A String of New York Shows Prove That Leading Female Artists of the 1960s and ’70s Are as Influential as Ever
In 1967, artist Miriam Schapiro showed her allegiance to the budding feminist movement with a monumental, suggestive composition entitled OX. The work is pink and orange and recalls female genitalia, but above all, the work, which was computer generated, demonstrates that Schapiro was a pioneer on all fronts. A standout amongst the Abstract Expressionists, she coined the term femmage to describe her purposefully patchwork aesthetic, in which scraps of found materials and imagery innately associated with women form narratives and patterns. Her achievements went beyond the bounds of her practice and into her social life—she founded the Feminist Art Program at California Institution of the Arts with her friend, Judy Chicago.
A leader at the time, and legend now, the late artist is now celebrated through two shows in New York. At Eric Firestone’s new Manhattan gallery, a landmark exhibition of Schapiro’s works from 1967 to 1975 christens the Great Jones Street loft. Meanwhile, uptown, the National Academy Museum offers a retrospective of the artist’s work. When speaking about his exhibition, Firestone notes that he was struck by the interest from younger generations. “I think the work was relevant when it was made, but recently young curators are revisiting these figures to see what might be relevant to the discussion today,” Firestone says. He cites curators Piper Marshall and Andy Onderdonx as arbiters of this trend. “They get it,” he says definitively.
Currently, Marshall is living up to Firestone’s estimation. Last month the curator opened a show featuring Judith Bernstein at Mary Boone Gallery. Titled “Dicks of Death,” the show earns its incendiary name. A collection of archival and new work, the exhibition contextualizes Bernstein’s outspoken history with her current pursuits. The Yale graduate and former Guerilla Girl was a well-known and radical figure of her generation. Her erotic drawings, including the phallic screws that are on view, which she began in 1969, were infamously hard to show due to their graphic content. Often politically charged, Bernstein’s work from the 1960s and ’70s used the male anatomy as a symbol for governmental aggression and to express frustrations around the Vietnam War. With new conflicts percolating all over the map and a presidential election around the corner, Bernstein’s critical work feels as necessary as ever. “I felt that at this point in time it was important to address these issues of power and everything that was going on right now,” Bernstein explains. “Piper was interested in my subject matter and also how I wanted pursue it. She cared about putting it in the context of my older work so she had one of my original 1968 paintings shipped from the West Coast to be a part of the show.” Despite its applications to today, the relevancy of the work doesn’t distract from its historical potency.
At FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea, another living legend, Betty Tompkins, shares a piece of her mind through 1,000 hand-painted canvases—a piece she calls WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories. Each canvas contains a different word or phrase for describing women; entries range from sweet nothings to fuck-yous, but it’s the daunting size of the installation that leaves one reeling. As prolific as ever, the New York-based artist was recognized in the ’60s for her uncomfortably concise works picturing genitalia and sexual acts. Appropriating images from her first husband’s porn collection, the artist cast an unblinking gaze on sexuality. Her hyperreal “Fuck Paintings” began in 1969, but they, like Bernstein’s screws, were continually difficult to show. In 1973, for example, the French border patrol famously intercepted them en route to a European show. Today, her images resonate with a new generation; in reality, these are just aftershocks of a groundbreaking beginning.
When thinking about these pioneering women, it’s essential to recognize the context from which they came. Influential within and outside the art world, they helped define the visual language of a generation. Take Italian-born artist Marisa Merz, for example, whose sculptures, paintings, and works on paper are now on view at Gladstone Gallery’s uptown space. While employing a distinctively feminist voice, Merz was a central figure within Arte Povera, and the group’s only female member.
In group shows, like “Drawing Then,” curated by Kate Ganz and currently on at Dominique Lévy Gallery, one can see how these figures fit in amongst their peers. While there isn’t a whisper about it in the press release, the exhibition surpasses its inspiration, the similarly titled 1976 Museum of Modern Art survey, in its inclusion of women. Remembered primarily for her sculptures, Eva Hesse is represented through watercolor and ink drawings, intimate works made up of washes of greys; Dorothea Rockburne’s sandpaper shapes playfully stretch what constitutes a “drawing.” When asked about the idea of showing these strong female artists, Swiss gallerist Dominique Lévy explains: “I don’t like the idea that we are reviving these artists; they were hugely influential at the time, too. We have the privilege of looking back, and we must take advantage.”
Misrepresenting these women as discoveries isn’t the only danger that curators and dealers face when handling this material. “These are not new artists; people tend towards revisionism but the work has always been there,” says curator Jenni Sorkin, who wrote one of the in-depth texts for the 2007 MOCA exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” and is co-curator of the upcoming exhibition “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016” at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel. “I think it’s unfortunate that feminist art has this constant reclaim attached to it because then it’s not taken seriously as part of the culture. It’s just something that gets discovered every couple of years.” Sorkin believes that this tendency to “resurface” the material is ultimately a function of the market. The best remedy, perhaps, will be for collectors, curators, and dealers to take personal responsibility for being increasingly open-minded with regards to present and past.
While professionals continue to struggle with how to best present these stories, their trailblazing early works encourage discussion around younger talents as well. Aïda Ruilova’s current solo show at Marlborough Chelsea comes to mind. Also inspired by pornographic imagery, as well as horror erotica films from the ’70s (think: Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals), Ruilova’s show, titled “Pink Palace,” possesses a strange feminine power. A video of a prurient finger stroking a mouth is the climax of the show and its explicitness invites a comparison between the young filmmaker and Tompkins, whose work resides only several floors up in the same building.
It’s Ruilova and other provocateurs like Alexandra Marzella and Amalia Ulman that will ultimately be responsible for how art and gender will be defined in the future. As much a part of conversation now as ever, Tompkins, Merz, Bernstein, and Schapiro, among other forebears, are the perfect role models to embolden this new generation.
“Miriam Schapiro, The California Years: 1967 – 1975” is on view at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York, Feb. 4–Mar. 6, 2016.
“Judith Bernstein: Dicks of Death” is on view at Mary Boone Gallery, New York, Jan. 9–Feb. 27, 2016.
“Betty Tompkins: WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories” is on view at FLAG Art Foundation, New York, Jan. 20–May 14, 2016.
“Drawing Then: Innovation and Influence in American Drawings of the Sixties” is on view at Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York, Jan. 27–Mar. 19, 2016.
Marisa Merz is on view at Gladstone Gallery, New York, Jan. 13–Feb. 20, 2016.
“Aïda Ruilova: The Pink Palace” is on view at Marlborough Chelsea, New York, Feb. 11–Mar. 12, 2016.