I was fortunate enough to be a part of the first feminist art exhibit held in my lifetime. In fact, a friend & I organized it! It was called, “X12, 12 Women Artists.”
(Click here to read a retrospective I wrote 5 years later in WOMANART. (1-mb PDF.) In rereading it, I find it captures much that was so powerful about both the show & the experience of doing it.)
I say “first feminist art exhibit held in my lifetime” because I remembered that prior to the feminist revolution of the late 60's, early 70's, Peggy Guggenheim had created an exhibit of women painters during World War II . It was an exhibit that Georgia O'Keefe refused to participate in because she was not “a woman painter” and successful women artists in the 60's & 70's had the same response. (Source: John Russell, NY Times, August 18, 1985). In fact, many women artists still refuse to participate in feminist shows.
I began thinking again about these issues when I was asked to put together material about the X12 show. The request came as part of fact gathering for a historical review of feminist art (called WACK!) to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007.
To put on an art show of only female artists displaying their FIRST NAME and last name and not just the first initial, in order to pose as male artists, was a supremely radical act in 1970! Simply doing so, not only gave us power, but also helped to expose an inequity. As a result of feminist art protests like ours, thousands of women artists can now get their art into galleries throughout the world.
In Russell's 1985 article, he discussed the problem of being a woman artist, historically (& perhaps forever), beginning with the story about O'Keefe and continued with other examples of the prejudice that was pervasive. However, Russell stated, “that a segregated museum is no more of a compliment to women artists than a segregated bus was a compliment to blacks.”
But who was looking for compliments in 1970? We just wanted to get our work out, including work that involved the personal - a “female” interest that was excluded from the category of “real art” at the time - as well as the political.
It was not psychologically easy to organize an all-female artist exhibit in 1970. In addition to challenging the art establishment, the very people on whom one's career might depend, we risked being branded as second-class artists-those who could not compete with men. But that didn't happen. The reviews were pretty good, as I now see in looking back at them.
First of all, we were treated seriously: For instance, In 1977, Grace Glueck had this to say about the show, “A long run of group shows, begun in 1970 with the pioneering 12 woman “X to the 12th Power”, held in a downtown loft have given exposure to a host of women artists and their works, not previously seen…”
In an essay by critic, Lawrence Alloway, he says, “…. a splinter group from AWC [Artworkers Coalition] called Women Artists in revolution (WAR) arranged the first feminist exhibit called “X12” in 1970. Vernita Nemec, one of the organizers of this show…”
(I had almost forgotten that we called ourselves, “Women Artists in Revolution.” WAR!)
Alloway also did a review of the show in the Nation (The Nation (February 23, 1970). It's interesting that until recently I had no copy of this original review, except for an angry letter written by one of the X12 artists objecting to Alloway's use of the word "naive", I mis-remembered his review to be negative too, when in fact it was quite supportive.
Now re-reading his review I see that we were far too sensitive, for Alloway had, in fact, written positively about the show saying "intensity of assertion is art's function for most of these artists... compared to the technology of the establishment, convulsively hand-crafted objects acquire an expressive function. A naive sense of the sacred, of the conviction of mission insists that this work is more passionate and more effective than well-made sophisticated art." Fortunately, I found that article again in The Nation Archives and you can read it by clicking here for a PDF copy.
After discussing our show in his 2/23/1970 art column, Alloway goes on to write about another female artist, contrasting her non-contextual art with our work. I saw this happen a lot. It seems that our militancy made critics pay more attention to and speak more approvingly of non-feminist artists.
Reviewing this history that I had put out of my mind for so long has reminded me that we can easily forget some of our most important achievements. Artists sometimes don't realize that by working with others, they can often accomplish more than by working alone.
For more detailed press coverage, you can click here to download a PDF file with 4 reviews. In the 1976 WomanArt article, I list some comments by other critics - including critics whose clippings I can't find.
WomanArt was a feminist magazine created by Ellen Lubell, a writer for both, “Arts,” and “Art in America,” whom I met because of a review she did of a show of Brooklyn College Art Faculty. In the review, she singled out my piece as outstanding. Naturally, I took to her immediately. That initial positive review began a long friendship, which included my writing for her magazine....
In putting together this web page, I have been stimulated to do a great deal of thinking about the early seventies and how different they were from today. Perhaps those times are returning politically for there seems to be a kind of reawakening occurring in our country. I do hope so. On one hand, our abortion rights continue to be threatened but on the other, the Muslin treatment of women is raising consciousness about the harsh treatment of women in those cultures.
Considering the statement we were making with X12 in 1970, it is telling that I have no good pictures of my art from that time, and can't even find bad ones. The other artists in the exhibit that I have been able to reach (and who are still alive) suffer the same dilemma. Perhaps because of our female egos that were still functioning, I found many photos of us posing on the roof of my east village studio building. But, as far as the artwork itself is concerned, little evidence remains.
Lil Picard in her 1970 review in the East Village Other describes my art as "doll puppets hanging from the ceiling in grotesque pillow shapes covered with fine line drawings..." Some now might think my stuffed canvas figures shares a kinship with a Louise Bourgeois artwork. Perhaps they do but it was before I remember seeing her sewn things (the it was her marble & wood sculptures) and while she was still ignored by the greater art world!… I can't remember if I made a self-portrait but already I was making a statement of personal revelations through my art rather than talking about them. It was a tough time for me, and as I remember now, it was a difficult time for many of us. For me, just a few years out of grad school, and Ohio and approaching a divorce; relationship problems pervaded for many of us and health problems were not far down the road.
When I wrote the article about X12 for WomanArt in 1976 and now as I compile these documents, I have tried to locate the other 11. I have discovered that many of us have remained active and some have died. Carolyn Mazzello who co-organized X12 with me died last year, Mary Ann Gillies who was one of the founders of SoHo 20, the 2nd feminist gallery, died years ago as did Dolores Holmes who founded pt=229/*The White Mask Theatre. I assume Doris O'Kane has died since she was not young then.
Hopefully the others are on the planet though I have no idea whatever happened to Helene Gross or Arline Lederman. Alida Walsh was long involved with Women Make Movies and Inverna Lockpez was the director of a prominent NYC Latino Art space, but both have left NYC as far as I know. I googled Iris Crump and found she was a prime mover in the 2005 Grandmother's Council & Wisdom Conference. Silvianna and Lois diCosola, both of whom I continue to be in touch with, are still in NY and continue to make art. Silvianna films and photographs, Lois painting & collage.
I too continue with collage, installation and performance art. I did a guerilla performance at the Pompidou Centre in Paris January 2006 (& October 2007) and have been invited to present my Endless Junkmail Scroll (a hundred foot collage in sections) repeatedly. I ran Artists Talk on Art for 10 years and until 2006, I was the director of a Chelsea gallery (Viridian Artists) as well as independently curating, particularly shows of art made from recycled materials (Art from Detritus). But then, you are reading this on my website and I hope to have all this information kept up to date here for you to see.