The Brooklyn Museum Disrespects Women Artists of a Certain Age
By Cindy Nemser
I know that by creating “Global Feminisms” Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly meant to aid the feminist art cause by bringing knowledge of young women’s’ art to members of their own generation. However, by only presenting the work done by artists born after 1960, I think they have made a grave mistake. Perhaps they don’t realize it, but they have gone about this all-important inaugural exhibition in an insensitive, offensive and essentially invalid way—in a way that also unfortunately displays a stunning lack of art historical perspective.
To me, and many other women, both young and old, it feels like an insult that Nochlin and Reilly decided that the first exhibition, at the supposedly feminist Elizabeth A. Sackler Wing of the Brooklyn Museum, would bypass all the art done by the women artists of the second wave done in the 60’s and 70’s. It was these women, who created the feminist art revolution here in New York City and further along the east coast. The only woman of that period who is honored at the opening of the new wing is Judy Chicago whose art evolved on the west coast and had little or no influence on women here. In fact many highly esteemed east coast women artists were and still are deeply antagonistic to it.
I don't know how Nochlin and Reilly could have overlooked the fact that Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan, was a hot bed of feminist activity from the start of the 70’s.
I was at the Brooklyn Museum in the fall of 1971, when the organization Women in the Arts, along with other women’s groups like The Women’s Ad Hoc Committee, W.S.A.B.L, “Where We At” and others confronted the then museum director Duncan Cameron, right in his office, demanding more exposure for women artists. He agreed to allow them to have several panels in the museum’s auditorium and a free for all speak-out. One panel even sported the then sexist Barbara Rose who made it clear she despised the feminists, especially those who made “bad art.” During these events the auditorium was filled to capacity. Many of the women, realizing that they had heretofore been deprived of respect and recognition, were demanding that their voices be heard and their art put on display. This event took place before the 1972 Conference at the Corcoran. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Brooklyn Museum grudgingly mounted a small all women’s exhibition called “Works on Paper: Women Artists.”
Irene Moss and I, both Brooklynites, were among the founders of the group Women in the Arts (W.I.A.) which came into being in 1971 and which eventually convinced Mario Amaya, the then director of the New York Cultural Center to offer space at his museum to present the all women-juried-exhibition “Women Choose Women.” This show was the first major display of highly esteemed women artists to be presented in a prestigious American venue. It was a milestone.
In 1972, the Feminist Art Journal was published, from my basement in Park Slope until 1977 and Woman Art another valuable feminist art magazine was also published in Park Slope from 1976 to 1978.
Even more historic feminist art events were conceived in Brooklyn. Plans for “Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Arts,” a city wide art festival featuring women in the all the arts developed right in my kitchen by the artist activist Diane Burko and myself.
I had met Burko during one of the first three historic panels on women in the arts I had organized with Patricia Sloane for the 1973 artists' sessions of the College Art Association (CA.A) to take place in New York. They were the first artists’ sessions of the C.A.A. ever to deal with the subject of the prejudice against women artists in the art world. During the last session Burko, who was sitting next to me, asked if she could come to see me for guidance as to how to go about putting on an all women exhibition in her city Philadelphia.
I agreed and she came. As we sipped our coffee, I said, “Why stop at one exhibition, why not make the whole city a venue for women artists work?” Diane was thrilled by the idea, so she went home and organized as many prominent women in the arts as she could into a committee to plan “Focus.” I traveled to Philadelphia, at her request, several times to lend my support to the project. The festival came to fruition in April 1974. It contained three major exhibitions: “Women’s Work” at the Civic Center, selected by: Marcia Tucker, Adele Breeskin, Anne D’Honancourt, Lila Katzen and myself. A show called “In Her Own Image” that I curated for the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial, which was part of the Philadelphia Museum, and an historical exhibition “Women 1500 to 1900” shown at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. Many other events such as art exhibits, panels and film festivals took place at smaller venues around the city.
Coming back to the immediate present, I have to say that the truly shocking premise of “Global Feminisms” didn’t really hit me, at first. When I heard about it, I didn’t like the basis of the show at all. But I was mollified because I was told that Connie Butler, then at M.O.C.A. (Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) had curated a show called "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” that included art of the women who worked from 1960 to 85 (It was hard to find out who was in the show and who was not). I was told that this show would be opening first in March, 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in California, then it would travel to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C. and lastly come to P.S. 1 out in Queens in 2008. To be honest, I didn’t think that much about the fact that only young women, who were not there at the beginning of the movement, were to be the subject of the inaugural exhibit of the world’s feminist wing until Anita Steckel, a courageous feminist artist of the second wave, pointed out how ageist and how disrespectful to women of the second wave this show was.
