New York

“Gloria: Another Look at Feminist Art in the 1970s”

White Columns

Any pop icon worth her salt is known by a single name: Jackie, Marilyn, Madonna. Back around 1970, there were plenty of Glorias around: Ms. magazine founder and activist Gloria Steinem; Archie Bunker’s liberal daughter; Gena Rowlands’s unforgettable character in the eponymous film; and the Van Morrison song that spelled it all out—g–l–o–r–i–a. The name Gloria captures woman as activist, sex symbol, girl next-door, and destabilizing emotional force. This multivalent signification in a single name prompted Ingrid Schaffner and Catherine Morris to choose it as the title of their important exhibition of feminist art from the ’70s, as well as artists active into the ’80s. The curators were motivated by the desire to acknowledge work by first-generation feminists on both artistic and activist fronts and to remind contemporary viewers of that legacy. With its focus on photography and video, most performance-based, “Gloria” established the continuing resonance of work by figures like Ana Mendieta, Eleanor Antin, Joan Jonas, and Hannah Wilke.

Most pieces centered on identity encountered in the first person: one’s own body and how it is seen. The use in these works of mirrors to capture, record, and scrutinize the self, as in Adrian Piper’s murky self-portraits and Laurie Anderson’s comically distorted photographs of her own face, was ubiquitous. “Gloria” did not shy away from the more difficult figures: Has any woman of her generation been as vilified as Yoko Ono? In Bed Peace, 1969, John Lennon seems to do all the talking, yet Yoko remains a riveting, almost maddeningly serene presence, exemplifying the complexity and ambiguity of her role as wife, artist, and activist. And of course, it wasn’t just men who raged against feminism. For her powerful, alluring, and vulnerable nude self-portraits, Hannah Wilke was the target of bitter feminist accusations of an uncritical use of her own conventionally beautiful body. And Lynda Benglis’s innovative, antiform latex “spills” have been all but lost amid tales of the outrage and misunderstanding surrounding the infamous 1974 Artforum dildo ad.

While the influence of feminist strategies is easily traced in art—after “Gloria,” White Columns presented an exhibition of artists whose work responds directly to the conceptual practices of feminism—a shared consciousness in the current generation is harder to find. “Gloria” seemed to have a rehabilitative intention: to rid some early feminist art of embarrassing connotations and of its perception as something cultish or “hysterical,” and position it as vanguard, daring, and courageous—claims that have been made since the beginning. Among the more challenging works in this regard is Carolee Schneemann’s performance Interior Scroll, 1974. Known best through photographs of the nude artist reading a length of paper as she pulls it out of her vagina (a piece of the actual scroll was on view), it remains disturbing to even the most jaded viewers. Most women of my, younger, generation are not willing to risk that kind of exposure, but the fear is of a more psychic than bodily unmasking. The consequences of laying it all on the line can be devastating, as the case of Benglis tells us. Schaffner and Morris acknowledge that the younger generation is well aware of the persistent, if often unspoken, reality of sexism. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine the radical strategies found in “Gloria” overtaking the lamentable conditions of consumption and complicity that define our era. After all, the move away from overtly feminist art practices can be taken as one symptom of a public shrinking from political and social activism, and a diminished commitment to art, criticism, or almost anything else that openly reflects a political and social consciousness.

Meghan Dailey