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“The Artist's Kiss”, ORLAN, 1977
“The Artist's Kiss”, ORLAN, 1977via

The dA-Zed guide to 70s feminist avant-garde art

Selfies, gender fluidity and the original pioneers of ‘Free the Nipple’ – here’s an authorative education on the radicals that paved the way for feminism today

It’s probably taken for granted now that female artists, whether they’re painters, performers or musicians, are free to pursue their every whims. At least in Western countries. From FKA twigs to Miranda July and Lady Gaga, that much is true. But, trace a historical line only halfway back into the 20th century, and women were mere muses – the inspiration behind art created by male artists, and often their subject, whether virgin, whore, saint or something in between.

From March to May of this year, the Hamburger Kunsthalle museum put on the exhibition The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, which celebrated the feminist avant-garde of the 1970s, a decade that featured wildly inventive and significant works by female artists. Works from that exhibition, pulled from the Sammlung Verbund Collection in Vienna by curator Gabriele Schor, are now available in book format in Feminist Avant-Garde. Edited by Schor, the book is currently only available in German, but will be published in English next August in both the UK and United States. To celebrate the book, we’ve highlighted some of the work, themes and artists of the feminist avant-garde, which includes well-known figures like Cindy Sherman and obscure geniuses such as Francesca Woodman.


Many feminist artists working in the 70s were interested in getting outside themselves. So this occasionally involved the crafting of alter egos, which allowed them to explore identity, not just for themselves but for all women. Throughout the 70s Cindy Sherman crafted a menagerie of alter egos, while Lynn Hershman Leeson committed herself, much like experimental comedian Andy Kaufman, to a very convincing alter ego known as Roberta Breitmore (see R more more).


A major emphasis of the 70s feminist avant-garde was the female body. In many ways, it was the canvas of the times, or one of the media within the media. After the sexual liberation of the 60s, the next decade was a time for the conceptual obliteration of all that the female body had come to symbolise over thousands of years of social, political, religious and economic patriarchy.


Of all the female artists of the 70s, Cindy Sherman is surely the most famous, and probably the most influential. Known for adopting various disturbing and surreal personas in her photographs, there’s a prankster punk spirit to how her masquerade style subverts female representations, paving the way for artists like Miranda JulyRyan Trecartin and Nina Katchadourian.


In a sense, the feminist avant-garde of the 70s was a vast demonstration from the studio or in gallery spaces. But, some of the 70s feminist artists took to the streets, perhaps none more newsworthy than Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz. Back in 1977, Los Angeles was on edge from murders carried out by “The Hillside Strangler”, otherwise known as the serial killing duo of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono. Upset that the media was sensationalising the murders and, as Lacy later wrote, ignoring “a growing body of literature on the politics of crimes against women”, the two artists organised a protest called “In Mourning and In Rage”. As Lacy describes the demonstration on her website:

“A motorcade of sixty women followed a hearse to City Hall, where news media reporters waited. Ten very tall women robed in black like 19th century mourners climbed from the hearse. At the front steps of City Hall, the performers each announced a different form of violence against women, connecting these as part of a fabric of social consent. After each of the ten performers spoke, the women from the motorcade, now surrounding the City Hall steps and forming a Greek chorus, yelled “In memory of our sisters, we fight back!” The tenth woman, clothed in red, stepped forward to represent the capacity for self-defense. City Council members voiced support to the press and the Rape Hotline Alliance pledged to start self-defense classes. Singer-songwriter Holly Near created ‘Fight Back’ the night before and sang it a cappella in the City Plaza. The performance reached its target with extensive coverage on local and statewide news.”


The decade also featured an erotic dimension. Lynda Benglis, for instance, shot a scandalous nude self-portrait of her holding a gigantic dildo as if she had a penis. The photo appeared as an advertisement in ArtForum, and was a bit of satire aimed at the male-dominated minimalism of the time. On the other end of the spectrum was American artist Hannah Wilke, known for terra cotta vagina sculptures and nude photographic work. Though Wilke was skilled, with a great eye for composition, her nudes drew some criticism for emphasising her model-like beauty instead of the feminine form with all its flaws. But that seems to say more about the critics than Wilke, doesn’t it?


Up until the feminist art explosion, the “feminine ideal” was a male construction. The feminists of the 70s started to tear that ideal apart, each in their own way. Some, like Birgit Jürgenssen and Cindy Sherman (especially in “Untitled Film Stills”), riffed on the cultural weight of being thought of as mere housewives. Others adopted androgyny to mess with cultural expectations, or satirised the traditionally female role in the kitchen. Sanja Iveković attacked this issue by filming herself applying black lines to her face where it can be beautified, then giving her face and neck a massage, thereby smudging the lines.

