Language plays an important role in our daily life and in art. We use language to communicate with each other, to describe what we see, what we feel, to convey our opinions or beliefs. We also use language to talk about art, to describe art and to interpret it and sometimes, language itself becomes art.
Recommended Reading presents writing about 20th-century art that subject-wise tie in with previous or upcoming blog posts. I will include any kind of writing; from essays to art historical classics to novels to comics or other blogs. I will link to everything that is available online and for everything else, I’ll try to make sure that they are available through your local bookstore.
The first Recommended Reading post will take a look at the women whose writing changed or reshaped our often very one-sided perception of art and art history by highlighting female artists and their contributions to art.
As discussed in the previous post, female artists like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler did not receive the same recognition from the art world as their male peers (and husbands). This is still true today; sexism is still a problem in the art world. In many areas, men still have it easier and female and female-identified artists continue to be underrepresented on gallery rosters, in institutional and private collections and in exhibitions. The situation is even tougher if you are a person of color.1
But it wasn’t just painters like Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler, who fought for a change of the status quo. Female art historians and art critics called out the lack of representation of female artists in galleries and on museum walls and wrote to combat a one-sided, male-dominated depiction of art and history.
These issues had been discussed before but mainly in private gatherings and in informal groups but the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s brought these issues from the private sphere into the public sphere (of the art world). Linda Nochlin was the one to bring these issues to a larger public when she published her essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists in the January 1971 in ARTNews magazine, in an issue that was entirely dedicated to women in art and Women’s Liberation.
Nochlin argued, that it was not a lack of talent that kept female artists from achieving the same success and status as their male peers, but that this was caused by society’s general attitude towards women. Society’s continued adherence to outdated gender roles that determined what a woman could and couldn’t do as well as the belief in the genius as an inherently male quality was what held women back.
There were of course critical reactions to her essay. But these didn’t only come from male colleagues or more traditional and conservative female colleagues, but also from female artists, such as Lynda Benglis, Louise Nevelson or Elaine de Kooning. ARTNews published their reactions in the same issue. By publishing this, ARTNews did not want to discredit Nochlin’s claims, the artists did agree with her overall statement, but show that there were different perspectives.
Criticism should not be understood only as rejection of a statement or a thesis. What criticism shows is that there are always multiple ways to approach a problem or an issue. As an art historian and professor at Vassar College, Nochlin was mainly interested in questioning the validity of the canon of art and not so much in developments within the art scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her interest was mainly academic, whereas the artists that reacted to her essay were part of the New York art scene and as artists themselves had a different view of the situation based on their experiences. This was the same in the women’s movement overall – not everyone agreed with each other at all times and this is often the case today as well. Changes in society an in politics influence our understanding of the past and can lead to the emergence of new discourses and discussions surrounding art, culture and history. The feminism of the 1970s is not the feminism of today and this is the same for art and how we view it.
While Nochlin was mainly involved in the academic discourses surrounding art, these artists tried to challenge art world hierarchies directly. They organized themselves in feminist art collectives such as the Heresies Collective or founded all-female art galleries that were run collectively and hosted only female artists like A.I.R. in New York City. The Heresies Collective also published a magazine in which artists wrote about art, politics, feminism, lesbian rights and visibility. Each issue was dedicated to a specific topic and titles included: Women’s Traditional Arts, Feminism and Ecology, Women and Architecture or Sex. There were also issues that discussed racism in the art world and in the Women’s Movement or that discussed the role of female artists in the different decolonization movement of South America. Founding members of the Heresies Collective were artists and curators Pat Steir, Joyce Kozloff, Harmony Hammond, Emma Amos, Miriam Shapiro, Ida Applebroog, Cecilia Vicuña and Lucy Lippard, among others. Contributors to the magazine included Audre Lorde, Virginia Jaramillo, Howardena Pindell, Lorna Simpson, Hannah Wilke and Judy Chicago.
So, below you’ll find a short list of books and essays on art and feminism and writing by women on art in general that includes Nochlin’s famous essay but also writing by other feminist historians as well as by queer women and women of color. Their writing presents a variety of different approaches and discourses art, feminism and gender, from the 1950s to the present.
[German readers might have noticed that the majority of the books were published in the United States and that, unfortunately, many of the titles have not yet been translated in to German and are therefore only available in English.]
n.paradox journal’s 12 Step Guide to Feminist Art, Art History and Criticism is a good starting point and can be found here.
All issues of Heresies are available for free as a PDF here.
Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter (Knopf, 2011)
Laura Cottingham, Seeing Through the Seventies: Essays on Feminism and Art (Psychology Press, 2000)
Cathy Curtis, A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning (2017)
Teresa De Laurentis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Indiana University Press, 1987)
Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art (Little, Brown and Company, 2019)
bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (The New Press, 1995)
William Lamoy (ed.), The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-55 (Syracuse University Press, 2009)
Lucy Lippard, Sweeping Exchanges (1980)
Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Famous Women Artists (ARTNews, 1971)
Adrian Piper, Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir (APRA Foundation, 2018, DE/EN)
Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Art Criticism, Vol. I-II (MIT Press, both 1996)
Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art (Routledge, 1988)
Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Writing of Art’s Histories (Routledge, 1999)
Catherine Morris, Rujeko Hockley, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 (Duke University Press, 2017)
[This is an excellent two-part book that was published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name that took place at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017. The first book, Sourcebook includes writing by key artists, writers and activists of that era, including Audre Lorde, Michele Wallace, Lorraine O’Grady or Gloria Anzaldúa. The second book, New Perspectives, presents newly commissioned writing by Aruna D’Souza, Kellie Jones and Uri McMillan.]
Hilary Robinson, Feminism Art Theory: An Anthology 1968 – 2014 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)
The White Pube (aka Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad)