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Issue 221

Utopian Erotics: Women Artists of the 1960s and ’70s

Philomena Epps traces the transgressive histories of erotic art made by female artists during the sexual revolution 


BY Philomena Epps in Thematic Essays | 20 SEP 21

Paris, 1966. Nicola L. (then Nicola) exhibited The Screen for Three People: Homage to Alberto Greco (1964–66), the first of her ‘Penetrable’ works. These encouraged participants to incorporate their bodies into the artwork. Comprising three stretched, white, rectangular canvases, the piece was designed to enable individuals to push their heads, arms and legs through various openings, their limbs protruding through the taut fabric, as if they were wearing the painting like a second skin. The initial inspiration for the work came from a spiritual experience Nicola L. had on the beach in Ibiza in 1964, when she felt that she and her supine seaside companions were inhabiting one body, that they were an extension of the sky and sand, fused to the wider landscape. The Screen for Three People was the first work she made following the suicide of her friend, the Argentine artist Alberto Greco. He had tenaciously challenged her interest in painting as retrograde, and so she had burnt all of her work in an impassioned rejection of the medium, initiating this new approach. 

It was the critic Pierre Restany who had coined the term ‘Penetrable’, in reference to the way the works provoked this form of interior participation. Inhabitable artworks were clearly of the zeitgeist in 1966: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Hon – en katedral (She – a Cathedral) – a collaboration with her partner, the sculptor and fellow nouveau réalist Jean Tinguely, and artist Per Olof Ultvedt – was installed the same year at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Within the monumental construction of a brightly coloured, reclining, pregnant figure – positioned as if giving birth: on her back, knees raised and heels planted – was an amusement park, with its vaginal entrance located between her spread legs. Inside, the hollow limbs, breasts and belly housed a land of plenty, including a bar, a goldfish pond, a cinema, a vending machine with sandwiches, a bottle crusher and a telephone booth. The sculpture’s carnivalesque excess was suggestive of the hyperbolic and irreverent female grotesque. In a state of perpetual flux, Hon welcomed and expelled more than 100,000 museum visitors.

Nicola L., Grass Penetrable, 1972. Courtesy: © Nicola L. Collection and Archive

In August 1966, The New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer had predicted that there was about to be a ‘new deluge of erotic art’. This was framed as a socially redemptive pursuit – indicative of the countercultural energy of the era – echoing the ubiquitous slogan: ‘Make love, not war.’ Both ‘Erotic Art ’66’ at Sidney Janis Gallery and ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ at Fischbach Gallery opened in  New York in October that year. The former took the conventional pop approach to representations of sexuality by privileging theatrical references to anatomy, whereas the latter, organized by Lucy Lippard, included artists who were making sensual objects using soft or synthetic materials, such as Eva Hesse and Alice Adams. These tactile forms demonstrated a subtle artistic vocabulary that unexpectedly evoked the erotic registers of corporeality, while most of the artists shown at Sidney Janis Gallery offered a prosaic, thirsty approach to the body.

One exception was Marisol, best known for her folk-inflected, box-shaped sculptures, which she amalgamated with collaged magazine clippings and found items, such as doorknobs, shoes, television sets and jewellery. The only woman artist to be included in ‘Erotic Art ’66’, she showed two drawings and the illuminated sculpture Kiss (1966). The art historian Rachel Middleman argued in her book Radical Eroticism (2018) that Marisol’s use of multiple, layered hands and bodies made the shape of sexual organs, with ‘the indeterminacy of [the] overlapping limbs and fingers [suggesting] that sex is in flux’. Marisol had starred in Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Kiss, and an interest in oral fixation and innuendo is present in earlier sculptures, such as Love (1962), in which a plaster cast of her mouth suckles an upturned Coca-Cola bottle. 

Valie Export, Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969, screenprint. Courtesy: © Valie Export and Bildrecht Wien; photograph: Peter Hassmann

The same somatic indeterminacy can also be found in Carolee Schneemann’s carnally indulgent and riotous Meat Joy, first performed in 1964 at the Festival of Free Expression in Paris. Eight performers writhed in wet paint, stacks of paper and transparent plastic sheeting while playing with raw fish, poultry and hot dogs – materials and foodstuffs that, unable to be easily discerned within the fray, functioned as an extension of the body. It was ‘a flesh celebration’, reflected Schneemann in Meat Joy Notes (1967), ‘a propulsion toward the ecstatic [...] the pleasures of the body in free, energetic motion’. In Fuses (1964–67) – an experimental and candid filmic representation of sex between the artist and her long-term partner, American composer James Tenney – her manipulation of the celluloid (which she burned, baked, cut and painted) resulted in their jouissance being distorted and blurred into an abstract flow of gesture, colours and movements. During a screening of Fuses at Cinematheque 16 in Los Angeles in 1969, the film was seized by police due to its ‘obscene’ depiction of sexual activity. 

