BY Belinda Bowring in Reviews | 03 MAR 07
Featured in
Issue 105

Witness to Her Art

BY Belinda Bowring in Reviews | 03 MAR 07

‘It should be possible, in the study of late-twentieth and twenty-first century art, to narrate any matter of art historical and cultural significance entirely through the work of women artists without making gender the defining terms of debate.’ It would be difficult to disagree with Rhea Anastas’ introductory remarks to Witness to Her Art: gender is, after all, only ever the defining term of debate when the gender is not male. Yet this book takes these problems as a point of departure by focusing on the work of six female artists and one female-run journal. Featuring Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker and Daniela Rossell, as well as the magazine Eau de Cologne, each chapter looks at a different artist, operating almost as a case study interspersed with reproductions of artists’ writings, contemporaneous criticism and ephemera, as well as a contextual essay. Immaculate reproductions of written pieces in their original contexts, such as the pages of a 1989 copy of the Spanish periodical Balcón, which presents Noland’s essay ‘Towards a Metalanguage of Evil’, pre-serve material that might otherwise be lost. More importantly, the friction of contradiction between these scrupulously selected slices of oeuvre conjures the slow curl of excitement at discovering an artist’s practice anew.

Witness to Her Art has its constraints: the artists included were selected on the basis that they were part of in the Marieluise Hessel Collection, which is on permanent loan to the Center of Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Yet the book turns these limitations to its advantage, allowing a concentration on key works that interrupt received opinions about each given artist. Aruna D’Souza’s examination of Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), for instance, is accompanied by perfunctory pencil sketches of its installation in progress and shows that, despite the artist’s disavowal of Feminism, she engages with ‘the politics of colonial domination by deploying the tools of feminist critique’. And Janet Kraynak examines how a focused selection of artists can be politically potent by recalling the furious right-wing response to Nan Goldin’s engagement with the AIDS crisis in organizing the 1989 exhibition ‘Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing’ at Artists Space, New York.

Ultimately, Witness to Her Art re-frames the questions Feminism by addressing the issue of audience. Ann Reynolds takes Michael Warner’s definition of ‘counterpublics’ to elucidate Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of a group and what it means to be an audience of women. Reynolds argues that Lucy Lippard’s 1973 exhibition ‘C.7,500’, which countered the claim that there were no women making Conceptual art, is a rare example of De Beauvoir’s group ‘not just of women but for women’. Similarly, Pamela Franks’ contribution uses Piper’s series of postal works ‘Three Untitled Projects’ (1969) to dismantle the commonly perceived division between the artist’s early Conceptual and mature politicized output by demonstrating that her consideration of audience in her early work is fundamental to understanding how she activates viewers’ sense of responsibility in later pieces. Yet the real treats in the volume are the pages of Eau de Cologne. While only three editions of the magazine were printed (1985–9), the first two edited by gallerist Monika Sprüth and the final one by artist Jutta Koether and editor Karen Marta, its all-female line-up and the promiscuous splicing of works, interviews and reprinted texts ultimately provide the logic for Witness to Her Art itself. Like ‘C.7,500’, Eau de Cologne both poses as and addresses a new public. Witness to Her Art uses the same means to make familiar oeuvres unexpected and, by extension, significant for Feminism.