Fierce Women of Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


This year the
anonymous group of women who call themselves
the Guerrilla Girls are celebrating their
30th anniversary of questioning and disrupting
art world practices, asking important questions
about whose work gets seen in art institutions and why. In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls
put out this public service message, calling attention
to the paucity of solo shows by women artists in
New York’s art museums. And this year, they
updated this list, showing only modest improvement. There’s still deeply
entrenched discrimination across the board in
arts institutions, and the Guerrilla
Girls have been steadfast in calling it out. I have tremendous
respect for what they do. And for me, they
fall into a category of truly inspirational
artists who take risks, are supremely
awesome, unapologetic, and who happen to be women. I’m going to call them
Fierce Women of Art. They make a wide range
of work, and we’re only going to touch on a tiny
portion of it today. But I feel the need to
single out and celebrate some of the most inspirationally
brazen women who’ve made art in the last several decades. Today, I’m going to
talk about five of them. First up, the aforementioned
Guerrilla Girls. This art collective got
together after the Museum of Modern Art in New York had
a survey exhibition in 1984 of what they considered
to be the most important art of the time. Out of 169 artists,
only 13 were women. And all the artists were white
and from Europe or the US. Picketing was organized
outside the museum, but it seemed to make no
impression on visitors. So they decided to try
some different tactics. The group made posters
and stickers to plaster around the city that displayed
cold, hard statistics demonstrating that unambiguous
gender imbalance in museums and galleries. In 1989, they conducted what
they call a weenie count at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. They compared the number of
nude males to nude females in the art on display. They shared their results
on a billboard made through the Public Art Fund
and updated their findings in 2005 and 2012. Their efforts extend
beyond gender concerns. And their work has
also brought attention to racial inequality in
the art world and beyond. Playing upon the
word “guerrilla”– as in freedom fighter–
and its homonym “gorilla”– the animal– the group members
wear masks when in public, each choosing the name of a
woman artist of the past to go by. It injects humor
in their activism but also works to protect
their individual careers. And as founding member
Frida Kahlo once said, “If you’re in a situation where
you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what
comes out of your mouth.” As their statistics
continue to show, this is an issue that
has not gone away– making their work of using,
quote, “facts, humor, and fake fur to
embarrass and transform the powers that be as relevant
and important as ever.” Corita Kent was a sister of
the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles and taught
art in the 1950s and ’60s at Immaculate Heart College. During that time she forged her
own printmaking aesthetic while also inspiring and opening the
minds of her students, peers, and scads of others. Even before Warhol,
Sister Corita was experimenting with silk
screening and iconography of advertising. She made posters,
serigraphs, banners, and murals that combined her
interest in faith, literature, and activism– creating
dynamic, powerful images that asked the critical
questions of her time. Her work was highly political,
addressing the Vietnam War and civil rights. And her banners and
posters could often be seen at rallies
in the ’60s and ’70s. She left the order
in 1968, but remained a member of the Catholic
church and continued making work until her death. Her brand of activism was bold
and unflinching, but wholly positive and inclusive. Rare is the figure who
can inspire and engage such wide audiences and
present a kind of idealism that is intelligent and unrelenting. Lynda Benglis came to the
fore in the late 1960s with her poured pieces, hybrids
of painting and sculpture made by her pouring latex and
foam directly onto the floor. These bright, bold,
and central works one-upped the gestures of
the abstract expressionists and also ran counter
to the rigid minimalism that was currently
reigning supreme. But she became famous not
just for her pioneering work but also for a legendary ad
she put in the November 1974 issue of “Artforum” magazine. Before that, she’d already
begun to cheekily reference the male domination
of the art world by including a
picture of herself as a child wearing a
traditional Greek boys costume on her announcement
card for a 1973 exhibition. Then in April of
’74, you see her in an ad in “Artforum”
for another show, wearing aviators and leaning
against her silver Porsche. A card announcing her show
at Paula Cooper Gallery in May of ’74 includes
this photograph of Benglis taken
