on permanent display in a specially constructed gallery within the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Say what you will about it, that it's middlebrow, elementary and literal-minded (which it is), but as a vessel to express a collective longing to rescue great women from oblivion, The Dinner Party has held its ground. In the absence for now of any better contenders, it's the Liberty Bell of women's history.
And what is it, exactly? A table in the form of an equilateral triangle. Along each of its sides are 13 place settings--think Christ and his 12 disciples--each assigned to a significant woman from legend or history, from "the primordial goddess" to Sojourner Truth and Georgia O'Keeffe. The table rests on a triangular white ceramic-tile floor that bears the names of another 999 women painted in gold. And on the plates? Most of them carry more or less vaginal images, some merely painted on the plates, some rising in high relief. In a world that has seen The Vagina Monologues, not many people will be shocked to hear that an artwork might focus on women's genitals. But in 1980, when The Dinner Party went on a hugely popular national tour, all those pudendal things caused some people to take a deep breath. As late as 1990, when a proposal was made to house the work on a Washington campus, Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan could still denounce it in the House as "ceramic 3-D pornography."
Dornan is gone from the House. And The Dinner Party is handsomely installed at its new home in Brooklyn in a darkened triangular enclosure with reflective glass-lined walls. Designed by Susan T. Rodriguez of Polshek Partnership Architects, the space isn't as much a gallery as it is a shrine. (Can we get something like this for Michelangelo's Pietà?) And the work itself? The Dinner Party has been compared to the AIDS quilt, which seems right--up to a point. The quilt is a genuine piece of collective folk art, whereas The Dinner Party, though it required the work of roughly 400 volunteers, is still guided by Chicago and her unsteady taste, skills and judgment. But like, say, the World War II Memorial in Washington, it speaks to feelings so powerful you can almost forgive its shortcomings as art.
Chicago, who was born Judy Cohen in 1939, started out making big minimalist sculptures and hard-edged abstract paintings, some of them quite good. But in the early '70s, under the influence of feminist thinking about personal experience, she took a turn into work that was confessional, therapeutic and maudlin. In The Rejection Quintet from 1974, color drawings similar to the vaginal emblems she would use for The Dinner Party are combined with hand-lettered texts describing various personal humiliations. The drawing is adequate, the sentimentality nothing short of Victorian.
It was also in 1974 that she started work on The Dinner Party. It took Chicago and her volunteers five years to produce. A good part of their labor was devoted to the elaborate cloth runners, the real glories of the piece, that commemorate centuries of anonymous women's crafts. Each of those features needlework and decorative techniques--quilting, braiding, embroidery--appropriate to the woman whose plate it sits beneath. But even those runners can't rescue the plates, which are literally heavy handed. And the work's overall appeal to pious sentiment can remind you sometimes of the most hectoring kind of patriotic art. In a way, The Dinner Party is feminism's version of Washington Crossing the Delaware--or it would be if Washington had made the trip with his fly open.
As it happens, feminist ideas were the force behind some of the smartest, most powerful art of the past century. You're reminded of that all through "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution," a pinwheel of an exhibition that runs through July 16 at the Geffen Contemporary outpost of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. "Wack!" which was curated by Cornelia Butler, starts with a bang. It's called Abakan Red, a coarsely woven, more or less circular bolt of red cloth. Suspended from the ceiling almost to the floor, it was made in 1969 by the great Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, an early adopter of "humble" women's crafts like weaving as high-art techniques. She also understood how abstract images could be adjusted until they hinted again at something human. So the quasi-vaginal slit that runs the length of her piece shifts it from the realm of mere geometry to something much more intimate. And the scale, roughly 13 ft. in diameter, makes it not so much a thing as a place, enveloping and pulsing with red life. That's a lot of psychic reverberation for one piece of humble cloth.
"Wack!," a hugely enjoyable show, immerses you in the plucky, unfettered atmosphere of '70s feminism. After centuries in which men had the last word on how women's bodies were seen in art, it was finally the turn of women to see what to make of themselves. So Ana Mendieta, a Cuban refugee, traveled around the U.S. and Mexico making deep impressions on the ground in the shape of her silhouette. These she filled with rocks or flowers, making feminist earthworks that used a woman's body, not the steam shovels favored by the guys, to connect with nature.
The energies of that moment subsided, but they never died out. If it hadn't been for all that weaving and sewing, for instance, the embroidered work of Egyptian artist Ghada Amer would be hard to imagine--to say nothing of Mike Kelley's stuffed-animal art. That's the point of the other big, smart new show "Global Feminisms" at the Brooklyn Museum. Organized by Maura Reilly and art historian Linda Nochlin, it concentrates on art made since 1990 and demonstrates that the concerns of the '70s have spread around the world. Jenny Saville's big nudes, for instance, with their masses of battered flesh, are descended from the questions women asked then about the abuse of women's bodies. There's even a residue of feminist thinking in Study of a Boy 1, a haunting photograph by the German artist Loretta Lux, in which a woman's gaze inspects, or "studies," a wary little man in the making. Feminism lives--and in mysterious ways.
As an inspirational and pedagogical device, The Dinner Party has a long life ahead of it too. For generations of schoolkids it will offer a first encounter with the honor roll of women's history. Who can argue with that? With luck, some of those kids will go on to discover O'Keeffe, Agnes Martin and Sally Mann. Or Kara Walker, Janet Cardiff and Kiki Smith. There are some names in there you don't know? Look them up on the Internet. You can bet a few smart kids will. That's how they'll find out how much more art can do.