Charlotte Moorman – cellist, performance artist and founder of the Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York – had been arrested in 1967 for playing bare-breasted in Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique at Carnegie Hall, when plain-clothed police stormed the stage. She spent the night at the Manhattan Detention Complex and later stood trial for indecent exposure, with the ensuing media furore earning her the reductive moniker ‘the topless cellist’. Both Moorman’s and Schneemann’s desire to communicate an embodied female sexuality made them outliers in the male-dominated fluxus and happenings movements. Despite the growing popularity of liberatory politics in the 1960s, influenced by the acceleration of societal interest in sexual liberation as a form of sociopolitical activism, these artists’ direct approach to the issue of sex had nonetheless unsettled their artistic peers. They were also criticized by second-wave feminists, who deemed their use of the naked body degrading and prurient narcissism. In 1976, in an article discussing women’s body art, Lippard defined this camp as ‘the body beautiful’ group, writing that ‘the confusion of […] beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations.’

Likewise, Dorothy Iannone’s unabashed view of desire, with her embrace of seduction and perception of female submission as spiritually empowering, was derided by her contemporaries. In 1968, she produced a series of 34 felt-pen drawings on paper titled ‘Lists IV: A Much More Detailed Than Requested Reconstruction’, which recorded all of her sexual partners to date. Even in the instances where the characters are shown dressed, their cartoonish genitalia remain visible through their clothes. Round breasts and bottoms, erect penises and plump pudenda abound. Iannone’s autobiographical and erotic style, often infused with mythology and folkloric content, was repeatedly the subject of controversy and attempted censorship. 

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1964–67, film stills. Courtesy: © Carolee Schneemann Foundation, P·P·O·W, Hales Gallery, Galerie Lelong & Co. and ARS, New York/DACS, London 

Akin to the criticism levelled at Iannone, pop artists like Evelyne Axell and Rosalyn Drexler were misrepresented as capitulating to sexism, with their critics arguing that their specific interest in the female pin-up reinforced objectification. ‘[Their] penchant for photographic posing [was] highly problematic for the anti-essentialist and anti-pornography camps of feminist critics [and] probably cost [them] greater visibility in feminist art histories,’ suggested Kalliopi Minioudaki in her 2007 essay ‘Pop’s Ladies and Bad Girls’. She argues that these ‘narcissistic masquerades are neither simply naive nor essentialist responses to the sexual revolution’s call to pleasure’, instead they destabilized both misogynistic and consumerist visualizing practices with a knowing irony. This makes them more akin to the anti-essentialist ‘bad girl’ artists of the 1990s, such as Lutz Bacher and Sue Williams, than the feminist practitioners of the 1970s. As defined by Marcia Tanner, curator of the ‘Bad Girls West’ exhibition at UCLA New Wight Gallery in 1994, the ‘art [of the bad girls] looks seductive and inviting, disarmingly humorous and as sensuously beguiling as a cake with a dagger baked inside’. 

In the late 1960s, Axell abandoned oil paints and canvas, choosing instead to work on the floor using an electric saw to cut shapes into large sheets of Plexiglas, Formica and aluminium: new, industrial materials regarded as the ideal media to collapse the permeable boundaries between high art and commercial design. In 1970, Axell made the enamel-on-Plexiglas painting Small Green Fur, mimicking the choreography of Gustave Courbet’s crotch shot par excellence – The Origin of the World (1866) – except her bush was comprised of emerald faux fur. Nicola L. also started fabricating work using vinyl. Her first functional sculpture, The Giant Foot (1967), was an exaggerated and anthropomorphic sofa in a lustrous red finish. Like Ruth Francken’s Man Chair (1971), which transformed a cast of a male body into a mass-produced object, her designs were for everyday, utilitarian use. In his 1957 essay ‘Plastic’, Roland Barthes had marvelled at the material’s alchemic quality: ‘At one end, raw, telluric matter, at the other, the finished, human object; and, between these two extremes, nothing.’

Evelyne Axell, Small Green Fur 2, 1970, enamel on Plexiglas, synthetic fur, 26 × 30 cm. 