While the feminist artists of the 70s didn’t manage to totally obliterate the feminine ideal for all time, they did a great deal to alter some basic cultural assumptions, paving the way for the last few decades of progress in women’s rights.


David Bowie and the New York Dolls might have been known for their gender-bending, but female artists of the 70s also got in on on the action. Eleanor Antin, for instance, transformed herself into a bearded man for the work “Portrait of the King”. Cindy Sherman also played with gender in “Bus Riders”, with three of the characters appearing androgynous.


If any cultural assumption needed some proper fucking with, it was the idea of the housewife. Cindy Sherman sent up the ideal in “Untitled Film Stills”, as did Martha Rosler in her video art piece “The Semiotics of the Kitchen”. Alexis Hunter also attacked the idea with “The Marxist Housewife (Still Does The Housework)”, in which a manicured female hand-cleans a photograph of Karl Marx. But Birgit Jürgenssen probably takes the cake on this front with the 1974 performance piece “Housewives' Kitchen Apron”, for which the artist outfitted herself with a mobile stove and oven.


For the piece “Identity Crisis”, the London-based artist Alexis Hunter asked a different person to take a photograph of her over a two-week period in 1974. The six black-and-white images show Hunter as the photographers saw her. In one image Hunter wears a hardhat and has an air of confidence about her, while in others she looks glamorous or pensive. The six photographs illustrate that for women of the time, especially artists trying to carve out careers and liberate themselves from male-dominated society, self-perception was at odds with how others perceived them. Despite the great progress of the last forty years, some things just really haven’t changed.


Looking back at the feminist art of the 70s, some of it features a healthy dose of prankster humour. For the black and white photograph “Nest”, Birgit Jürgenssen sits on a plush rug with a nest holding two eggs placed atop her lap. Renate Bertlmann's “Tender Touches” features two rubber balloon nipples rubbing against each other, while her “The Pregnant Bride in the Wheelchair” performance, which featured the artist in a white gown with a mask and crown of pacifiers on her head, satirised pregnancy and childbirth. And, again, Lynda Benglis’s nude dildo ad is nothing if not one of the great artistic pranks of the 20th century.


Annegret Soltau's performance artworks “Körperzeichnungen” (translated to “Body Drawings”) feature the artist sitting in a chair having black thread wound around her face and body. The thread – instead of a pencil or paint brush – was Soltau’s drawing instrument. As it was wound around her face and body, it distorted her body, allowing her to metamorphose into something that wasn’t bound by her self-image and the one projected onto her by contemporary society. “My most important aim is to include bodily processes in my work and to use myself as a model – because I can go the furthest with myself,” Soltau is quoted as saying on her website.


Long before self-harm became sensationalised in the media, artist Gina Pane was dabbling in it. For her 1973 performance “Sentimental Action” at Galerie Diagramma in Milan, Pane, dressed in white, rose from a sitting position, then swayed with a bouquet of roses before puncturing her skin with the flowers’ thorns and cutting herself with a razor blade. Pane, the badass she was, did this twice: once with red roses, the second time with white ones. Pane inflicted bodily harm upon herself on several other occasions, making Iggy Pop seem like an amateur.


With 40 odd performances, Cindy Sherman might be a one-woman masquerade ball, but she certainly wasn’t the only feminist artist to don a mask. Birgit Jürgenssen, in photographs that look remarkably current and hip, used animal fur and skeletons for her portraits. And Lynn Hershman Leeson's ‘Roberta Breitmore’ is also great saturnalian masquerade. For “Super-t-Art”, a series of 20 photographs adapted from a performance, Hannah Wilke used a white sheet to transform herself from Mary Magdelene to Jesus Christ. And in her performance “The People Were Enchanted”, Eleanor Antin walked around suburban California landscape dressed as a king with a cloak, a big hat and a fake beard.


Long before the “Free the Nipple” campaign and the feminine protest group FEMEN, Polish artist Ewa Partum used nudity as a political statement. In 1974, Partum performed “Change”, in which a makeup artist worked on half of her body, and upon completion, declared her body a work of art. Partum’s nude performances continued throughout the 70s, and she even announced at one point that she would perform naked until female artists obtained equal rights.


Before going under the plastic surgery knife to resemble Mona Lisa, or making an offering of her flesh to Madonna, French artist ORLAN threw down the feminist gauntlet with her performance “The Artist’s Kiss”. For the performance, ORLAN took a life-sized photo of her nude torso and transformed it into a slot machine. She then asked people to drop five francs in the slot, at which point ORLAN would reward them with a kiss.


We’ve already touched on Renate Bertlmann’s “Pregnant Bride In A Wheelchair”, but the work is worth exploring in more detail. Bertlmann was pushed into the performance space draped in a white veil and wearing a real horror show mask, fingers and head outfitted with baby pacifiers. A placard fixed to the back of the wheelchair read “Please Push”. As Bertlmann was pushed in a circle, a lullaby could be heard from a music box hanging from her neck. When Bertlmann came to a stop, the lullaby cut off and the audience could hear a baby crying from within the bride’s stomach. Naturally, Bertlmann gave birth and stood up; at which time the recorder — wrapped in bandages and outfitted with a latex umbilical cord — dropped to the floor. As the baby’s crying grew louder, the bride exited the building.


If there is one word that encapsulates the feminist avant-garde of the 70s, and connects the artists to one another, it is “question”. Question the entrenched order of the art world. Question gender, culture, politics, history, the self, femininity, beauty, religious tradition, and so on. Everything that the feminist artists of that time created flowed from the will and courage to question everything.


From 1974 to 1978, Lynn Hershman Leeson created and refined a fictional alter ego known as ‘Roberta Breitmore’. To pull off the transformation, Hershman Leeson used a combination of wigs, clothing and makeup that allowed her to create a personal backstory, driver’s license, credit card and psychological drama. The Breitmore character was so convincing that those who met Roberta had no idea that she was a wholly artificial creation.


Before the digital selfie there was Francesca Woodman’s surreal, ghostly self-portraits. Woodman, who tragically committed suicide at 23-years-old, worked in obscurity. Many of the portraits feature Woodman, her body and face blurred, in sparsely decorated rooms that feature things like walls with peeling wallpaper. There’s something surreal and gothic about Woodman’s photographs, but it would be a mistake to see them as a record of her eventual suicide.


The Peruvian artist Theresa Burga was ahead of her time. Back in the 70s she was a new media artist working with data based on science and technology. In her installation “Autorretrato. Estructura. Informe 9.6.72”, viewers could see Burga’s face and body set amidst medical reports like electro-diagrams and phonocardiograms, which she saw as elements of her identity. With the home computing and big data ages still decades in the future, Burga showed what it was like to have one’s self measured in multiple impersonal ways.


After Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneemann might be the most well-known artist in the exhibition and book, and one of her more well-known works is “Up To and Including Her Limits. For this performance, Schneemann strapped her naked body into a tree harness, and filmed herself on two-channel analog video attempting to draw with crayon on a room outfitted with white paper. Schneeman developed the process over seven years, often shooting videos of the performances.


Austrian multimedia artist VALIE EXPORT has created everything from video installations to performance art, computer animations, photography and sculptures, but “Tap and Touch Cinema (Tapp- und Tast-Kino)” might be her most infamous work. For this performance, EXPORT transformed her naked upper body into a mobile cinema. While her body could not be seen, she encouraged people on the street to touch her through the movie theatre’s curtain.


While some female artists of the time weren’t outspoken or overtly political, the feminist avant-garde as a whole did much to advance women’s rights across the United States, Europe and beyond. Together with feminist theorists and activists, the feminist avant-garde artists opened up a world of possibilities for women in the arts, but also on other cultural fronts.


Body artist and visual poet Ketty la Rocca had a thing for female hands. They pop up in a number of her works. For “Craniologie”, la Rocca took X-ray reproductions of her skull, superimposed an image of a finger or hand on them, and combined this with the word “you”. All of this was part of an ongoing effort to combine the body, gesture and words in a new mode of poetic communication.


The Turkish artist Nil Yalter is one of the legends of feminist art. In 1974, she created the art video “The Headless Woman (Belly Dance)”, in which a woman writes a poem on her abdomen, and then proceeds to belly dance. Yalter created the work as an effort to illustrate how women were seen as subjects of exotic titillation.


In 1975’s “The Semiotics of the Kitchen”, artist Martha Rosler essentially satirizes Julia Childs’ kitchen acumen by combining it with the field of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). Rosler filmed herself using various kitchen instruments letter-by-letter through the alphabet, ending with a Zorro-esque knife flourish of the letter “Z”. Rosler’s deadpan delivery of words like “fork”, “grater” and “hamburger press” as she uses the items simultaneously makes the viewer laugh and then dread the thought of any housewife’s confinement to the kitchen.