BY Amelia Jones in Interviews | 04 MAR 07
Featured in
Issue 105

History Makers

Amelia Jones talks to Connie Butler about the upcoming exhibition ‘WACK!, Art and the Feminist Revolution’

BY Amelia Jones in Interviews | 04 MAR 07

How do the feminist artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s impact on our supposedly post-feminist present, a period in which women artists are woefully under-represented in gallery and museum exhibitions? This month, LA MOCA’s exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ opens a debate about the complex historical legacy of Feminism. Amelia Jones talked with the show’s curator, Connie Butler.

Amelia Jones: Probably the most burning question on everyone’s mind is: why did you decide to organize a show on Feminism at this particular moment in time?

Connie Butler: The question of timing with regard to exhibitions is a really interesting and important one. I’ve certainly done projects in the past that have been completely mis-timed, had no audience and no critical reception, but the idea for this show was hatched as far back as the early 1990s. The Women’s Action Coalition was formed here in New York in 1992 and there was a lot of protesting in the art community against a range of issues – the downtown annex of the Guggenheim Museum, for instance, which had opened that year with very few women artists represented. I also found myself working with a number of artists who were looking back to the feminist initiatives of the 1970s, and directly referring to it in their work, apparently without any real knowledge or understanding of the moment or the work. There was subsequently a lot of talk in the mid-1990s about a big show happening. At one point, Laura Cottingham shopped around a proposal that never came to fruition. But there were a number of exhibitions that took on pieces of feminist history. There was your own ‘Sexual Politics’ at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Lynn Zelevansky’s ‘Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties’ at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, ‘Inside the Visible’ organized by Catherine de Zegher at the ICA in Boston and Marcia Tucker’s ‘Bad Girls’ exhibition at the New Museum, New York, which in some ways was the answer to the need for a feminist exhibition, but was also problematic in its own way. All of those shows took place between 1994 and 1996 – it’s amazing when you look back at it.

AJ: Is the title of your exhibition, ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, meant to be a reference to the Women’s Action Coalition?

CB: It has several reference points. Naturally, it alludes to the formation of the Coalition and to the start of that generation of artists mining feminist history. It’s a very personal reference to what I perceive as this full-circle moment. Perhaps more importantly, however, it references the acronyms of a lot of activist groups from the late 1960s and early 1970s – The Art Workers Coalition, Women artists in Revolution, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) and others – that were undertaking cultural work relating to a range of issues, including women’s issues. I wanted that kind of social grounding in the title. Lastly I wanted something very heavy hitting; something vaguely sexual. And ‘WACK!’ achieves all those things – I hope!

AJ: Do you intend the show to be purely historical, or do you plan to include some younger generation artists? What’s the logic for the chronology?

CB: This is a show that focuses on artists who emerged or who made feminist work during the 1970s, so I’m not including any younger artists. It begins in 1965 in order to include a small number of early works that I felt were extremely important – Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965), for example – by influential figures whose ideas were later taken up by feminist artists. The bulk of the show is from the 1970s, however, with works by artists who reached maturity at that time. I also included pieces by a few much older artists who made specifically feminist work in the 1970s: Alice Neel’s portraits of Linda Nochlin and other figures from the movement, and a number of Louise Bourgeois’ installation and performance works.

AJ: I’m curious about the way in which – from a Foucauldian stance – the discourse around Feminism defines what it is in history. There was a notable emergence of Feminism in Britain and the US in the late 1960s – in terms of art criticism, art history and art practice – which carried on through the 1970s. Then there was a strange lull in the 1980s, when artists like Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman were doing work that, in my opinion, can’t be viewed outside Feminism, although many people have tried. Then there was the rise of post-Feminism and the discourse about it all being over. And then you had people like myself emerging in the 1990s who felt dissatisfied with that conclusion and who began to look back to the 1970s. All these shifts had an influence on art schools, on art history pedagogy, on curating and so on. What impact do you think your show will have on Feminism, and on ventures such as the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, which is set to open this spring? The question I’m trying to get at is whether you think ‘WACK!’ is simply going to post a moratorium on Feminism. Is the problem with doing such an ambitious retrospective that it has the air of seeming definitive; the air of closing the book on the topic?

