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feminist art exhibit

eyed by male artist


The big hanging red fabric sculpture greeting me is labial in structure.

The labia are actually called “Abakan Red,” a fabric hanging done back in 1969 by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowiz. It is made out of something called “sisal” which I have never heard of.

As I walk around it I remember my large macramé wall hanging that I knotted in the late 70s. It was six feet long, hanging from a piece of driftwood and drawn together at the bottom. The cotton middle of the knotted piece hung down in a fluffy free spray of white cotton.

“It looks like a penis,” said many a visitor about my macramé wall hanging. They were right, I finally decided, but it hadn’t been my intent, nor had I ever noticed the similarity.

After years during which the penis macramé dominated my apartments in various West Los
Angeles locations, I decided one day to carry it out to a dumpster and dispose of it. Since that day I’ve never thought about it. Now these big red labia hanging in front of my face at the “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” art exhibit in Geffen Contemporary at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art brings my hanging penis back to mind.

I wonder if Magdalena had more intention about the direction her creation was taking than I did while I was knotting my…macramé. I guess that she must have.

Next I’m drawn to two drawings by Margaret Harrison. One is a robotic-looking graphite and watercolor piece titled “Captain America” with Frankenstein-like overtones and a wide open vulva.

Suddenly I’m thinking back to the underground newspaper I edited in high school. At the time, 1970, I was a freshman. A talented young woman who was then in her senior year submitted a poem
that I published. It included the words “Touch me, I have a burning separation.”

That line in my high school underground newspaper was quickly labeled as pornography by conservative
members of the suburban community of Ferndale, Michigan where I attended school.

On the walls of WACK! another Margaret Harrison piece catches my eye. “Banana Woman” features a woman clad in black lingerie riding on top of banana that is larger than she is. The banana woman is lurching forward with the tender end of the phallic fruit in her mouth.

“ALLENDE” proclaims one of the twelve “books” in “Dairy of Objects of Resistance” created in 1973 by an
English woman.

I search for the artist’s name, but I don’t see it in the display case that seems to be skimmed over and forgotten by other visitors. The reason I put the word “books” in quotation marks is because these are items that few would readily describe as books, but which the woman who created them designed as easily hidden from the Chilean authorities and, as the artist was always on the move, easily portable.

The objects she created take us inside her experiences as a British socialist during the early days of the
period when the military overthrew Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, in June of 1973. As many know, they did so with encouragement from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Chilean right wing.

I recall the Costa-Gavras film “Missing,” starring Jack Lemon and Sissy Spacek, which featured the story of an American father whose daughter went missing in Chile.

Suddenly, all my own experiences in Chile, and with Chile, are flashing before me. 

I was pro-Allende from the safety of my small Pleasant Ridge suburb outside Detroit. I was shocked, saddened, and horrified when news came out that the United States CIA had been an agent of
Allende’s overthrow. As the years passed I followed the ramifications of the overthrow. These included the U.S. Congress passing laws forbidding the overthrow of foreign governments and the people (women) of Chile eventually figuring out an effective protest that didn’t get them arrested and killed. At first they banged on pots all across Santiago, creating a cacophony, followed by protests that ended the military regime of Augusto Pinochet.

One day in the late 1980s, while I was walking on the Venice Pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean in sunny Southern California, I met a woman dressed in pink, though not entirely dressed. Her pink shorts revealed beautiful legs above pink socks and white roller-skates.

Paola was waiting for the remainder of her roller-skating LAN Chile flight crew to catch up to her and she had just taken a nasty tumble. She lifted up the back side of her pink shorts to show me a large raspberry wound from her fall. After that introduction, Paola and I saw each other each time she arrived on a LAN Chile flight into LA.

Though we both lived on a continent with America in its name, the distance and differences in our lives
in opposite hemisphere’s caused us to drift apart. She ended up marrying a pilot from LAN Chile and is hopefully living happily ever-after.

One afternoon a couple years later, much to my surprise, I received a call from “Andrea, Paola’s sister.” She had followed in the footsteps of her older sister (after graduating with her undergraduate degree in
education) and was working as a flight attendant for the LAN Chile airline.

There were many reasons I ended up falling in love with Andrea, perhaps one was the stories she
told of her participation in protests against Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, even though her father, a former Air Force general turned historian, had been a part it. Andrea even gave me the hat she wore during the protests.

During the time I was with Andrea, I had no extra income with which to travel to Chile. She was rerouted to the Santiago to Miami flight and eventually she also ended up marrying a LAN Chile pilot.

