Wack Pack

Los Angeles

Left: Artist Catherine Lord, curator Helen Molesworth, and “WACK!” curator Connie Butler. Right: Artists Martha Rosler and Martha Wilson. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)

“Vaginas, vaginas, vaginas. Aren’t they wonderful?” one local female curator whispered to me, and indeed, the moment I stepped into Thursday’s VIP reception celebrating “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” her point had been won. The first thing one sees upon entering MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary is Magdalena Abakanowicz’s thirteen-foot-tall knitted red vagina; imagine Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde as a gargantuan tea cozy.

Strolling among the roughly 450 works by 120 women artists, I was struck by the exhibition’s overwhelming diversity, from the truth-telling portraiture of Alice Neel and the bawdy pageantry of Judy Chicago to postfeminist Cindy Sherman and posthuman Orlan. Inspired efforts—seldom glimpsed by viewers outside of textbooks—appeared around each corner: nude snaps of performance artist and Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanny Tutti from her 1976 “Prostitution” show, held at London’s ICA, or Mako Idemitsu’s inadvertently hilarious film Inner-Man, 1972, in which a dancing naked male is superimposed on an image of a placid geisha.

In the main gallery, one rambunctious donor in a fur coat overturned an Isa Genzken floor sculpture when she clipped it with her very high heels. Security arrived on cue to admonish her, to which the dowager protested, “How was I to know it was art?” Nearby, the ubiquitous writer-curator Warren Niesluchowski stood in front of a pink-and-black Mary Heilmann (a taste of the painter’s upcoming retrospective, opening in May at the Orange County Museum of Art). The exhibition “really does re-create the moment,” he told me, tugging at the silk scarf around his neck. “Who knows what history will do with the movement, but right now it’s monumental."

MoCA director Jeremy Strick, designer Lorraine Wild, and MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel. Right: Artist Judy Chicago.

As the crowd sipped white wine beneath a psychedelic green light show installed on the museum’s outdoor plaza, Carolee Schneemann tugged on my elbow and wondered aloud, “What on earth is ‘WACK!’ supposed to mean?” My slow reply didn’t suit the artist, infamous for pulling a scroll from her vagina in a 1975 performance, so I ducked into the lobby and checked the catalogue: Curator Connie Butler chose the word to echo the acronyms of the many feminist activist groups operating at the time. (The new coinage, it should be noted, is not itself an acronym.)

Back outside at the bar, I overheard artist Karl Haendel call out to photographer Walead Beshty, who was nibbling grilled vegetables, “I didn’t know you were a closet feminist!” The delightfully (but not overwhelmingly) female crowd clasped hands and shared hugs, making the affair feel a bit like a high school reunion, an impression underscored by the many artists turned out in their finest taffeta and lace. The mood was euphoric.

The following day, the light show gave way to faux-Hawaiian decor for an artists’ lunch held on the same plaza. Long tables were set with brightly colored tablecloths and bamboo chairs, and the hot sun glared overhead as eighty-nine-year-old LA artist and lithographer June Wayne delivered the commencement speech. She glided to the lectern slowly, but once there her words were delivered with energy and panache. Presiding like a female Capote—petite, bespectacled, and in possession of a rapierlike wit—she offered a mélange of history and advice, including my favorite remark of the afternoon: “Feminism will have won when women can be as mediocre as men."

After Wayne’s valediction, the exhibiting artists queued up for their own moment at the podium. What began as a simple declaration of name and location (“Monica Mayer, Mexico City”) was quickly seized as an opportunity to be heard, and proclamations against the war and memorials for the dead followed. MoCA director Jeremy Strick, wearing a black turtleneck and a wool sports coat, kept a firm, professional smile on his face as he attempted to remain cool despite the eighty-degree weather. A grim-faced Abakanowicz delivered an extended lecture on powerful European women throughout history. “We were not just one moment. There have always been powerful, fearsome women.” It took Suzanne Lacy, grande dame of the city’s long-lived Woman’s Building here in Los Angeles and chair of the MFA Program in Public Practice at Otis College, only four words to deliver the same message. Raising her fist jubilantly, she called out, “Suzanne Lacy! Fierce feminist!"

Left: Artists Orlan, Suzy Lake, and Marte Minujin. Right: Artist Carolee Schneemann.

Left: Writer and curator Warren Niesluchowski. Right: Artist Suzanne Lacy.