Birgit Jürgenssen

Niamh Coghlan

Niamh Coghlan

Redefined Expectation. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s

In: Aesthetica. The Art & Culture Magazine, Issue 64, April-May 2015, S. 44-49.


"Down with  reli­gious iconography and pornographic photography, the desire for novelty, the desire of possessing women, of fantasising (about them)". Angela Molino's call to action in Heleno Almeido: Lear­ning to See (2005) illus­trates the necessity for change in the canons of art history. A call to change that is the focus of the Viennese corporate art collection, Sammlung Verbund. Under the curatorial direc­torship of Gabriele Schor, the collection includes signifi­cant bodies of work by some of the key Femi­nist avant-garde artists of the 1970s (as well as by many male artists, it should be  pointed out). lt is this collection that forms the basis of the current touring exhibition The Femi­nist Avant-Garde of the 1970s. curr­ently an show at the Hamburger Kunst­halle, Hamburg, and curated by Schor and Merle Radtke.

The  exhibition features the work  of  more than  30 international women artists who collectively  reshaped the way in which women and their bodies were represented.  Unlike  previous  female  group  exhibitions,  such  as  the seminal 2007 touring exhibition, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, an international survey  of  the  relati­onship  between  art  and  femi­nism  curated by Connie Butler, Schor's exhibition distinctly focuses on "how women artists changed the image and the representation of women  in art." Schor says that after  WACK! there was a prolife­ration  of shows popping  up addressing Femi­nist art: elles@centrepompidou (2009-2011), Rebelle: Art and Femi­nism (2009),  and  Schor's  own  curated  exhibition  Donna  (2010).  WACK! was important and influential for bringing to the forefront known and unknown female artists from the  1970s onwards, and indeed  it had a massive influence on the collecting stra­tegy of the Sammlung Verbund. Butler's intention with WACK! was crystal clear: ''To make the case that femi­nism's impact on art of the 1970s consti­tutes  the  most  influential  international art  'movement'  of any during the post-war period ." Butler continues though, explai­ning that the reason the movement hasn't achieved this recog­nised status is "because of the fact that it is seldom cohered, formally or critically, to a movement in the same way as Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism or even Fluxus."

Schor, in a way, is formalising and making coherent the Femi­nist art movement through this marrying of the term "avant-garde" with the movement. She demands the revision of the canon of art history: for the women's avant-garde movement to be part of the collective conscious, rather than a side note. This is happe­ning, slowly but surely, with its roots in the work of these female artists. The history of women in the art world is not just contained to female artists though - female cura­tors face the same uphill battle: documenta, which has been running since 1955, had its first female curator in 1997 (documenta X). The Venice Biennale, which began in 1895, only had its first female cura­tors (two women held the curatorial reins, Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez) in 2005 - 110 years after it began.

Birgit Jürgenssen demanded this revision herself when in a letter to the DuMont publishing company  (dated 1 April,  1974) she asked them to publish a miscel­lany on women artists: "So often the woman is an art object, rarely and reluctantly she is able to speak or show (her work) up. I, for once, would like to have the possibility to compare myself not just to my male, but also to my female colleagues." The same year that Jürgenssen demanded this, Lynda Benglis published an advertisement in Artforum for her upcoming exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

This is the most famous advertisement in Artforum's history, we see a naked, oiled, sun-glass-wearing Benglis holding a large latex dildo between her thighs. This image was revolutionary for many reasons,  but for  many it was her facial expression that caused the most uproar: defiant. lips-parted, self-confident and clearly enjoying  the moment.  Roberta  Smith  succinctly sums this up in a New York Times article of 2009: "The sense of empower­ment, enti­tlement, aggressiv­eness and forthrightness so often misunder­stood to be the province of men. This more than any object, penile or otherwise, is what Lynda Benglis waved at the art world."

To interrogate the history of women and their representation is a lengthy process, and Schor has selected the best decade for such a study. lt is a decade rich in Femi­nist political and "activist" art. some quite obviously so, such as Leslie Labowitz and Suzanne Lacy's In Mour­ning and In Rage (1977). Performed on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, it consisted of 10 women perfor­mers, nine all in black and one clad in scarlet, representing the ten Los Angeles women who had been raped and murdered by the "Hillside Strangler". Each performer spoke to the crowd, describing a different form of violence against women using real nume­rical statistics. The performance was widely covered by the media and served to highlight the sensatio­na­list atti­tude taken by the media and society towards not just this serial killer, but to violence against women in general. This work precedes the 1978 work by Alexis Hunter, Dialogue with a Rapist. Based on her actual expe­ri­ence, being accosted late at night by a man with a knife in the street, Hunter (a self-coined radical Femi­nist) uses photography and text in this sequential series. Her telling of the expe­ri­ence incites fear at füst, but at the end shifts the focus back to the man,with a sudden change in the situation: Man: Where do you live?/ Woman: Oh…just around here somewhere… / Man: I'll follow you home if you like/ Woman: I think  I'll Look after myself thanks - bye! The male aggressor, the villain, becomes the protector, but Hunter very clearly and defi­antly states her own abilities: "I'll look after myself thanks". Hunter creates the narrative through text, rather than the image, allowing her audi­ence to formu­late the visuals and by doing so placing them­selves in the situation. The narrative lends itself to this method, as it is a real event and one which happens more often than it should. Lacey and Labowitz publicly staged a performance whereas Hunter created a more personal piece, but both are socio-political critiques dealing with the problem of violence against women. The exhibition includes artists whose work is more subtle, though not overtly political or dealing with a real issue or expe­ri­ence (as with Labowitz and Lacy and Hunters), still critiques and makes visible the misogyny and stereotypes existent during the period. The work of Portuguese artist Helena Almeida has been described as "[being] neither body art, nor performance, painting, drawing or photography: that is to say, her work was affirmed as a negation of all the different artistic disciplines." By negating these disciplines though, Molina argues that Almeida frees them from their limits and enables them to have an added  dimension With Estudo para dois espaços (1977), Almeida's hands  are  pictured  draped  lightly  through whether she is captured, looking out or looking in on  her captives. The work  is a subtle critique of  the time when women were simulta­neously included and excluded in the art estab­lishment. This is representative of a wider critique that runs through the work of many of the artists in this exhibition: that which Schor defines as the change between the representation of the female body from object to subject. The female body is no longer a naked, sexualized object, as depicted by the male: it has quite tangibly shifted from being passive to an active subject.