When I finally made it to Santiago Chile to videotape a tennis tournament, I was no longer in contact with Paola or Andrea and I was surprised by the views of the woman who owned the bed and breakfast in which I stayed. She longed for the stability of Pinochet and right wing rule.

Back at WACK!, Martha Rosler’s “Hot House” aka “Harem” is a photo collage of Playboy playmates and women from magazine bra ads assembled into a nude harem. Ahhh, this work takes me back to
those years during which Martha was creating her pieces on display, 1966 to 1972. Hey, I think I recognize some of the women in Martha’s harem from my adolescent (insert exhibition name here)ing.

Martha’s harem also reminds me of how my adolescent sexual awakening was stoked by a primal fantasy that arose naturally from my subconscious “The Naked Ladies Club.” My dreams at the time were filled with imagery of women who lived in caves below my Pleasant Ridge home and who at night came up through the walls to kidnap me and teach me about sex.

“Intercourse with…” is audio listened to at two pairs of headsets while pondering a multicolumn list of names. The audio, compiled from the phone machine messages received by Hannah White, includes calls from everyone from Francis Ford-Coppola and Claus Oldenburg to a man who says he has dialed a wrong number that (my guess) calls back later as a “Heavy breather.”

Hannah also appears in her own video monologue. She is seen from the waist up, talking while topless and perhaps bottomless as well.

Oh the things you can do with panty hose! I’m looking at an abstract corner installation made in 1977 by
Senga Nengudis, titled “Nylon mesh and sand.” Use your imagination (or look at the picture in the right hand column) to envision Senga’s panty hose filled in the hip, crotch and butt area with varying quantities of sand, with the legs stretched super long upward in large “V” shapes and nailed to walls. I see a series of
female back sides from buttocks to shoulders in this work and envision these women with arms stretched up in a “V” or vulva shape. What do you see?

Conceptualist or conceptualism is central to “Carving” by Eleanor Antin. The artist is shown in four rows of forty black and white images each, standing nude, mug-shot-like, in front of a white door as she strives to
“carve” weight from her body via a weight loss regime.

I come closest as an artist to the works I see before me by Joan Semmel. Her oil paintings feature her
perspective of her body (larger than-life size) lying next to someone presumed by their proximity to be her lover.

Round a corner and the work of another collage artist appears. I particularly like Mary Beth Edelson’s 1976 work “Death of Patriarchy/Heresies.” It depicts the faces of the artist and her A.I.R. girlfriends pasted over those of individuals in a painting of French revolutionaries that seems familiar, so I assume the original is famous and hanging somewhere in the Louvre Museum.

The only men shown in this piece by Mary Beth are dying on the ground or already lying prone.

Next to the work referenced above, is Mary Beth’s “Bring Home the Evolution,” featuring a similar scene to the one just described, except this one is familiar from somewhere in the American history recesses of my mind.

Perhaps the original work depicts Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys (or some such revolutionary expeditionary force) hiking toward us on a mountain road. Mary Beth’s version has the faces of women who at the time she created it were working to achieve an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women.

I stand in front of this work, recalling how the ERA passed both houses of Congress and was ratified by many states, but after a long struggle failed to achieve ratification by the number of states required to amend it to the U.S. Constitution.

And I give a hip-hip hooray for Mary Beth’s “Some Living American Women Artists” which portrays Georgia O’Keefe sitting in Christ’s seat in a recasting of DiVinci’s “The Last Supper” surrounded by other women whose faces I don’t recognize.  Is one of them Mary Beth?

An overwhelming realization comes over me as I pause after viewing what I figure is one-third of the art
works on display at WACK! Most of the works featured are from the sixties and seventies. Cataloging what I have seen in my mind I consider it probable that the collection reflects a curatorial constriction of the works shown.

I get the impression of a great fluorescence of feminist and/or female artistic expression and exploration
during two liberating decades, but begin to wonder about what women in the arts have been up to since then.

My mind moves to the field of archaeology, where during the two decades depicted in the WACK! exhibition, female and male archaeologists such as Marija Gimbutas and James Mellaart began
making assertions about the existence of a prehistoric “Civilization of the Goddess” (approximately 10,000 to 5,000 years ago) and about Mother Goddess figurines found at places like “Catal Huyuck: A Neolithic town in Anatolia.

In more recent years, an archaeological backlash of sorts has been underway, characterized best by a
more conservative archaeological view that might best be paraphrased by a statement like “You can’t assume what was going on the minds of people 10,000 years ago, a time before written language.”

