In 1976 the first major retrospective exhibition of women’s art occurred, just in time for the bicentennial and following the “international year of the woman.” Women Artists, 1550-1950 curated by Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris, offered a survey-style, chronological narrative of women from the Renaissance to modernism for potential inclusion in the canon. The catalogue of the exhibition includes essays by the curators, thirty-two color plates, lengthy biographical entries for the eighty-five women in the exhibition, and an extensive bibliography. It became de facto the first textbook of women’s art history.
The hidden history of the exhibition itself provides one of the most interesting glimpses into the varied groups that created the idea of women’s culture. Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” became one of the beginning point of feminist art activism for many women, and the exhibition itself has similar, although less well known, roots.
The origins of the exhibition lay in 1970 when the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists formed to protest the lack of women included in the Art and Technology exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After conducting a statistical analysis of the museum’s holdings and recent exhibitions, LACWA compiled a report of their findings. LACWA representatives met repeatedly with museum staff, presented their findings to the Museum’s Board or Trustees, and protested in front of the museum sometime after the opening of the Art and Technology exhibition in May 1971. On June 15, 1971, LACWA held a press conference at the Greater Los Angeles Press Club to publicly accuse the museum of discriminating against women artists in exhibition practices and to present their series of twelve demands. The museum acquiesced to only one of their demands, agreeing to a large retrospective exhibition of women’s art, which became Women Artists: 1550-1950.
The exhibition and the catalogue itself must have been a revelation to women who had been consistently told that their sex was incapable of producing high art, but the traditional exhibition strategies employed by Nochlin and Sutherland-Harris offer a story of art that is decidedly Whiggish and most certainly teleological. As in the case of most retrospective shows, the narrative is chronological, as indicated by dates appended to the title of the exhibition. Women Artists 1550-1950 had to rely on traditional strategies, such as chronology, because its main purpose was the retrieval women who had been left out. Rather than eschewing the traditional narrative, this large historical show attempted to rewrite it by creating a parallel that when meshed with the original would integrate women seamlessly into the story of art.
In their efforts to retrieve women artists, feminist art activists exhibited an approach to history quite similar to French sociologist Alain Touraine’s early writings. In his first major theoretical work, The post-industrial society, (1969/1971), tellingly subtitled “tomorrow’s social history” Touraine reconfigures history around alienation, not from labor, but from culture.
the method I choose to follow is different: it will question first of all the social and cultural orientation of a society, the nature of the social conflicts and power struggles through which these orientations are worked out and what it is that the ruling social elements repress that provokes social movements. My analysis will not focus on the inner workings of the social system but on the formation of historical activity – the manner in which men focus their history. 4
Touraine claims that previous notions of history, which involved “a time when the appeal to history and geography was raised by the new dominant classes, the conquering bourgeoisie, which believed in evolution and progress,” have become reactionary (55). Instead the field of conflict, the May ’68 student movement provides his example, is for “the struggle by one historical agent against one of several adversaries committed to a parallel and antagonistic effort to gain control of the instruments and effects of social change.”
This notion of historicity helps us to understand the earliest efforts to “retrieve” women from history, as a move by “one historical agent” –feminist art activists– to contest “the instruments and effects of social change,” in this example art historical narratives. As Touraine notes in his defense of the student movement, such movements are not merely “self-expressive, it defined its adversaries and its struggles.” Thus such social movements must be understood “not in terms of the consciousness of the participants … but in terms of the conflicts and contradictions of society and its social and political system” that they reveal”91.
The seemingly innocuous, and perhaps even to some conservative goal of integrating women into the story of art, must be seen in terms of the conflicts and contradictions it provoked. Even while cleaving to the chronological, Women Artists 1550-1950 still destabilized the notion of history, particularly that it functions as an objective iteration of the past, because the parallel narrative created by Women Artists: !550-1950 revealed a perspective on how certain practices, in this case historical ones, are used to justify others, such as patriarchy, to exclude women who were too decorative, imitative, or any of the other adjectives used to erase them.
In his conclusion to The Post-Industrial Society, Touraine accords a central role to art. “Cultural models must be placed at the center of society …. Weakening the roles of heritage and of “content.” Art … associates formalization and imagination … becomes language and desire instead of message and representation” (223). Some feminist art activists proceeded in that vein, leaving behind the notion of a hidden “heritage” to be valorized. They chafed at the limitations imposed by simply seeking to retrieve women artists who worked in conventional mediums, recognized genres, or accepted schools of art. These methods left women artists vulnerable to criteria of greatness, hierarchies of media, and interpretations by critics and curators alike.
As Touraine continued to elaborate on his new historical framework, he regrettably ignored the emerging movements of women. “Men make their own history” is the first line of Touraine’s The Voice and the Eye (1977), a gloss on Marx “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.” Still, the impulse by some art activists, to make their own history, to paraphrase Touraine, is clearly consistent with his idea. By Our Own Hands: The Women Artist’s Movement, Southern California 1970-1976 by Faith Wilding, picks up the story of women’s art where Nochlin and Sutherland-Harris’ catalogue left off.
The book was intended initially to accompany one of the many events in Los Angeles that occurred in conjunction with Women Artists 1550-1950. As Wilding explained in the introduction, the work was “partly inspired by the celebrations now underway in Los Angeles, honoring the achievements of women artists with shows and exhibitions all over the country” but, it was also driven by her recognition that “At this time it is vital to record, examine and bring to public attention, the efforts of those who made our history.” (6) When at the last minute, the institution sponsoring the concomitant exhibition cancelled it, Wilding published a stand-alone book that offered the first history of the feminist art movement in Los Angeles.
The history offered by Wilding differed from the sort Nochlin and Sutherland-Harris retrieved. Unlike the chronological survey offered in Women Artists, Wilding eschews synthesis, giving each woman, group or organization, its own separate space. Individuals, one-time events, galleries, institutions, are treated as equally important. Furthermore, unlike the story told by Nochlin and Sutherland-Harris, which treated women artists as discrete entities, Wilding offers a tale of constant connections, in which linkages proceed not chronologically along a timeline, but in a tangled web of inter-relations.
Feminist art education programs create spin offs, but also the apprentice system of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Art exhibitions give rise to other shows. Causation is similarly disordered. The LAMCA protest, which spawned LACWA diverges into Joan of Art, seminars offered by lithographer June Wayne about succeeding in the art world, and Womanspace, a feminist cooperative gallery. Double XX, a feminist art collective, emerges out of the membership of Womanspace. Womanspace Journal becomes the predecessor to Chrysalis, a Magazine of Women’s Culture.
Wilding’s inter-related and admittedly highly personalized history reflects a new sort of vision of the past, one which sought not to retrieve lost women, but to reclaim the past in very specific ways for present uses. Wilding hopes “this history, which shows that things have improved, and that specifically women artists themselves have become dramatically stronger, will encourage new imaginative efforts among them” (7) These “imaginative” efforts increasingly took hold of the historical work done by feminist art activists in Los Angeles.
Driven by highly personal motivations, rather than the purported objectivity of history, these uses of the past were explicitly connected to the future. They dispensed entirely with the notion of history as a series of dots on an orderly line and instead manipulated chronological conceptions to reclaim the past. In particular, Touraine’s idea of art as “language and desire” is relevant to these works, which sought through the slippery chains of the past to find a way back to matriarchy as a means of empowerment in the present.