I’ve called myself a feminist since I learned the meaning of the word, because I’ve called myself an anarchist since I learned the meaning of that word, and patriarchy is just another one of the goddamn Archies putting the screws to us bewildered monkeys for fun and profit. Don’t they have some offs to fuck? By the time I got to art school in the late ’80s, though, most of the other people calling themselves feminists were, perversely, extremely authoritarian and uncreative academics who seemed to believe that if you put enough parentheses in the middle of words, Daddy would hand the reins of Western Civilization over to Mommy and everything would be all better. Still waiting to hear back on that one!

And it only got worse. By the time I finished grad school, the best and brightest young artists — male, female or other — not only displayed a knee-jerk anathema to the F-word, but seemed utterly devoid of any art-historical knowledge about what Feminist Art might actually look like, other than the desiccated text-laden residue that clung to the Ivory Tower. At its most vital, Feminist Art encompassed aspects of all that was formally and conceptually challenging and nourishing in other contemporary movements — from Post-Painterly Abstraction to Body Art — and threw in a cluster of its own innovative theoretical paradigms and studio practices such as quilting and the phallic gaze.

This generational cultural aphasia is probably the biggest reason that a show like “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution”is so important. Eight years in the making, the occasion allows former MOCA (now MoMA) curator Connie Butler to jam-pack the cavernous Geffen Contemporary with work from 119 artists from around the world, mixing up the canonical Feminist Art hierarchy (Mary Kelly’s 1975 Post-Partum Document; Eleanor Antin’s 1972 Carving: A Traditional Sculpture)with hefty doses of only marginally feminist work — Alice Neel’s gnarly oil portraits, Eva Hesse’s breakthrough masterpiece The Hang-up (1964–1966), Mary Heilman’s loosey-goosey geometric abstractions, Mary Baumeister’s rickety backlit Povera assemblage Needless Needles (1963), and so on.

Martha Rosler, Nature Girls (Jumping Janes), from the series Body Beautiful or Body Knows No Pain, 1966-72 (Courtesy of the artist)

Although these non-didactic works anchor the formalist end of the “WACK!” spectrum, there are plenty of pieces that strike an exquisite balance between sensory and cerebral. It’s great to see Lynda Benglis’ pointedly seminal work — the poured pigmented latex Odalisque (Hey, Hey Frankenthaler) (1969) and the following year’s melting foam corner blob For Carl Andre — though if you aren’t looking for it on the far side of the museum, you’d never guess that Benglis’ extremely controversial and oeuvre-complexifying Artforum ad from 1974 (a photographic self-portrait of the naked, greased artist holding an XXL dildo to her bathing suit area) was by the same author.

For me the most surprising work in the show is a selection of footage documenting quintessential Feminist Art star Judy Chicago’s early pyrotechnic works — collectively entitled Atmospheres. Combining Land Art, Happenings, ritual performance and a distinctly painterly aesthetic, Atmospheres progressed between 1967 and 1974 from psychedelically Turneresque landscape modifications using billowing clouds of colored smoke through more apocalyptic variations on the theme (dark gray clouds pouring off a freeway overpass) to more private theatrical events incorporating nude women in body paint and finally an elaborate butterfly-shaped fireworks display by a lakeside in Oakland. These signal works (which should have been given the full-wall projection instead of the push-button kiosk treatment) epitomize the all-too-frequent “If this had been done by a dude…” response.

I’m particularly struck by the quality of innocence (though not naiveté) that the nudist ritual performances convey — a feeling that these artists were, for the time being, operating outside any pre-existing art-world context. It’s a feeling that crops up regularly, in such works as Barbara Hammer’s goofily celebratory films like Superdyke (1975) and Lynn Hershman’s complex comedic Roberta narrative. Other notable entries that manage to be both visually and polemically compelling are contributed by Annette Messager (Voluntary Tortures [1972], a collection of 86 appropriated photos of found body works), Adrian Piper (Political Self-Portraits 1-3 [1979], some good readin’ if you can make it out through the photostat), and Susan Hiller (Sisters of Menon [1972–1979], a typically idiosyncratic exploration of the phenomenon of automatic writing).

 Lynda Benglis, Female Sensibility, 1973 (Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix)

In its almost overwhelming kaleidoscopic inclusiveness (there must be a couple of days’ worth of video and film alone) “WACK!” posits an alternate history of art for 1965–1980, detailing the symbiotic overlap between Feminist Art and movements as diverse as Process Art, Pattern and Decoration, Social Sculpture, and Minimalism. But “WACK!” goes further than describing mutual influences and partisan variations in emphasis as aspects of a culturewide sociopolitical upheaval by arguing that the source of these shared innovations lies primarily with feminist theory and practice. The problem with this is that feminism is of a different order of cultural phenomena than Pop Art or electronic music — one might as well argue that psychedelic drugs or the G.I. Bill or the civil rights movement prompted the radical arc of ’60s and ’70s art.

And, frankly, by these criteria, the most influential international “movement” of the postwar period has been heteropatriarchal capitalism, whose impact on the theories, structures and methodologies of contemporary art practice continued to expand in leaps and bounds before, during and after feminism’s salad days. Its influence is, in fact, so pervasive that it is accepted as the background against which movements like Feminist Art or Fluxus or even Abstract Expressionism manifested themselves. By defining Feminist Art without reference to this elephant in the room, “WACK!” reinforces its monolithic invisibility.

{mosimage}In this case, the elephant is the room. While it’s great to see much of this work and the show offers a long overdue object-lesson for Kids These Days, “WACK!” runs the risk of functioning as propaganda for the greed and status-driven (not to mention patently sexist, racist and classist) edifice that is the Art World. The decidedly triumphant tone of the exhibit is hijacked by its host organism. By containing and defining the insurgent impulses of Feminist Art in the context of MOCA — or any other corporate showroom — they suffer the same hegemonic ligation as when Nike sells sneakers with the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.” What did punk — or feminism — mean? It meant nothing. It meant business as usual. “See how Daddy has made note of your complaints?” I hope I’m wrong. I hope “WACK!” is sowing the seeds of the imminent revolution. But as the poet Jarvis Cocker recently observed (unfortunately not in a literal sense), “Cunts are still running the world.”

WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution | The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo | (213) 626-6222 | Through July 16

Katharina Sieverding, Transformer, 1973, detail
(Photo credit: © Klaus Mettig, VG Bild-Kunst)

Carolee Schneemann, Portrait Partials, 1970
(The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

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