The following article was first published by The Democracy Chain in September 2022.
Currently on view at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, “52 Artists: A Milestone” pays tribute to “26 Contemporary Women Artists,” a landmark feminist exhibition curated by Lucy R. Lippard in 1971. All but three of the original twenty-six artists are presented alongside an additional cohort of younger female-identifying contemporaries. “52 Artists” has a vertiginous quality, bridging respective time periods while tracing the roots of the feminist movement in art. Lippard’s original show coincided with her “beginning to wrestle with the notion of a ‘women’s art.’” While the 2022 expansion prioritizes the diversity and nonbinary feminisms absent from the feminist discourse of half a century ago, the context of the two time periods feel disconcertingly parallel. Lippard observes this as well: “As Micol Hebron has pointed out with her ‘Gallery Tally,’ things are not really that much better; plus ça change … And with national reproductive rights and voting rights on the cliff’s edge at this writing, feminism in and out of art is still threatened by retro-ideologues.”
Another 50th anniversary exhibition, “Wo/Manhouse 2022,” is currently on view in Belen, New Mexico (south of Albuquerque) at Through the Flower Art Space and a nearby mid-century home. The group show’s precedent, “Womanhouse,” was co-organized by the founders of the Feminist Art Program, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, around the same time (February 1972) as Lippard’s first all-woman show. Schapiro’s and Chicago’s iteration emerged from an institutional gap when the California Institute of the Arts was unable to supply a new building to Schapiro and Chicago’s Program. In response, students and faculty took over an abandoned 75-year old Victorian house in Los Angeles, using the dilapidated residence for site-specific installations and performances. At the time, second-wave feminism had expanded its attention beyond basic gender equality to address the more nuanced experiences of women and reproductive rights, labor equity, domestic violence, and more. Like “52 Artists: A Milestone,” “Wo/Manhouse 2022” expands the framework of the 1972 exhibit with interesting correspondences. Whereas the original “Womanhouse” featured Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” — a pristine white tiled bathroom arranged with used and unused menstrual paraphernalia — “Wo/Manhouse 2022” presents Vladimir Victor Dantes’s “Transition Bathroom” with instruction manuals, diagrams, and materials for positive gender transition.
Both “52 Artists: A Milestone” and “Wo/Manhouse 2022” adopt an Intersectional feminist lens defined 30 years ago by Columbia and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, “for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” As Crenshaw put it in a February 2020 interview with Time, “We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
Historic decisions contextualize both iterations of the “26 Contemporary Women Artists” and “Womanhouse” exhibits. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled sex discrimination as a violation of the 14th amendment in Reed v. Reed. Eisenstadt v. Baird overturned laws that restricted unmarried persons’ access to contraception — effectively legalizing premarital sex. Most familiar, in 1973 Roe v. Wade legalized first trimester abortions by confirming that electing to have an abortion was a private decision over which the state had no jurisdiction. Those landmark cases around sexual equity and health carved out a trajectory for more personal freedoms which were also hard-won. The Supreme Court didn’t recognize same sex marriage as a right until 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges. Most recently, in June 2020, the Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination.
Hard-won and incremental though those landmarks might be, any sense of forward momentum fell flat on June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), the latter of which states that “a state may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability.” Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a well-known decision by now, preceded by the unprecedented leak of a draft majority opinion that spun out in public — very likely calcifying the opinions of the five Justices who voted to repeal. The consequences have already been massive. Dobbs negated the Constitutional right to an abortion in favor of each state’s right to outlaw it, which about half the states in the Union have already done or are in the process of legislating. Other states have affirmed it as a right, some, like California, moving to cement it into their own constitutions. The entanglements presented by all of this have been well documented.
In the “52 Artists” show, Maryam Hoseini’s “Private Quarter (Midnight-Midday)” and “Private Quarter (Sunset-Sunrise)” (both 2021) each depicted on accordion-shaped panels with finger-sized bodies slipping in and out of legibility, intersect and sometimes interpenetrate one another over segments of blue and white floor tile. Hoseini’s simultaneous depiction and abstraction of figures has a cool but erotic quality, asking where one figure ends, where another begins, and even what a viewer’s criteria might be for identifying subjects. There is real joy in studying the work, amplified by a pair of charismatically large and expressive hands in gloves that appear in the foreground.
In Astrid Terrazas’s figure painting nearby, “someone will make a Saddle out of your falling hair” (2021), a woman rides a hairless dog, pulling golden ghost braids above her head, her mouth open in a shriek. The top half of a heart surrounds the figure’s head in what appears like a wish — a verdant field with a large grazing cow. The landscape of Terraza’s painting is barren, the picture plane bisected by large barbed-wire loops. There is a correspondence between her nakedness, the dry earth, and the hairless animal she rides. Susan Hall’s adjacent painting from 1971, “The Ornithologist,” depicts a short-haired woman who wears a sheer green jumpsuit, nipples and genitals exposed, surrounded by caged birds. She exists within a space of simultaneous confinement and exposure. In other words, backwards or forwards, both time frames are fraught, designed by sequences made to subjugate the body, the animals, the land and its resources.
“Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births,” currently at Boston’s MassArt Art Museum (MAAM), presents a suite of designed objects surrounding fertility, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experience alongside works of contemporary artists to explore the ways in which our individual entry into life reflect systemic intersections. The show’s logic bears some similarity to Karen Barad’s discussion of the 1922 Stern-Gerlach experiment where, as described in her book “Meeting the Universe Halfway” (2007), Otto Stern’s cheap cigar, which had more sulfur that those of higher quality, helped trace the path of a silver atom beam. This served as a demonstration of space quantization, leading to many breakthroughs in quantum physics. Barad further points out that cigars at the time were primarily, if not exclusively, smoked by men, suggesting that the experiment was inherently gendered and contextualized by class.