Courtesy: © ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London

In contrast to Nicola L.’s libidinal and playfully perverse forms, Kiki Kogelnik’s series ‘Untitled (Hanging)’ (1970) drew on plastic’s industrial associations to question the disposable nature of consumerism. She produced a series of multicoloured latex silhouettes, draping them like garments over metal clothes hangers or pegging them to drying racks. Like dehydrated bodily husks, the figures were neutered and lifeless, dehumanized by the effects of mass production and the mechanical factory line. As the scholar Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith mentioned in his 2015 essay ‘Love and Rockets’, these works also acquired a particular anti-war resonance when ‘growing numbers of vinyl body bags were being shipped home’ from the Vietnam War. Kogelnik’s ‘Untitled (Woman’s Lib)’ (1971) drawings – a series of fierce, antagonistic self-portraits showing the artist standing to attention, brandishing an oversized pair of scissors – also brings to mind another woman wielding a weapon. Valie Export – in her provocative photographic series ‘Action Pants: Genital Panic’ (1969), which she fly-posted across the streets of Vienna – depicted herself holding a machine gun, legs spread wide, her crotchless trousers unzipped to expose her bare pubis.  

Around the same time, Yayoi Kusama was designing garments with cut holes, such as the Silver Squid Dress (1968–69), which exposed the wearer’s genitals and breasts. In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were photographed at a Kusama Nude Fashion event, wearing one of her shibori-dyed, unisex ‘orgy dresses’, designed to fit between two and 25 people. Ono was no stranger to the exposed rear, having recently made Film No. 4 (1966–67), also known as ‘Bottoms’, an 80-minute video showing 365 different exposed sets of buttocks. Writing in her autobiography, Infinity Net (2003), Kusama stated: ‘Clothes ought to bring people together, not separate them.’ This sentiment can be applied to The Red Coat, a large garment fashioned by Nicola L. in 1969 that could be worn by 11 participants. In 1970, she took The Red Coat to the Isle of Wight Festival on the invitation of Brazilian musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. During their performance, she distributed pairs of gloves printed with the phrase ‘same skin for everybody’. This empathetic mantra of equality was chanted by the crowd, echoing the ‘free love’ message idealized by the hippie movement. Transporting the coat in a suitcase to city streets across the globe, Nicola L. invited strangers to inhabit the transformative garment, abandoning their singular identity in favour of a new collective body.

Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964, performance documentation. Courtesy: © Carolee Schneemann Foundation, P·P·O·W, Hales Gallery, Galerie Lelong & Co. and ARS, New York/DACS, London 

Despite its utopian intentions, the suggestion of one body or a singular skin for the collective raises the question: who is really being represented? As the artist Lorraine O’Grady establishes in her 1992 essay ‘Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity’, ‘the female body in the West is not a unitary sign […] on the one side, it is white, on the other, not-white, or, prototypically, black.’ While there are exceptions in the early 1970s – Kusama, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper – the use of explicit sexual provocation or vocal eroticism in the 1960s was broadly the purveyance of white female artists, which inadvertently fortified the dominance of the white body in Western art history. O’Grady continues, ‘only the white body remains as the object of a voyeuristic, fetishizing male gaze […] the feminist avant-garde [surrounds] the not-white female body with its own brand of erasure’. The issue of representation took a different significance against the backdrop of racism and civil rights, and in relation to the visibility of non-white communities in both artistic practice and museum collections. In 1969, the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) submitted their ‘13 Demands’ to the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of which requested a ‘section of the Museum, under the direction of Black artists, [to be] devoted to showing the accomplishments of Black artists’. The Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, which developed out of the AWC, staged a protest in 1970 at the Whitney Museum Annual, demanding that half the artists in the show should be women, and half of those women should be Black. 

The Red Coat performance was restaged in London in 2015 as part of  ‘The World Goes Pop’ survey at Tate Modern. Along with ‘Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists’ at the Brooklyn Museum in 2010, the exhibition offered a new global perspective on the movement, casting light on the work of female pop artists. The recent survey ‘She-Bam Pow POP Wizz! The Amazons of POP’ at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Nice parroted this format, but reinforced the era’s racial myopia by exhibiting works by predominantly white and Western figures, despite the expansion of their curatorial remit to include those associated with additional artistic movements. This wasted a prime opportunity to examine the relationships between different artistic practices of the 1960s and the Black Power movement, the sexual revolution and the era’s widespread anti-war protests. Attempts to reposition women artists within art history have largely constrained them to the canon’s narrow focus on genre. Rather than addressing how women expanded and invigorated the boundaries of any specific movement, this limiting framework runs the risk of reneging on the politics of liberation at these works’ very core.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 221 with the headline ‘Second Skin'.

Thumbnail: Niki de Saint Phalle, Hon – en katedral (She – a Cathedral), 1966, installation view, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy: © Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage; photographs: Hans Hammarskiöld

Main image: Nicola L., Same Skin for Everybody, 1970, performance documentation, Amsterdam. Courtesy: © Nicola L. Collection and Archive and Alison Jacques, London; photograph: Gunar Larson

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.