Then it hit me like a thunderbolt! I grasped the fact that right now, during women’s history month, at a time when feminism in the arts is reawakening, like the preverbal sleeping giant, and once more is on the move, there would be no women of the second wave, except Judy Chicago, honored at any major New York Museum!!! How could this be?
The ageist premise of the” Global Feminisms” exhibition became even more heinous to me when I recently received an e-mail outlining the symposium that Nochlin and Reilly had organized for March 31, 2007. I was both astounded and enraged that there would be no women from the second wave except Nochlin at that event. It seemed inconceivable that neither Nochlin nor Reilly had any concerns about giving the attendees some of the museum’s all-important history regarding the issues of gender discrimination. I was further shocked to read that not one of the many activities Nochlin and Reilly planned throughout the length of their exhibition included a member of the group that helped create the second wave feminist art movement. I am furious that the new, feminist wing of this museum named after a supposedly fervent feminist Elizabeth A. Sackler is virtually writing out the feminist art history that occurred only thirty years ago--events that actually took place at the Museum itself!
With their poorly timed exhibition and their insensitive activities programming, especially in the planning of their narrow, thoughtless March 31 symposium, Nochlin and Reilly are losing the invaluable opportunity to allow the older pioneer generation of the New York and Brooklyn contingent of the early women’s movement in the arts to speak to the younger generation and tell them how it was and how it could be again.
Where in their many proceedings are Jacqueline Skiles, the original founder of the New York Women’s Art Center, and Dorothy Gillespie, who later became a co-director of that amazing place where so many excellent and daring art exhibitions, installations, films, plays and happenings took place. Alice Neel showed there. I saw my first lesbian movie there. Why are none of its founders on one of the panels?
Where are Ce Roser, June Blum, Louise Bourgeois, Joyce Weinstein, or any of the other spokeswomen for the energetic Women in the Arts? Where is Lucy Lippard or Brenda Miller, dedicated members of the Women’s Ad Hoc Committee? Where are some of those artist members who helped to create the East West Bag Syndicate that collected a women’s slide registry, which gave women all over the world the chance to see each other’s art.
Where is Silviania Goldsmith, who was one of the first women to organize X to the 12th Power, the first women’s show that dared to throw the gauntlet in the face of the establishment? Where is Juliet Gordon, Vernita Nemic or any other original members of W.A.R.? Where are the gutsy feminist artists: Audrey Flack, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Nancy Azara, Patricia Marnardi and Marjorie Kramer to name only a few? Where is Cynthia Navaretta, publisher of the Women’s Artists Newsletter, or Judy Siegel who made sure to document all the feminist panels and actions in the Newsletter? Where are some of the early members of the A.I.R. gallery and the members of the Soho 20 gallery that soon opened after A.I.R.?
Where is Gloria Orenstein who wrote the first articles on “Women of Surrealism” and Frida Kahlo for the Feminist Art Journal? Where is John Perreault who was always sympathetic to the feminist cause when he was the art critic for The Village Voice and for the Soho Weekly News? And where is the 90-year-old Sylvia Sleigh, a truly innovative feminist painter, who was married to the renowned critic Lawrence Alloway, a writer who supported women whole-heartedly in his weekly column in the Nation? These women and men, unlike the cutesy Guerilla Girls, did not cover their faces or hide behind masks. They were not afraid to be identified and to speak out against the gender prejudice that pervaded all aspects of the powerful New York art establishment.
I could go on and on naming the women and men who are truly equipped to relate to the next generation what it was like in the 70’s when we were picketing M.O.M. A. and the Whitney or holding consciousness raising meetings and panel discussions wherever we could. We were always ready to defy the art establishment and fight for ideas of equality not just for white women, but for all women and men-- African American, Asian, etc. who had been ignored by a bigoted art machine.
But we have lost many of the original leaders of the movement and many of the others who are still around do not have so many days left, so it is imperative to have the remaining women speak now!
I am sad to say it is not only the Brooklyn Museum that has barely noted the contribution of the Veteran Feminist Artists. The two-day symposium at M.O.M.A, and most of the lectures and panels at the College Art Association (C.A.A.) did the same thing. Most of the early movers and shakers of the second wave, especially those from the east coast, were totally overlooked.