Objects in “Designing Motherhood” are similarly considered. J. Marion Sims’ speculum design, while successful, was “… owed to experimentation on enslaved African American women during the 1840s.” Tampax tampons came about when nurses began using cellucotton during World War I — the same cotton applied to medical wounds — for their periods. The Los Angeles Self-Help Clinic Del Em Device (1971) provided a method for home abortions using then-common household materials.
Such objects are presented alongside works of art which further explore the complexities of gender and subjectivity. Kyuri Jeon’s “다신, 태어나, 다시 Born, Unborn and Born Again” (2020) opens with the celebration of Seoul’s repeal of abortion restrictions. Jeon subsequently reflects on her own birth, sex, and how her misaligned gender in utero led her mother to carry her to term. Jess T. Dugan’s diptych, “Self-portrait with Vanessa and Elinor (2 days old)” (2018) captures the artist and their partner with their newborn. In the exhibition catalogue Dugan says, “I’m interested in documenting my own family and also creating representations of queer and gender expansive families and butch/transmasculine parenting.”
While all of these recent exhibitions frame complex subjectivities, their positive empowerment seems dangerously disconnected from the United States’ governing legal authority. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. A Pew Research Center study shows that 62% of Americans say abortion should be legal in most cases. Regardless of popular appeal, the impact of Dobbs is not limited to heterosexual cis-women. It tears through the LGBTQ+ community as well. “According to the Guttmacher Institute, bisexual, nonbinary, and transgender people are more likely than their heterosexual peers to seek an abortion” (Lambda Legal). Nor is Dobbs’ restriction equitable. Studies show that abortion limitations will disproportionately affect racial and and ethnic minorities. Not surprisingly, the underpinnings of its logic are rooted in violence. In Black Perspectives, NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History Jennifer L. Morgan argues that, “… women’s struggles over bodily autonomy are at the foundation of our modern political and economic institutions. Racial slavery pitted women’s reproductive capacities against the interest of the state, introducing a conflict between a woman’s identity as a parent and the child’s identity as a commodity — enacting, most brutally and decisively, the notion that the fetus’s worth was paramount, and that the mother’s corporeal integrity was immaterial.”
Back in the Aldrich exhibition, Leilah Babirye’s “Ndibasa Namutebi from the Kuchu Mamba (Lungfish) Clan” (2022) is a towering assemblage of black-painted mixed-media materials like wood, bike parts, and pottery. Babirye, who was outed as a lesbian and LGBTQ+ advocate, left her home in Uganda after being outed by the local homophobic press. She went to a residency on Fire Island and, in 2018, was granted asylum. She is known for making sculptures and paintings that celebrate a queer Ugandan community whose marginalization stems from western colonial history. In another part of the museum, Susan Chen’s chunky figurative painting, “An Afternoon Making Quaranzines with Apex for Youth” (2022), captures a diverse classroom of teachers and children smiling around a table. The paint is layered, almost as thick as clay. Its appearance is optimistic, but also points to the storied difficulties of teaching during the Covid pandemic in an already precarious profession.
A feeling of vertigo returns. Equal rights, equal opportunity, and body autonomy push and pull against the national framework. Babirye has five large figurative sculptures along the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront as part of a (New York) Public Art Fund exhibition, Black Atlantic, described by Babirye as “trans queens … beacons of freedom that welcome an international LGBTQ+ community.”
In 2021, Kamala Harris said, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.” Today, a record number of women serve in the U.S. Congress. That is progress. Yes! Yet a radical Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, and the World Economic Forum reports, in a new study, that it will take 130 years before gender pay disparity disappears.
Despite being identified as the first feminist show in the United States, the record of “26 Contemporary Women Artists” is sparse. No original checklist exists. Are these fiftieth anniversary exhibitions reenactments of old gestures, like putting on the same old play? Maybe reiterations such as “52 Artists: A Milestone” are an exercise in going over what was missed, a study of the apparatus, no more than amending, revising and refracting it. Julie Suk, a Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law, suggests that Roe v. Wade itself was the original compromise because Roe was never framed as women’s rights but rather a right of privacy. “What emerged in the United States under Roe v. Wade was a broad negative right to abortion — the right to be free from governmental interference — in the absence of a positive right that would enable poor women to access abortion,” Suk argued at a Virtual Round Table held by the Council of Foreign Relations. “And what this meant was that a broad negative right in the absence of a positive right was actually, in some ways, worse for abortion access on the ground than what emerged in many other constitutional democracies, particularly in Europe.”
What now? Susan Chen participated in a group show at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York this summer, “Wonder Woman,” curated by Kathy Huang. Inspired by a 1981 poem by Genny Lim that considers the intergenerational experience of Asian women, the show features the work of “… thirty Asian American and diasporic women and non-binary artists responding to themes of wonder, self, and identity through figuration.” It came as a response to an increase in Asian hate crimes across the United States. Representation, suggests Huang, offers a form of empowerment and community.
Chen’s paintings depict curator Kathy Huang, dressed as Wonder Woman, selling Wonder Woman paintings from her “Wonder Woman” show. Dana Birmbaum’s looping film “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman” (1978-79) cut up and spliced together different scenes from the television show of Wonder Woman spinning, exploding, turning into different iterations of herself, then dashing off in unexplained haste. ArtNews (May 4, 2022) reported the prospect of a second exhibition related to “Abortion is Normal” (2020), which now must be regarded as having taken place shortly before the repeal of Roe. The spinning turns of courage endure.