from my essay in Doin’ It in Public
History making occurs in many ways. Most simply, history involves constructing linear narratives connecting the past to the present. However, in the process, branches get pruned in order to create a single story. Determining what gets cut and what remains involves far more complicated processes than simply putting events in chronological order. Some events, people, and things are classified as historical. That is to say, in a tautological fashion these people, events, and things are worthy of historical attention simply by virtue of being included in the historical record. Thus taxonomy, the classifying process, is critical to history making because it determines what makes history. By reading back taxonomically, however, we can also arrive at a genealogical understanding of history making. I mean to imply both senses of the word genealogy, the more common usage that refers to tracing lines of ancestry and the other, drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, which takes the emblematic element of the first sense—the tree—to explore how histories are branched as opposed to singularly unified. Reading genealogically, we find what was left behind in the creation of a seamless narrative about the past, which was never so irreducibly simple.
In constructing a better account of the past for themselves, members of the Woman’s Building engaged a variety of strategies. These efforts initially took the shape of taxonomical interventions, reclaiming some artists, artifacts, and events as art historical. In the process, new genealogies were created. At times these lineages became highly personalized. Furthermore, in reclaiming women artists of the past as ideological foremothers, the members of the Woman’s Building created tangled genealogies in the secondary sense of the word, as evidenced by the way they manipulated the boundaries of time and space to craft a past to suit their present needs.
In the 1970s, as feminist artists created a new art historical lineage for themselves, the gaps between eras were bridged via episodic, often intensely personal encounters with a previous generation of women artists. This contact with living women artists provided another sort of lineage for emerging feminist artists, one that offered more genealogical options.
Paula Lumbard’s academic interest in surrealism eventually became the basis for an important personal relationship. After writing a master’s thesis on the women of surrealism, Paula Lumbard wanted to find Leonora Carrington.(53) The feminist scholar Gloria Orenstein facilitated their introduction and Lumbard eventually spent a week and a half with Carrington in New York. Lumbard recalls the importance of that time with Carrington:
She took me to the bookstores she went to and showed me books and bought me a book about Wicca, but she also cautioned me not to source my life out of that place. I asked why? She replied that it can be a crutch. You cannot identify so singly in that way. You have to live in the larger world.
After returning to Los Angeles and the Woman’s Building, Lumbard retained ties to Carrington. She curated a show centered around Carrington’s work alongside four artists from the Woman’s Building. Artist as Magus (1980) created “a collection of works by women who merge art, life and a female spirituality.” Lumbard saw “parallels between the women at the Woman’s Building and the visionaries of the 1930s. Each of those women sought out her own education … At the Woman’s Building we are educating ourselves and each other.” In an earlier article Lumbard also stressed similarities: “I use mediation and ritual … and it is from that place I receive my images; and I think it is also from that place that these women [of the surrealist movement] found their images, their symbols.” This priviliging of similarities, of eliding the chronological and spatial distances between women in the surrealist movement and participants in the feminist art movement of the 1970s, provided a means for legitimizing the latter movement by joining it with women in established art movement, who fittingly, thanks to feminist activism, were themselves gaining in status, creating a sort of reciprocal relationship of recognition and legitimation.
Through the exhibition, Lumbard created a nonlinear, intricately personal narrative of women’s art history based on the connections she felt to other women artists. Included in the show was Lumbard’s close friend Tyaga, with whom she had engaged in collaborative painting practices. At the opening, Lumbard invited her thesis supervisor, Faith Wilding, to perform Invitation to a Burning.
Lumbard also published some of her research in Woman’s Art Journal, spring-summer, 1981, Paula Lumbard, “Dorothea Tanning: On the Threshold to a Darker Place.”