Featured in
Issue 232

‘52 Artists’ Celebrates How Far We've Come

'52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone' at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum commemorates and expands upon Lucy Lippard's groundbreaking 1971 exhibition 'Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists'

BY Erica N. Cardwell in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 06 OCT 22

Though groundbreaking in its time, Lucy Lippard’s 1971 exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, ‘Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists’, inadvertently symbolized the exclusionary conditions of second-wave feminism through a predominance of white American participants. By contrast, ‘52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone’ brings together female-identifying and nonbinary emerging artists from 11 birthplaces and heritages, with works from the original exhibition placed in conversation with those by 26 emerging artists who have not yet had a major solo museum show. To that end, ‘52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone’, which spans the entire museum, not only pays homage to the original exhibition, but also charts the evolution of feminist art through a broader lens.

An irregularly shaped lavender canvas with occasionally interconnected circles of color
Howardena Pindell, Carnival: Bahia, Brazil, 2017, mixed media on canvas, 1.9 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 

This expansive remit presented a challenge to the curators of the exhibition: chief curator Amy Smith-Stewart, independent curator Alexandra Schwartz and curatorial manager Caitlin Monachino. There was no checklist for the original exhibition and several of the artists were difficult to locate – including Louise Parks, one of just three Black women in Lippard’s show. However, both Adrian Piper and Howardena Pindell have not only contributed the works they originally exhibited but some more recent pieces, as well. Pindell’s seminal, mixed-media sculpture Untitled (1968–70), which consists of rolled paintings stuffed and attached to one another with grommets allowing for a soft drape, elevated the concept of ‘work in progress’ into a radical new take on sculpture. Shown alongside the artist’s recent work Carnival, Bahia Brazil (2017) – cut-and-sewn canvas with disparate yet connected lines dotted across an energetic lavender palette – it’s possible to trace a clear trajectory from her early interdisciplinary approach to her entire oeuvre to date.

A white plaster canvas with impressions of doorknocker earrings embedded within them, some of them filled in with gold
LaKela Brown, Composition with 35 Golden Doorknocker Impressions, 2021, plaster and acrylic, 175 × 114 × 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit, MI; photograph: Clare Gatto

The exhibition writ large similarly shifts from the singularity of the second-wave movement into an intersectional feminist framework which foregrounds the fullness of individual identity as well as contemporary social, political and environmental issues. In one of many standouts in the emerging cohort, LaKela Brown’s Composition with 35 Golden Doorknocker Impressions (2021) disrupts an artworld that remains predominantly white by imprinting an array of doorknocker earrings – an aspect of Black American cultural aesthetics – in white plaster, then picking out 35 in saturated gold, restoring its polished sheen. Elsewhere, Mary Miss’s time-based video Connect the Dots: Mapping the Highwater Hazards and History of Boulder Creek (2007), records the dangerous rise of flood levels in the annual overflow of Boulder Creek reservoir due to climate change.

On the left side of the frame, a window into the outside, where a globular silver sculpture sits on the grass; inside, a fireplace-like brown sculpture and a bronze-appearing sculpture with rocks around
‘52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone’, installation view. Photograph: Jason Mandella

In interviews with me, Schwartz noted the ‘backhanded’ tone in reviews of the original exhibition, some clippings of which are included in a feminist art library between galleries. Smith-Stewart mused: ‘A lot of women artists were moving away from [feminist imagery and affiliation], further marginalizing their work. What’s so fascinating is that this younger generation is truly embracing these titles.’ In a time of polarizing scepticism, when history is often dissolved or weaponized, feminism has become an easy target for right-wing manipulation in media and culture with horrifying repercussions – the US Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade being a terrifying example. ‘52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone’ reminds us of the importance of way-making legacies too easily diminished in the ether of today’s zeitgeist, providing a hopeful display of the evolution of feminist history and ensuring a future for the trailblazing artists who are expanding conceptions and discussions of womanhood and those yet to emerge. As Lippard wrote in her 1971 catalogue essay, refuting claims of authority to a definitive aesthetic for women artists but insisting upon the importance of continuing to explore a feminine sensibility: vive la difference.

52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone’ is on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Connecticut, until 8 January, 2023

Main image: ‘52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone’, installation view. Photograph: Jason Mandella

Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. She teaches writing and social justice at The New School.