“Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move Into the Mainstream, 1970–85”

This traveling exhibition contains a dizzying array of closely clustered paintings, sculptures, photographs, documented performances, and environmental projects ranging from Elizabeth Murray’s explosive, semi-abstract shaped canvases to Catherine Murphy’s tightly-painted, carefully observed, still windows on the world; from Lynda Benglis’ glistening metal wall bows to Nancy Holt’s solstice-framing raw concrete drums in the desert; from Sandy Skoglund’s eerie nightmares to Audrey Flack’s languid daydreams; and from Ana Mendieta’s self-inflicted ritualistic wounds to Faith Ringgold’s lovable, life-sized, stuffed dolls in mourning. Making sense of the period surveyed and of women’s contribution to it proves difficult. But that, of course, is a sign of the show’s success.

With 186 works by 88 women, “Making Their Mark” accurately reflects the chaotic and energetic art scene of the ’70s and early ’80s, and it manages to bring some order to a very unwieldy era. The period is not an easy one to describe, because it was a time when the mainstream broke into divergent rivulets that pursued their own courses, crossed paths at various points, flowed into one another, and divided again. As Ferris Olin and Catherine C. Brawer document in one of the catalogue essays, women had more success in conventional terms during the years in question than ever before, though this success reached a peak around 1980. In a series of charts, graphs, and surveys, they show the numbers of women who exhibited in major biennials, galleries, and museums; received major grants and fellowships; had their shows reviewed, their work sold at auction and purchased by corporate collections.

Much of the work on display portrays reversals of stereotypical sexual roles. Sylvia Sleigh memorializes the female members of her cooperative gallery in a traditional group portrait (A.I.R. Group Portrait, 1977) and transforms the men in her life into nude odalisques in The Turkish Bath, 1973. Cindy Sherman plays with a variety of conventional women’s roles in jarring photographic self-portraits. In her sculptures and performances, Hannah Wilke exploits her own body with an ironic self-awareness. Miriam Shapiro and Laurie Simmons, in different ways, turn the tables on the idealized image of domestic womanhood as represented by the doll house. In videotaped theatrical vignettes, Doris Chase poignantly captures the dilemmas of shifting roles.

If there is a weakness in this show, it is that value judgments are sometimes unwittingly sacrificed to politics. Clearly, the show’s curator, Randy Rosen, has made every effort to be fair and objective, to provide an almost distant overview, and in most cases, she has succeeded. But the theme of the show surreptitiously intrudes. Rosen selects examples of nearly every type of art made by women in the years covered in this show, and she gives the participating artists relatively equal treatment, showing two or three works by each one. But some women simply produced more work of quality and consequence than others, and the strongest ones do not get a chance to suggest the depth and breadth of their accomplishment here. If the careers of several representative artists—Jackie Winsor, Cindy Sherman, Dorothea Rockburne, Jennifer Bartlett, Laurie Anderson, and Elizabeth Murray, for example—could have been represented with half a dozen or so projects each, the exhibition as a whole would have been richer. Also, some commonalities between major women artists of different outlooks would have been made more clear. By lumping together so many artists and identifying their work as “women’s art,” the curators raised serious questions regarding decontextualization for which they failed to supply any cogent answers.

Jayne Merkel