To this I answer that the INTUITION of modern researchers like yourself is extremely important. As you gaze upon artifacts and architecture created by people who lived in the deep past, what is evoked in your mind? The strict scientific approach of archaeologists is absolutely critical throughout the excavation and
cataloging processes. After all this work is done, you can take long looks at the artistic craftsmanship and handiwork of prehistoric people and ponder what those who created the ancient objects had in mind. You’ll never KNOW with certainty, however, the feeling you get may be every bit as valuable or even more so.

As I think about how archaeology has become more careful and conservative about calling female figurines goddesses and speculating about what prehistoric people were thinking, my mind moves into paralleling societal retrenchments that following the social, creative, cultural and artistic experimentation of the sixties and seventies. We are no doubt still living through this period.

Speaking of X-perimentation, there is exploration by the women whose art is displayed in the WACK! exhibition, of themes that in other venues might grab an X-rating, be labeled as porn, or perhaps banned due
to community sensibility for X-plicit themes. One artist, Cosey Fanni Tutti, actually infiltrated the porn industry as a performer “to subvert the medium’s power of subjugation.”

If one had access to Tee Corinne’s “Cunt Coloring Book” and colored in the images presumed to be inside,
you could come up with a reasonable facsimile of a Georgia O’Keefe flower image. Fortunately the coloring book is sealed inside a glass display case, so any impulse to color flower-like vaginal openings and labia remains interior within my mind.

Now I am sitting on stacked up mattresses inside a square structure formed from floor to ceiling (walls included) by mattresses attached to an aluminum pipe structure. The work was created by Marta Minujin
and Richard Squires and is called Soft Gallery. Inside it, I’m being bounced on the mattress by the steps of people who have come in after me to watch a video by a female artist on a TV. The television is the only other thing in the room besides people (mostly women) and mattresses.

I can’t see the TV for all the female bodies bouncing with me, the only man, on these mattresses. The show in the room is compelling, but I move on.

On a wall outside the mattress room, artist Bonnie Ora Sherk really catches my attention. Back in the 70s she created a communal farm under an overpass in San Francisco and her big mixed-media mural
in front of me offers a layout of the farm with photos varnished on it and various notes written. I wish for many more of these places in the green world of our future. I make a mental note see what her place is like now the next time in Frisco. And I find myself wishing that I‘d been a part of its creation
back in the 70s. Sherk’s series of works ends in 1980. Wonder what she’s up to now?

Back in the mattress room, now less crowded, I see that the video is of a protest “mourning the reality of violence against women.” The protest seeks respect for the rights of women who have been raped and abused. Have we made great progress since this protest was held? I think first about how corporations are now offering training to prevent sexual harassment and firing employees who are found guilty of it. Then I think about how the police and the judiciary are now much tougher on rape and no longer blame the victim. However, my next thought is about how much more needs to be accomplished throughout the world to protect the rights of women.

Large black and white photos show Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her two male colleagues cleaning the display case of a female Egyptian mummy back in 1973. The work is titled “Transfer: The Maintenance of Art Objects.” Fond as I am of Egyptology and of precursor cultures that are theorized to have had female-male equality, I imagine the mummy in Mierle’s photos to be a queen, like Queen Hatshepsut, who was pharaoh from approximately 3487 to 3466 years ago. Hatshepsut’s mummy was recently identified when analysis of the mitochondrial DNA found inside the Hatshepsut mummy was compared with mitochondrial DNA of Queen Nefertari, her grandmother, who lived from 3578 to 3513 years ago.

In ancient Egypt, royal lineage was traced through the women. I consider for a moment that when
the WACK! artists were creating the works on display here, humanity did not yet know that we all inherit our mitochondrial DNA only from our mothers. If they had, perhaps I would be looking at an art piece on display celebrating the discovery

Last to discuss is the Goddess section of the WACK! exhibition. The red labia hanging that I began by discussing is considered part of the Goddess works. So is a model of a work called “Hon” by Niki de Sainte Phalle.

Niki calls many of her female works Nana, or mother. Unschooled in the breadth of Niki’s work until recently, the Nana reproductions have from first glance represent for me the Great Goddess, Mother Nature, Mother Earth of prehistory (and present). The model of ”Hon” at WACK! is a Nana laying on her back. Her legs are bent, her feet are grounded and small steps lead up to an oval vaginal hole, the entrance to the work.

The full size momma “Hon” was a massive structure in the form of a reclining Nana, temporarily assembled by Niki in for a 1966 exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. Inside the pregnant belly of “Hon” Niki designed and built a planetarium, milk bar, movie theater and gallery. Beside the mockup of “Hon” is a large black and white blow up of the installed work, complete with people entering it through the birth canal.

