"We are about to be engulfed in a new tidal wave of feminism," the L.A. Times proclaimed in December 1969. "The idea does unsettle my nerves a bit," columnist Jack Smith confessed, but he took comfort in the thought that: "Women are not, though, a group. That is at once their charm and their weakness." He adds: "They march poorly, though a line of Rockettes can be trained to kick together."
In a society awash with portrayals of women as dumb, decorative, and/or deserving of discipline, where abortion was illegal but marital rape was not, and only 4 percent of works in LACMA's group exhibitions were by woman artists, Mr. Smith's bigotry passed for humor.
He was right about one thing, however, Feminism's Second Wave had indeed been gathering force for almost a decade. Little did he suspect however, that over the next 10 years, Los Angeles would become home to internationally significant sites of solidarity: places where women marched together -- though rarely in sequined lockstep -- against a calculated system of prejudice, and its patriarchal mythologies.
Key among the sites: the nation's first Feminist Art Programs at Fresno State College (now CSU, Fresno) and California Institute of the Arts; the Woman's Design Program at CalArts, the "Womanhouse" installation in Hollywood; and the Woman's Building -- initially located near Macarthur Park, later east of Chinatown -- which supported woman's collaboration, education, exhibition, and performance in L.A. for eighteen years.
Judy Chicago initiated the first Feminist Art Program (FAP) at Fresno State College in 1970, and the second at CalArts with Miriam Schapiro in 1971. Then in her early thirties, Chicago had garnered critical attention in Los Angeles for her intensely colored minimalist works. However, while she used color "to convey emotion," the androcentric art world, which asserted the superiority of formal purity over content, was unable to address emotional meaning.
As described in her autobiography, Chicago took up a yearlong teaching position in Fresno intent on building "a viable female art community." She joined a group of women who were actively working toward establishing a Women's Studies department, including graduate and later FAP students Suzanne Lacy and Faith Wilding, who had been organizing a local consciousness-raising group since 1969.
With educational institutions treating women "just like men," despite their different "centuries-long cultural tradition and education," Chicago sought pedagogy free from the presence and expectations of men. Accordingly, her 15 women students met off-campus; initially in a basement, later in an old theater that the students renovated together. "I wanted them to feel," said Chicago, "that they could 'take care of themselves.'"
In addition to construction skills, research into female history, mythology, literature, and culture was a key group activity; and instead of traditional medium-specific assignments, class projects addressed issues that arose through "a kind of modified consciousness-raising."
Encouraged to make art out of their everyday experiences using "new visual language," the students reached for mediums as yet undetermined by the art world. The results were often collectively conceived and produced works that employed performance, installation, and/or those skills traditionally defined as "woman's work."
Nancy Youdelman for example, investigated "various roles and visual images of women" with her fellow students and "whomever we could talk into letting us dress them up." Others delved into art imagery that claimed and celebrated the vagina." The C--t Cheerleaders for example, famously took their pom-poms and pink C--T letter t-shirts to Fresno airport, where they cheered visiting theorist Ti-Grace Atkinson and "a large delegation of red-costumed Shriners coming off the same plane."
When Chicago returned to L.A. in 1971 to co-found the CalArts FAP, she brought ten of the Fresno students with her, and all of the pedagogic principles and art-making strategies they had developed in Fresno. With Fresno's experimentation and personalities driving the CalArts program, the concept of "Womanhouse," its most famous single project, emerged early on in the school year.
The idea of transforming an old house offered both the opportunity to acquire manual skills and, with the CalArts campus still under construction, a solution to a space problem. In addition wrote Schapiro and Chicago in the "Womanhouse catalog", "students had spent a lot of time talking about their problems as women before they began to do any work [In Fresno]. We wondered if those same problems could be dealt with while working on a project."
Over the course of three months, the FAP students found 533 N. Mariposa Street, persuaded its owners to donate the condemned mansion, and turned it into a "repository of the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean and iron their lives away."
"Womanhouse" opened for a month on January 30, 1972. Its approximately 10,000 visitors entered environments that challenged patriarchal stereotypes. In "Lea's Room from Collette's Chéri" by Nancy Youdelman and Karen LeCocq for instance, LeCocq sat in a lacy, perfumed room incessantly applying and re-applying her make-up. The bathing woman in Robbin Schiff's "Nightmare Bathroom" was made entirely of loose sand: "by the end of the show she was eroded by fingerprints." And in Robin Welsch's "Nurturant Kitchen," Wanda Westcoast's plastic curtains only appeared to flutter at the windows, while Vicki Hodgett's polyurethane eggs morphed down the walls into squeezable breasts.
In the living room, performances included solo "maintenance" pieces in which Christine Rush and Sandra Orgel scrubbed and ironed respectively; and Faith Wilding's "Waiting," a monologue that condenses one woman's experience into a "repetitive cycle of waiting for life to begin" while she serves and maintains the lives of others.
