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3. Natalia LL, Consumer Art, photography, 1974, co

Sex positive radical art and feminism in the 70s-80s

Frieze London’s new section, Sex Work, looks at how Marilyn Minter and others challenged art world patriarchy through explicitly sexual iconography

Sex positive artists in the global context of the 70s and 80s pushed hard against the sexism and censorship of a patriarchal art world whose oppression meant that many of their careers were in flux. Take Penny Slinger, for example, whose photobook containing sexual iconography was seized and burnt by British customs in the early 70s for being 'too overt'. A similar instance happened to Betty Tompkins at French customs which forced her to stop exhibiting for three decades. Marilyn Minter was even told her Porn Grid paintings were 'too bad' for a Bad Girls exhibition in the late 80s. Tracing and celebrating the existence of these artists is Frieze London's new themed section Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics – an exhibit of nine solo presentations from artists working at the extreme edges of feminist practice during the 1970s and 80s, all sharing a focus on explicit sexual iconography combined with radical political agency. 

The section draws on the research and work of independent curator Alison Gingeras, and, among others, features Marilyn Minter, Natalia LL, Judith Bernstein, Renate Bertlmann and Mary Beth Edelson. "I was thrilled yet surprised when Frieze approved the idea. I think it certainly reflects a shift in socio-political attitudes in art culture for sure. First of all, feminism is not a monolithic movement. There are many different types of feminism and I think because feminism has been a hot-button subject, there are a lot of debates around gender – so it’s very timely." 

Sex Work pays homage to the timelessness of feminist art, reminding us how prevalent issues faced 30 years ago still are today. "For me, this exhibition is very personal and urgent in the sense that I live in a proto-fascist country where we now have a president who can 'grab them by the pussy' and whose daughter can sell books called Women Who Work to use corporatised feminism. I think it’s important to remind people – especially millennial women who have warmed to the whole label of feminism but don't know its history."

Below, we speak with Gingeras about the context, power, and importance of four artists included in the show.

MARILYN MINTER

“Marilyn Minter deserved to be in the show because of her history: she was not embraced when she first started working. For example, she made these Porn Grid paintings and went to exhibit them in a show called Bad Girls but when the curator did a studio visit, she saw the paintings and told Minter that she was too bad for Bad Girls.

While pornography is only one click away now, people are still threatened when its made by a woman. If Richard Phillips were to make that painting, people would think, ‘oh that’s out there’, but a woman as the author of that painting is another story. If you read the reviews from the shows where those works were featured, she was just dismissed with people saying, ‘Oh, this just looks like a Tom Wesselmann’: they didn't even engage with the subject matter – so, it’s still very important. Even the whole feminist discourse against pornography and this puritanical strain of feminism is something that those paintings continue to challenge. And Porn Grid is only a sliver of Minter's output. She just had a huge exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I really admire her activism and all of the money she has raised, for example for Planned Parenthood. She has become an incredibly important and unifying figure for all of us.”

NATALIA LL

“Feminism is not a monolith and it was really important for me to include a seminal Eastern European artist, given that our western notions of ‘feminism’ did not operate in the same way in Communist countries. Natalia LL was an essential protagonist in the Neo-Avant Garde in Poland (and Eastern Europe). As co-founder of the PERMAFAO artist-run space in Wrocław, she embodied a feminist agency in the Polish People’s Republic. That said, there were still 'red lines' that could not be crossed within the sometimes more open attitudes toward radical art practices in Poland at the time.

Warsaw based Lokal 30 is showing a series of 'intimate photography' by Natalia in which she used the medium as a 'permanent record' of her life. Natalia’s Intimate Photography (1968-69) became performances-for-the-camera as it documents sexual intercourse between two lovers. The series was censored when it was first shown at PERMAFAO in the early 70s; it also became a manifesto of a new (Polish) feminist sexual agency – something that is still revolutionary in our day.”

RENATE BERTLMANN

“Renate Bertlmann was a part of Austria’s political feminist movement, contributing to key journals and collectives such as AUF, yet she was also shunned by many of her more mainstream feminist colleagues in part because of her use of the phallus in her work, as well as her work on pornography. As the WACK exhibition (at MOCA in the late 1990s) demonstrated, early feminist consensus was that vagina-centric iconography was politically kosher, whereas any work that directly confronted the phallus or representation of penetration was considered too out there, too incorrect, and possibly even reinforcing the patriarchy they supposed to critique.

Bertlmann was censored and ignored for decades for a multitude of reasons. Working in Vienna with the long shadow of the male-dominated Aktionists performance artists of the 60s (a generation before her) and with the legacy of Freud ever looming, she was dismissed a 'phallus addict'. Always deploying humour as well as aesthetic experimentation, Renate’s work deals with a range of sexualities and desires – as well as the politics of gender relations. Her use of pornography as a theme and source material was seen as 'shocking' in its day, but perhaps this has more to do with a still deeply misogynistic culture responding to a woman artist who defiantly asserts the power of sex to her own ends. I think it is reductive to receive Renate or any of these artists in Sex Work as facile provocateurs – it’s their revolutionary agency (and that agency’s deep discursive ramifications) which make them so compelling today.

MARY BETH EDELSON

“Mary Beth Edelson is a founding member of New York's A.I.R. Gallery as well as the Heresies Collective. She’s been a political activist on various feminist and diversity issues her entire adult life – her history with these radical, iconic groups, that have taken the lead in artistic and political struggle. She is a quintessential artist whose history bridges the divide between European and American feminisms of the 70s. It is interesting that she exhibited with several of the European artists in the section like Renate Bertlmann and Birgit Jurgensen in the 70s.

In the 70s, Edelson inhabited the 'goddess' figure as a means to assert and personify feminist agencies within the archetypes of visual culture (both in eastern and western iconology). While she was accused of essentialism by certain (male) critics when she was making this work, I find her retort brilliant and more relevant than ever today: "patriarchy profits from the nature/culture construct because the dichotomy works to keep in place treatment of the sexes as they have been historically polarised with a reimposition of rigid notions of male and female.” The conceptual underpinnings of this series not only speaks to the history of radical feminist discourses, it also prefigures numerous ideas coming from queer theory and the LGBTQIA liberation movements.”

Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics is on between October 5-8, Regents Park, Frieze London. You can find out more about the show here