CB: I think that’s certainly one of the reasons why I’ve encountered a genuine sense of unease among the artists who are in the show. As a curator, however, I don’t look at it that way. In fact, without wanting to appear naive, I actually see it as a process of opening up. I think framing this work, bringing it back and re-contextualising it, will actually enliven the discourse surrounding it and raise more questions about the history of feminist art than it will answer. This year looks set to be such an exciting one for the feminist debate that I think there’s going to be a lot to digest and work through at the end of it all. And who knows what effect that will have? I often think that large-scale conceptual shows – MOCA’s 2004 Minimalism retrospective, ‘A Minimal Future?’, for instance – don’t have the effect of closing the chapter. If anything, they raise more questions about how the presentation of those histories is imperfect, so that other artists come to light and more work is done.

AJ: Isn’t there a difference, though, between portraying a history of Minimalism – which is a location- and time-specific movement – and historicizing something that many people claim to still be as viable as ever? Not to say that Feminism wasn’t or isn’t a movement, but it’s also a mentality and a politics.

CB: I’m not afraid to make it a movement. I think a lot of artists are fearful of doing so, but I’ve always thought: why not bracket it like anything else? At its core, feminist art was a movement with very clear margins, and I don’t feel afraid of that. Looking at the bigger picture, however, I’m not very optimistic about how the art world or contemporary culture will receive such an extensive discussion of Feminism and feminist art. But I love the idea of having Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-9) on the East Coast, parked right in the middle of the academy and the art establishment; right in everybody’s face so that they have to deal with it now that it’s no longer some kind of West Coast aberration – the excuse a lot of people used previously to avoid thinking about it.

AJ: Isn’t there a real danger, though, that once you institutionalize an iconic work like that, it no longer has the political efficacy that it had when it was an underground presence? When I included The Dinner Party in ‘Sexual Politics’ my intention was for it to have friction again. I wanted people to think about what it meant and had meant, and what it would mean. But once it’s installed in the Sackler Center in Brooklyn, it won’t have the capacity to irritate the institution any more, will it? The amazing thing about The Dinner Party is the way in which it’s political. It’s something that neither Feminism nor the art world was willing to accommodate at the time. And that’s what I tried to do with ‘Sexual Politics’ – to use it as a way of rethinking the formulae through which feminists were imagining the political, but also to use it to glance back on that period and understand what it meant, and what was going on around it. And, of course, in many ways ‘Sexual Politics’ was a completely failed enterprise in that I underestimated the extent to which The Dinner Party would be viewed as not just a conceptual pivot but the privileged work in the show. The perceived problems of ‘Sexual Politics’ might provide an opening to talk about the incredible difficulties of navigating the terrain of Feminism as a curator and art historian – although curating a show is usually more immediately controversial than writing a book. Obviously you’ve left people out of ‘WACK!’ and, as you can imagine, I’ve heard from each one of them. [laughter]. It seems to me that because of the lack of historicization of feminist art there’s actually more sensitivity surrounding it, which makes it much more difficult to actually write about or curate.

CB: Because of the kind of marginalization that these women have suffered and the way their narcissism is constructed, this sensitivity seems to be particular to the way their careers have – or haven’t – evolved. Initially, I started by looking at the canonical list of feminist artists – maybe 60 to 80 people – all of whose names we know and all of whom should be in the show. Then I put that list aside, and I went back with Jenni Sorkin – who was a huge help to me with this – and looked at all the old invitation cards, all the co-ops, everything we could find to generate the widest pool of names possible. Many of them were artists that no one has heard of since, but I wanted to try to work from the outside in, to attempt to dismantle the narrative that is the received one, and to construct a new way of looking at the period. So we developed this kind of tiered system of names – which I’m sure would be horrifying to any artist! – that began with very well known figures and worked down to those that had completely dropped off the radar, and it was very interesting to see who came up from that ‘bottom’ list as we did our research, to become in some cases quite pivotal figures in the exhibition. In the beginning I thought ‘WACK!’ would be American – North American – and then I very quickly realized that the only way I wanted to do the show was if it was international. Of course, this meant that there would not be space for some important American feminists. And, I’m sure that’s going to be one of the most provocative things about it when it opens.

AJ: That’s a fair point. There are other issues, though, with the events surrounding the MOCA show. Weren’t you responsible for organizing the big two-day symposium at MoMA in January, ‘The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts’ and for selecting the participants?

CB: No. And I want to get that straight, because I may be blamed for who was or wasn’t included. The project was already in the works when I joined MoMA. One of the museum’s donors, Sarah Peter, approached MoMA with the idea of doing something related specifically to women artists in the collection. That proposal evolved into an inter-departmental working group of curators, including myself, who have been making a study of the women artists in the collection that will eventually become a book; the symposium grew out of that. I had some impact on who was invited to participate, although it was certainly not my decision alone – every member of the working group had input.