It is a harsh thing to have to say, but to me it seems as if the leaders of the “so-called” third wave are composed of people with a decidedly ageist approach when it comes to women artists. These people seem to just be playing into the hands of the wealthy establishment elite who are determined to continue to glorify the art world’s obsession with the young male genius. These supposedly leaders act like limp dish rags in the face of the art world king makers.
As a result of this timid and pandering attitude, the women of the 60’s and the 70’s, here in Brooklyn and New York, and to be fair, all over the country, who created the path for the women of the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s to obtain entry into the seat of power, are being ignored by of the of all people, so called feminist women art historians and curators. Sadly the women who made it all happen are being shunned by those who should know better. They are preventing us veterans from reaching as many as possible of the new generation. Even more unfortunate,is the fact that most of the “recognized” women of the younger generations do not even realize that it was because of their predecessors that they were able to make it into the big time. However their number of female stars as opposed to men stars is still pitifully few, and if these privileged women don’t watch out, they could easily be obliterated again.
In 1972, I published a paper about how bigoted historians and critics of the 19th and 20th century had used stereotypes about women artists in the past, to either denigrate them or write them out of art history altogether. The article was called “Stereotypes and Women Artists” and was published in the Feminist Art Journal and later reprinted in Judy Loeb’s anthology Feminist Collage. It had been commissioned by Art in America, but the editor was afraid to publish it as several contemporary art critics were among the ranks of the sexists I wrote about. It was really the first piece of revisionist art history ever written although it has never been acknowledged as such by the academics.
In contrast to the famous paper published in Art News by Linda Nochlin, who basically laid out the reasons “Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists,” in my research I discovered Nochlin was wrong. There were many who belonged in the company of the great--Artemisa Gentileschi, Vigëe Le Brun, Judith Leyster, Käthe Kollwitz to name only a few. But they had been written out of art history by prejudiced 19th and 20th century art historians. I am fearful that the same thing will happen again if we ignore the giants of the second wave and those who worked in the earlier part of the 20th century.
I am horrified to see gifted older women artists, being passed over because youth and multiculturalism are now more the fashion. Passing over the women of the second wave is a disaster. The younger generation needs to discover its roots. It must build on what the veterans of the 70’s did. Otherwise, like the Women’s Art Coalition of the 90’s, it will only lose its momentum by trying to reinvent the wheel and fade away.
Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly claim to be avid feminists. Therefore I implore them to rethink the way older women in the arts are being treated both in the Brooklyn Museum and at M.O.M.A. I also believe they should be aware that, at the moment, their ageist bias is hurting and infuriating many women in the arts all over the country.
I do not mean to be unkind. I know that Nochlin and Reilly have achieved much in the course of their careers, but I do hope they will reconsider their programs and invite some of old timers to speak out. Just recently, I attended a panel composed of early members of A.I.R. Hearing those women speak was pure gold. The audience was enchanted, but they were also angry that the Brooklyn Museum is treating these veterans and so many others older New York women so cavalierly. They feel, and rightly so, that the history of the women’s art revolution in New York has not been accurately reported. I feel the same way and hope to supply more of it in my recently completed book Firebrand: the Autobiography of a Feminist Art Critic. However, mine is a personal story told from my own perspective. We need many more perspectives and contributions to put all the pieces together. This, I would think, would be the first task the Feminist Wing of the Museum would take on.
I know I cannot make up for the unfortunate way so many older artists have been slighted, but I am trying in my own small way to redress this situation by guest curating an exhibition at the Tabla Rasa Gallery, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that is, for the most part, a tribute to the women of the second wave who besides being courageous were fabulous artists. Among the participants are Deborah Remington, Audrey Flack, Lila Katzen, Hannah Wilke, Sylvia Sleigh, Judy Bernstein, Mary Grigoriadis, Dottie Attie, Nancy Grossman, Howardena Pindell, Anita Steckel and significant others.
Author’s credits: Cindy Nemser is an art historian, art and theater critic and novelist. She is the author of Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists, Scribner, 1975 reprinted by HarperCollins in 1995 and translated into Chinese in 1998. She has also published several other books. She was the publisher/editor of The Feminist Art Journal from 1972-77. She has received an Art Critics Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and published in The New York Times, Newsday, Ms, Art in America, Artforum, Arts Magazine, American Theatre and many other journals and newspapers. She is currently guest curating an exhibition entitled “Women’s Work: Homage to Feminist Art,” at the Tabla Rasa Gallery and completing her book Firebrand: the Autobiography of a Feminist Art Critic.