My first impression upon hearing about the installation and seeing the mockup was that Niki was referencing the ancient prehistoric structures that some archaeologists suggest may have been
meant as exactly the same pregnant woman on her back. Was Niki’s colorful work a reference to these amazing prehistoric structures? I have chosen to consider them such.

These days Niki has gone on from the temporary ”Hon” to build several permanent walk-in figures at her Tarot Garden in the hills of Italy and has a major installation in the hills of Japan near Tokyo.

As I stand gazing at the “Hon” mockup from a vantage point between the reclining Nana’s legs, an art educator who I previously noticed leading to a large tour group comes on a direct route to me.

“I have to ask you, what are you writing?”

I struggle for the words to describe the experiences I’ve had wandering WACK! With a lack of articulate
phrasing that surprises me, especially given the intensity of the thoughts that have run through my mind, I briefly explain the goddesses.com web site and wonder if I could ask her a few questions about the exhibit.

She consents.

Q: What it seems is that the exhibition is focused on works by female artists of the 60s and 70s. Why?

A: They had thought about including the 50s, but the 60s and 70s was when everything came together.

Q: What happened afterward in the 80s?

A: The 80s were a time of focus on diversity, inclusion. Hip hop artists and graffiti artists took center stage.

Q: In truth, aren’t most of the artists represented here white women?

A: No. Look right here. This documents the performance art of black woman who wore this dress made of white gloves into all white establishments. She was focused on breaking down and challenging color barriers.

Q: The “Hon” work seems to me to reference prehistoric goddess architecture where tombs were shaped like the pregnant belly of Mother Earth, entry was through vulva-like openings, and vagina-like passages led to womb-like tombs. I wonder whether Niki de Sainte Phalle was inspired by some of these sites that are known to archaeologists.

A: Niki de Sainte Phalle is very well-educated and well-read on many subjects. She may well have been inspired by these places.

I began trying to articulate a coherent thought about how my formative Naked Ladies Club fantasies led me to an interest in the prehistoric women who conducted rituals in caves, then to my deep interest in prehistoric archaeology, but several people who had been talking with the art educator previously, came along to talk with her again.

She catches my eyes again. I take the opportunity to ask her one last question.

Q: Is Los Angeles the only venue, or does the WACK! exhibition now go on tour?

A: WACK! goes to Washington D.C. next, then on to PS1 in New York City and to Vancouver after that.

Women (and a couple guys) at WACK!

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)


ARTIST: Martha Rosler

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)

Cover of WACK! exhibition catalogue

ARTIST: Senga Nengudi

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)

Photo by Brian Forrest.

ARTWORK: Death of Patriarchy/Heresies

ARTIST: Mary Beth Edelson

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)

Photo by Brian Forrest.

ARTWORK: Some Living American Women Artists

ARTIST: Mary Beth Edelson

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)

Photo by Brian Forrest.

ARTWORK: Soft Gallery
ARTISTS: Marta Minujin and Richard Squires

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)

Photo by Brian Forrest.

PHOTO: Untitled

PERFORMANCE ARTIST: Mlle Bourgeoise Noire

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum

show “Persona” in 1981, which she lampooned as “The Nine White Personae Show.”

Once inside the opening she shouted a poem, which ended with the line:

Sleeping beauty needs more than a kiss to awake, now is the time for an INVASION!

ARTIST: Niki De Saint Phalle

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles)

A model (left) and a hand-painted photo (right) of HON by Niki De Saint Phalle.

The reclining nude sculptural structure was created in 1966 as a temporary art piece during

an exhibition of Niki’s work at a museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

ARTIST: James Bennett, under supervision of Marija Gimbutas The image and layout above depict a 6000 year old Irish court tomb, or carin (burial house). The court is the area in front of the entrance. Almost 300 of these court tombs have been found in the northern part of Ireland.

Was the form of these tombs meant to evoke an impression of a pregnant Mother Earth
goddess reclining ready to offer rebirth? Like in the Niki De Saint Phalle HON art seen in the mockup and photo earlier, entrance to the Irish court tombs were perhaps thought to be through vulva openings. Beyond the vulva openings are vagina-like passages or chambers that lead to central burial rooms or wombs. These images are from Marija’s ceaselessly fascinating “Civilization of the Goddess,” a book which is no longer in print, but which is available by clicking the image above, then searching for the book’s title.


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