by Annie Leibovitz. But the real kicker was
the November “Artforum” ad which she purchased herself,
called a centerfold, and considered a work of art. It included an unforgettable
photograph of Benglis nude, holding a large double-headed
dildo between her legs. Google it. The image was shocking
and hugely divisive, causing resignations from
two of the magazine’s editors who considered it pornographic. Love it or hate it,
the picture made fun of the machismo
of the art and artists who ruled the market, while
also subverting the male gaze. Benglis owned it. And for me, this
image represents her absolutely taking command
of her sexuality, her career, and her public image. The controversy has
abated, but the picture is still remarkably
powerful– although difficult to find in libraries
due to theft. For many artists, this kind
of act could subsume a career. But Benglis has continued to
make ever-new and innovative work throughout her career. Her decades-long exploration
of biomorphism and materiality has earned her
enormous influence, and the impact of her
work is strong today. In 1989, the National
Gallery of Art in Beijing hosted a show called
“China Avant-Garde”, which was the
country’s first ever, government-sponsored
exhibition of experimental art. The show opened on
February 5 at 9:00 AM and was closed down by
3:00 PM on the same day after one of the artists
whose work was included in the show, Xiao Lu,
walked into the galleries, took out a pellet gun,
and fired two shots into her installation. Made in collaboration
with the artist Tang Song, the piece consisted of
two telephone booths with a male figure in one, a
female figure in the other, and a red telephone dangling
off its receiver in between. Titled “Dialogue”, the piece was
clearly about a lack thereof. And Xiao Lu’s performative
act of shooting on it, while she claimed it was
personal and not politically motivated, resounded strongly
as an act of rebellion at a time, post-cultural
revolution, when the government
was just beginning to loosen its control and
censorship of artistic output. She was lauded as a hero of the
cultural and political vanguard just as tensions were rising
toward the pro-democracy demonstrations and
subsequent massacre that would take place in Tiananmen
Square just months later. Few if any other
women artists in China have achieved this
kind of a notoriety, even as the market for
contemporary Chinese art has expanded and provided
international platforms for a number of male
artists from China. Xiao Lu has continued
to make work since 1989, although with considerably
less attention– exploring controversial
issues through works like “Sperm”, which documents
her quest for a sperm donor and a doctor who would
artificially inseminate her as well as her ultimate failure. Another work titled “Wedding”
documents her performance of marrying herself– arriving
by a coffin in a wedding gown, slipping rings onto both ring
fingers, and releasing a dove. Xiao Lu’s brand of activism
is intensely personal but resonates strongly
within a culture constrained by censorship
and largely dominated by men. Kara Walker burst
onto the New York art scene in the mid-1990s
with her installations of large-scale, cut-paper
silhouettes that bring to life imagined narratives of the
pre-Civil War American South. Her characters and
scenery represent exaggerated stereotypes drawn
from historical depictions of the time, presenting
grotesque and violent tableaus of plantation life. Her diverse body
of work expanded to include drawing, painting,
projection, and video. But her focus and
work has remained steadfastly trained on
histories of slavery; discrimination; and
what she has called her ever-present,
never-ending war with race. In 2014, Walker created
her largest work to date, call “A Subtlety” in a former
sugar factory in Brooklyn. Within the space, she installed
a colossal sphinx-like female sculpture coated in
sugar, surrounded by smaller molasses-coated
figures of little boys carrying bananas and baskets. Its subtitle tells
you all you need to know– “the Marvelous
Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined our Sweet from the to the
Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the
demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”. It’s Walker’s unsubtlety in
many cases that captivates us. Recapitulating painful
stereotypes in order to critique them. Her works are deliberately
provocative and often difficult to look at,
but they effectively get at the very worst
of America’s past as well as its present. Walker’s work reminds
me again and again of that Faulkner line.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Her work is a stalwart
testimony to that. There are many more artists I
admire regardless of gender. And I’m definitely
aware that there are other disparities
in the art world that prevent artists
from rising to the top. But who are the fierce
artists you admire? Let’s talk about
it in the comments.

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