AJ: One of the problems I have with the institutionalization of Feminism is the way it tends to be dominated by white middle-class women. So, if the speakers for ‘The Feminist Future’ were chosen in order to mix that up, then that’s a positive thing.

CB: That was definitely one of the arguments. There was an attempt to be as international as possible – although arguably it could have been more so – and also an attempt to mix generations. Some younger scholars were included – Carrie Lambert-Beatty and the artist Wangechi Mutu, for instance – and there was also a desire to hear from people who have only recently started working on feminist art, so we invited Richard Meyer and Helen Molesworth.

AJ: Nonetheless, I felt it was a very predictable list: the speakers were mainly people who are considered prestigious within certain US art-world circles. I’m also disappointed by the logic driving that selection, which leaves out activism de facto. It’s all very well to bring art historians in to talk about activism, but what about the people who have been out there breaking their necks for 30 years? Why have an event that shakes things up in some ways yet keeps a lot of the old structures in place?

CB: We included artists like Coco Fusco and the Guerrilla Girls, who represent two generations of feminist and cultural activism, although theirs is an institutionalized version of activist work. But you have to remember that we’re talking about MoMA, where things move slowly: the fact that it happened at all is pretty remarkable. I prefer to focus on the fact that things are changing at MoMA, and that this symposium sold out faster than any other in the museum’s history. Interestingly, we got a lot of angry emails accusing us of adulterating our website to make it look as though all the tickets had sold out, just to make the event seem popular. But why does nobody believe a conference about feminist art could sell out?

AJ: When I curated ‘Sexual Politics’ I encountered a lot of very vicious and very personal criticism in the media. But some of the strongest reactions came from the artists themselves – not in the way you’re experiencing, but in that they didn’t want their work in the show. Some artists even contacted the museums that owned their work and talked them into refusing to loan pieces, which I think borders on being unethical, or at the least unprofessional. One particular case was quite funny, though: I thought Miriam Schapiro, because of the long-standing conflict between herself and Judy Chicago – which is very understandable in some ways – might not want her work in the same show. But then I met her and we got along very well and I told her I wanted to include Big Ox (1968). Everything seemed fine until Miriam contacted the La Jolla Museum in San Diego and demanded that they refuse to loan it, so there was no Schapiro work in the show. Naturally, that reinforced the idea that Judy Chicago was the only game in town. About a month after the show had opened, I got a huge FedEx packet from Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, at that time located in New York City and Schipiro’s gallery; the box contained a lifetime stack of museum pamphlets, articles on Mimi’s work, her CV, a slide of Big Ox, and a covering letter which said they were shocked and appalled that I hadn’t included this work in the show! And I just felt like you really can’t win.

CB: No, you really can’t win. But don’t you think that one of the reasons you encountered such reactions was because of how The Dinner Party was positioned in the show?

AJ: Yes, it was a deeply flawed premise that I was stuck with from the beginning. I was originally asked to organize a show of The Dinner Party, but since it’s a self-curated work of art there would have been nothing for me to do except make sure it was installed properly. So I said: what if I took the piece as a kind of catalyst and did a big feminist show around it, because at the time there still had not been a big feminist show, and while the ‘Bad Girls’ shows on the East and West Coasts were cumulatively large, they hadn’t been ambitious historically. So it seemed like a perfectly acceptable premise to use it as a means of reopening that history. But I was completely naive: I had no idea about the kind of animosity – that’s probably the best word – that The Dinner Party engenders among certain parts of the feminist art and art history worlds. And what I really confronted – and what you have subsequently been thankfully spared from to some degree – was something that had been festering at that point for 20 years. All I really wanted to do was to promote as many artists as I could, and to sketch, in a provisional way at least, a history that could, as you said, open up other ways, not something that would be perceived as an ideological statement. But that is the problem with curating, and the reason that I respect curators so deeply: it’s a public performance, and it gets taken away from you before it’s even opened.

CB: Exactly! I’ve got to the point where I’m firing off impatient emails in answer to questions like ‘why did you choose that cover for the catalogue – it’s going to be quite controversial you know?’ to say ‘could everyone just wait and see the book, and actually see the show?’ This exhibition catalogue is the biggest book that LA MOCA has ever done and surely, whatever your opinion of the cover image, the fact that a 500-page book containing the work of 120 feminist artists is going to be on the coffee tables of lots of people, can’t be such a bad thing.

