Dorothy Iannone, The Next Great Moment in History Is Ours, 1970, silk screen on paper, 28 3⁄4 × 40 1⁄8".

Dorothy Iannone, The Next Great Moment in History Is Ours, 1970, silk screen on paper, 28 3⁄4 × 40 1⁄8".

“She-Bam Pow Pop Wizz! The Amazons of Pop”

In 1961, the contraceptive pill went into free circulation in the UK. Shortly thereafter, in the mid-1960s, the miniskirt appeared. As the story goes, the sexual revolution of the ’60s was instrumental in liberating women from the shackles of a society that for too long had kept them confined to a purely domestic sphere of family life. Women’s newfound powers were translated onto the pages of comic strips through the appearance of heroines such as Barbarella or Jodelle. Though these svelte bombshells were dreamed up by male authors, their sensuality and sexuality went in tandem with superhuman powers and a commitment to justice and peace. This vision of woman, brought to life by Brigitte Bardot in the music video for “Comic Strip,” her 1967 duet/collaboration with Serge Gainsbourg, that opened and set the tone for “She-Bam Pow Pop Wizz! The Amazons of Pop.” The exhibition, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Nice’s Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC), set out to undertake an urgent reappraisal of American and European Pop art from around 1961 to 1974 through the still-to-be-acknowledged contributions made to it by women artists. In so doing, it proposed an expanded notion of the genre, not tethered by style or aesthetics but rather comprising a polyphony of voices, as an antidote to the still-dominant machismo of culture and society at large.

But if woman as sex object still dominated the male psyche, the more than forty artists included in the exhibition strove to reclaim autonomy over the representation of their bodies without denying themselves the pleasure of their own sexuality. By filming herself making love with her partner James Tenney for Fuses, 1964–67, Carolee Schneemann sought to render a female experience of sexual pleasure nonconformant with male-oriented fantasies, while Natalia LL’s Consumer Art, 1972, a sequence of photographs showing her provocatively eating a banana, tackled a tired sexual euphemism through gleeful parody.

Evelyne Axell’s pseudo-self-portrait Axell-ération, 1965, depicted a pair of stockinged feet in patent red stilettos pressing down the pedals of an automobile: As the painting’s title coyly suggests, the feet in question belong to an active subject, master of her own self-representation. A year earlier, her husband, Belgian filmmaker Jean Antoine, made the documentary Dieu est-il Pop? (Is God Pop?), in which he asked James Rosenquist, Allen Jones, and others what role they accord a woman in their paintings. To Jones, a woman’s body was just a form; and the fragmentation that Axell enacts is nothing if not a riposte to such an attitude, defined by a male gaze that relies on tactics of framing and dehumanization. In a similar vein, Kiki Kogelnik’s Miss Universe, 1963, painted the year that Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space, was a female silhouette floating in a Technicolor cosmos, her outline literally bypassing the limits of the canvas.

While the effervescence of Pop might speak of a postwar optimism dominated by speed, consumerism, and reconstruction, the exhibition’s curators, Hélène Guenin and Géraldine Gourbe, equally foregrounded the clear-sightedness with which artists addressed the less palatable political realities of this new world: Take the atomic bomb explosion cutting through a bourgeois couple’s dining room in Lucia Marcucci’s collage Crea un’atmosfera (Creates an Atmosphere), 1965; the intrusion of a public sphere dominated by war, colonialism, and conquest into the domestic arena in Martha Rosler’s Cosmic Kitchen II from the series “House Beautiful: The Colonies,” 1966–72; or Ulrike Ottinger’s nine-part 1967 screen-print sequence Journée d’un GI, which recounts with black humor a day in the life of an American soldier. Yet for all their tenacity, argues Gourbe in her catalogue essay, many would be ignored by mainstream feminist critique because their “sexy” feminism was at odds with the analytically driven Marxist aesthetic that would become prevalent from the mid-1970s onward. In this light, Dorothy Iannone’s exuberant Kama Sutra–esque screen print of a lone figure with her fist raised, The Next Great Moment in History Is Ours, 1970, struck an unequivocally bittersweet note.