"Womanhouse" evoked diverse responses. "It was always emotional for women when they first began to see other women talking about formerly hidden experiences," remembers Suzanne Lacy in Sandra Sider's essay "WOMANHOUSE". For LA Times reviewer William Wilson however, "Womanhouse" was "as cheerful and disarming as a pack of laughing schoolgirls." While for his colleague Betty Liddick it was just one example, albeit "the most dramatic," of "the new push by women in art."
In addition to "Womanhouse," Liddick's "push" included an all-women exhibition in Venice, CA; new women artist slide registries; the LA Council of Woman Artists, "begun last summer by painter Joyce Kozloff to challenge women's 1% representation in displays at the County Museum;" "West-East Bag, an international information network, begun by Ms. Chicago and Ms. Schapiro to synchronize women's actions in the art world;" and, in the week before "Womanhouse" opened, the FAP-organized West Coast Women Artists Conference, which drew women from all over the country.
In parallel with the FAP, Sheila de Bretteville founded the Women's Design Program at CalArts in 1971. "It wasn't easy," she said in a 2012 interview for the Otis College of Art and Design exhibition"Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building". "It's not like we didn't get to do it, but the getting to do it involved constantly feeling like it was not considered at the center of anyone's education...We decided we would do better if we were not connected to CalArts."
De Bretteville, Chicago, and art historian Arlene Raven initiated the independent Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW) in 1972. It opened at de Brettville's home in fall 1973 with thirty-five students, before moving into the newly rented "Woman's Building."
Named for a women-focused pavilion at the 1893 World's Fair, the Woman's Building was located first at 743 S. Grandview Street (the old Chouinard Art Institute), then, from 1975 to 1991, at 1727 N. Spring Street. Characteristically, both buildings were renovated and maintained by the women who used them.
"Feminist art," historian Ruth Iskin stated in 1979, "raises consciousness, invites dialogue, and transforms culture." A national epicenter of feminist art for two decades, the Woman's Building, with the FSW's two-year interdisciplinary education program at its core, "organized, sponsored and fostered numerous programs, activities, and artists' groups." To identify just a fraction:
The Women Writers Series hosted Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Jill Johnston, and Margaret Atwood, among many others. Activist Angela Davis spoke at the Grandview Building in 1974; and "Woman's Words," one of five conferences at the Woman's Building in 1975, "was," recalls poet Eloise Klein Healy in a "Doin' It in Public" interview, "like thunder and lightning...I had never seen so many women writers or women artists in my entire life."
In 1977, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz organized "In Mourning and In Rage", a ritual/media performance at LA City Hall that offered a feminist interpretation of the contemporaneous "Hillside Strangler."
That same year, FSW-graduates Jerri Allyn and Anne Gauldin founded performance group The Waitresses. With the waitress operating as "a metaphor for women's position in the world," performers staged guerilla events in restaurants and public spaces around Los Angeles.
In 1978 Lacy and Labowitz formed Ariadne: A Social Art Network "to stop violence against women through art, media, and community organizing" [video]. Its actions included the Incest Awareness Project which, says de Bretteville, let "one of the women...write about incest in the LA Times...If we had not had the show then she wouldn't have [been]...able to talk in public about incest."
With sister exhibitions in nine states and over 200 related events, the "Great American Lesbian Art Show" of 1980 anchored a yearlong national project to recognize lesbian art and artists. "It was," states the Feminine Moments blog, "the first time that lesbian art got...mainstream recognition."
By 1979 the feminist "tidal wave" that had concerned Jack Smith a decade earlier was in full flow. "The fervor that existed in Los Angeles was extremely buoying," recalls de Bretteville, but "it [wasn't] our invention, it really was a lot of women all over the world...who were beginning to see how much gender was defining their possibilities, and looking at different ways to understand not only the history of how gender affected...our place in society...but what we wanted to do about it."
"Transformative," "massively change-producing," "a cataclysmically large life-changing experience" -- artists tend to reach for superlatives when they describe the impact of their time at the FAP and the Woman's Building.
But the impact was far more than individual. By performing new relationships between "personal" and "political," refusing the apparent disinterestedness of formal concerns, and operating in the physical and social spaces of the public sphere, second wave artists cultivated ideas that continue to inform a redefinition of "art," and honed a toolkit of strategies that artists and activists continue to use.
The Woman's Building closed its doors in 1991. In addition to such challenges as the political climate of the Reagan years, and what Judy Baca describes as the Achilles heel of the feminist movement...the racial issue," the Building had experienced an ideological schism "over the merits of separatism...They began to be seen as an exclusive organization, and funding and public opinion went in a different direction, toward inclusion."
Twenty three years on, in a society awash with fresh portrayals of women as dumb, decorative, and/or deserving of discipline, where reproductive rights are again subject to extensive restriction, where only 18% of the work exhibited in LACMA is by women, and where misogyny continues to kill -- the question remains, what do we want to do about it? The feminist toolkit certainly suggests some powerful possibilities: perhaps, a new tidal wave of feminism?
Top Image: "In Mourning and In Rage," performance by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus, 1977. Photograph by Maria Karras. | Image permission: Suzanne Lacy.
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