AJ: So what is on the cover?

CB: It’s a Martha Rosler Beauty Knows No Pain collage from 1974 where she cut out images from Playboy and created a landscape of multi-racial, voluptuous bodies. I’m aware that it’s certainly not benign, but the cover was extremely difficult to pick. Out of 1,800 possible images, the quality of the reproductions was so poor that almost none of them were usable. That speaks volumes about attitudes to documentation at the time – not just of feminist artists of course, but for these women in particular, the emphasis was so much on practice and discourse that they didn’t pay any attention to documenting their work properly.

AJ: And what was your premise for commissioning essays?

CB: The book includes nine essays, which is probably more than an exhibition catalogue should have, but we wanted to include some writers who had not published extensively on feminist art. After much deliberation, I was also clear that I didn’t want to involve any of the great names of historical criticism, such as Griselda Pollock or Nochlin. We’ll see if this was a mistake. Lastly, there were a number of subjects that I wanted to debate – the middle-class whiteness of the movement in the States, for instance – and so we commissioned a text on the relationship between the feminist and Civil Rights movements. Another text I wanted to write, but didn’t because ultimately there were too many things to say about the show, concerned the trajectory of influence on the 1990s generation and the current generation, as a way of locating the conceptual origin of the show. The end result is an eclectic, but hopefully provocative, mix of essays.

AJ: Would you see yourself as a feminist curator or the curator of a feminist show? This is an issue Jennifer Doyle has raised with me in conversation.

CB: Well, I agree there is a difference. I think at the moment I happen to be both. And I think when you did ‘Sexual Politics’ you were probably both. Maura Riley might well be the only curator of feminist art who has that precise parameter as her job title, and it’s possibly the first time that it’s defined as such. But, yes, I do regard myself as a feminist curator, and I think of my practice as a curator as being feminist. Absolutely.

AJ: How would you say this feminist approach has permeated earlier shows you’ve curated?

CB: bell hooks talks about ‘feminist movement’, reactivating the term in a transitive way – as a verb almost – so that it becomes this notion of constant action and a kind of restless criticality. I discovered the expression recently and embraced it as a way to describe what feminist curatorial practice can be: there should always be a degree of self-criticality about one’s work, an awareness of issues of class and race, and an inclusive approach to gender. Hopefully, those ideals are always informing the choices I make, whether in terms of artists, writers, educational programming or collection. I don’t know how to separate what I do from a consideration of those issues, and I hope that has always been the case in my practice – since before I could even articulate it that way. I’ve also always been interested in the social context for a work, and in work that engages the social – something which seems to me to be a fundamentally feminist impulse.

AJ: I’ve moved away from writing about and curating shows about Feminism because I’m no longer interested in gender as a separate category, and it tends to devolve into that. What do you think it means to use Feminism as a separate political strategy or identification?

CB: I think that is going to be the key question for the Sackler Foundation’s first show. I was in pretty close dialogue with Maura [Reilly] early on when they were organizing it, so I know something about the show, but I don’t know how it’s ended up. I’m very curious about the discussions she had with the artists, because I think for a young woman artist to allow herself to be categorized in this way could potentially be very complicated for the reception of her work. And while Feminism is a perfectly legitimate category, to my mind it has the same potential pitfalls as any other.

AJ: At the same time, I would never reject Feminism altogether, of course. I think the real danger lies in taking the fact that it’s problematic, and then extrapolating and saying we are beyond identity or that identity isn’t an issue – that we are post-Feminism, post-Black. My next book is going to be called something like Identity and the Visual and in it I want to try to rethink the way we understand the history of identity politics, and how we understand identity now. Because we’re not beyond identity – people are killed every day because they are identified as being something ‘other’. I still shudder when I hear younger women artists refusing the label of Feminism, but at the same time I know exactly what they mean – as a separate category it really doesn’t make any sense anymore. Unless, that is, you articulate it in the way you did when you defined yourself as a feminist curator, because you view it as a very broad political kind of impulse.

CB: It pains me more when I hear young artists refuse to identify themselves as feminists, than it does when they won’t define their practice as feminist. I can understand you saying your practice isn’t feminist, but saying you’re not a feminist, that’s just tragic, I think, and misguided. Whether you are a man or woman.

Amelia Jones is Professor and Pilkington Chair in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester. Her latest book, Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject, is published by Routledge Press.

Connie Butler is Chief Curator of Drawings at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She is the curator of ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where Butler was a curator for ten years.