The work of Cindy Sherman, Penny Slinger and Birgit Jürgenssen makes an active, outright rejection  of traditional female stereotypes and portrayals. Jürgenssen,  famously,  in  Hausfrauen-Küchen­schürze  (Housewives' Kitchen Apron)(1975) wears a kitchen stove around her neck. Dressed as a housewife, the stove covers her  body, signifying  her purpose  as functional object. The oven door is open, a loaf of bread poking  out: it is both a phallic allusion and one referencing the birth of a child. Slinger's Wedding lnvi­tation-2 (Art is Just a Piece af Cake) (1973), is deft in its portrayal of herself as a wedding cake. Seated with legs akimbo, wearing a constructed traditional tiered wedding cake, with an open smile on her face and wearing a white wedding veil, the image is humorous but wickedly clever in its decon­struction of what the traditional wedding signified(s). The cake is sliced open to reveal her vagina, which has a small white flower on it: Slinger is adeptly and openly critiquing the expectation that a woman would  remain  a virgin until her wedding day, a day in which she would  be "deflowered". Jürgenssen  and Slinger use their bodies in these staged photograph s to point out the one-dimensional roles tradition ally assi­gned to women:to produce babies and be a housewife.

More specific to the body, the female face becam ea natu­ralsite of contention and discourse: Fran­cesca Woodman's Face, Providence, Rhode /slond, 1975- 1976, Jürgenssen's Ohne Titel (1979), and Lynn Hershman Leeson's Roberta Construction Chart "1 (1975), an image of Hershman Leeson's alter-ego Roberta Breitmore, all being key examples. Roberta Breitmore was a four­ year performance project begun in 1974, with Roberta existing as a fictional person in real time in her own living quarters, which culmi­nated in an exorcism of Roberta in 1978 (her death). The documentation of her existence is to be found in works such as this "construction chart", where Hershman Leeson documents the literal  con­struction  of Roberta's face through  the application of make-up.  Hershman Leeson is quite vividly articulating the idea that women, through the systematic daily routine of applying make-up, are constructing their own "alter-ego". Jürgenssen does the same with Ohne Titel a self-portrait with an eerie hand-made skeleton mask placed just inches from her Face, maski ng all save for a glimpse of her eye and cheekbone.

Ewa Partum took this one step further with Change (1974), an inves­tigation into the comp­licated relati­onship between women and the process of ageing. Performed in Galeria Adres, Poland, Partum had half of her face painted with heavy make-up to make her appear aged. She then sat for a  por­trait, the pose and facial expression mimicking Leonardo da Vinc i's portrait of one of the world's most famous visages: the Mona Lisa. Partum, Hersh­mann Leeson, and Jürgenssen are each questio­ning what consti­tutes female "beauty": is it what is underneath, the skel­etal mask signifying the inte­rior? Are women only beautiful with a mask of make-up? How do we live up to societal stan­dards of beauty when we age? ls the female body the site of iden­tity? These questions are further comp­licated by the recep­tion of female artists in the 1970s by other female artists: Schor gives the example of Jürgenssen being reproa­ched by Femi­nist artists for wearing make-up and dressing fashio­n­ably, a critique that Hannah Wilke famously responded to with Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Femi­nism (1977). The social conventions of what consti­tutes beauty and how "beauty" is represented is still being questioned, critiqued and analysed - more openly, yes, but nonet­heless still in question. Joan Riviere, in her essay of 1929 Womanliness as a Masquerade, published  in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, says: "Womanliness […] could be worn as a mask […] The reader may ask where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the masquerade. My  suggestion  is […] that there  is no such    difference; whether radical or super­ficial, they are the same thing.”

The Femi­nist movement of the 1970s, the femi­nist avant-garde, is becoming more and more widely researched, collected and identified. Things have changed signifi­cantly since the 1970s, and Schor says she sees a level of self-confidence in young female artists that wouldn't have been possible without the movement's revolution, lasting impact and legacy. Yet there is still much historical revision and research to be done to firmly entrench the femi­nist avant-garde movement in art history. To end with a quote from Molina, as begun: "Careful! -the artist seems to say -history is out there, in ancient tomes buried under the weight of history; in my studio the woman is no longer the equidis­tant point between the obscene and the beautiful." (ph1037)