If there is one central conclusion to be drawn from the recent array of books and catalogues on contemporary women artists, it is that there exists no such thing as women’s art, or even feminist art. Indeed, as many feminist scholars, critics and artists have long argued, possession of a uterus, or identification with feminism, in no way determines, much less defines, the nature of women’s artistic production. Despite the existence of an extensive bibliography seeking to codify feminine esthetics in visual art, the more women artists become critically visible, the less they reveal any overarching features that might be said to reveal their sex. This is not to deny that anatomy, sexuality, psychology and feminist politics may be factors in both the conception and meaning of an artist’s work, but this is far from constituting the artistic equivalent of sexual determinism.
Of the books on offer here, The Deconstructive Impulse covers a wide array of practices, while the volumes devoted to Nancy Spero, Hannah Wilke, Lynda Benglis and Suzanne Lacy collectively testify to great artistic diversity as well, even though these women, who clearly identify themselves as feminists, are all American, white, professionally educated and, excepting Spero (b. 1929), born within 10 years of one another. And just as these recent publications attest to artistic difference so too do they attest to different models of art-book publishing.
In order of size, opulence and what could be called “production values,” Christopher Lyon’s Nancy Spero: The Work takes pride of place. Unlike most coffee-table books, this is an elegantly written, inclusive and ambitious monograph, handsomely designed and copiously illustrated. Given the very high quality (as well as size) of Spero’s bibliography, Lyon’s book makes an impressive addition. Incorporating previous scholarship, supplemented with his own sensitive and nuanced readings of Spero’s oeuvre, Lyon—a professional editor and longtime friend of the artist—places due emphasis on Spero’s formal and iconographic inventions, while providing the necessary biographical and contextual framework with which to better understand it.
Spero, who died last year, was the only artist in this group who worked consistently in two dimensions. Her art, however, was as unconventional as that of artists who embraced new mediums such as video and performance, or new materials such as polyurethane foam. From 1963 on, Spero often juxtaposed images with words and texts, integrated within various forms of collage on scroll-like grounds, some as long as 25 feet. Drawing on an image repertoire that extends from ancient Babylonian reliefs to contemporary porn, Spero distilled from the archive of world culture a signature iconography, dominated by the imagery of femininity—running or dancing women, female heads with jutting tongues, fertility goddesses, etc. Spero was preoccupied with acts of violence, especially as they affect women, and presented these referential horrors with great formal beauty. Lyon’s monograph, which is highly attentive to Spero’s complex negotiations between political actuality and mythic modes of expression, as well as her rich formal inventiveness, critically elevates the status of the deluxe art book. For while many of these publications are splendid objects, few become, as Lyon’s study surely will, an indispensable resource for understanding an artist’s formal and thematic legacy.
Not nearly as sumptuous but considerably less expensive and more portable, Nancy Princenthal’s monograph on Hannah Wilke is, like the last decades of her life, widely acknowledged as a major artist), Wilke not only led an abbreviated life but also alienated other women artists as readily as she did critics and her male peers. Her graphic ripostes to those who accused her of narcissism and exhibitionism, in works marked by an emphasis on female anatomy (the chewing gum genitalia, her nude performances), made her vulnerable to charges of essentialism, while, needless to say, she remained a lightning rod for art-world misogyny.
Stunningly beautiful in her youth, Wilke freely deployed her face and body in photography, performance and video. By playing the role of erotic icon, she intentionally blurred the boundaries of image and self. But,
as Princenthal—an independent critic and former A.i.A. senior editor—persuasively argues, this ploy should be understood as strategic, deconstructive and legitimately underpinned by Wilke’s feminism. Moreover, the artist’s last multipart work, “Intra-Venus,” based on her unflinching chronicle of her own terminal illness, is so lacerating as to make critical analysis seem a violation. Confronting all these difficulties, Princenthal is a model of tact and judiciousness, acknowledging the problematic aspects of Wilke’s position in the art world while convincingly arguing for the iconoclasm, courage and historical importance of her art.
Like Wilke, Lynda Benglis (b. 1941) attained instant notoriety as a consequence of her own bodily exposure. Having purchased two full pages in the November 1974 issue of Artforum, she used the spread to display a photo of herself, nude and defiant, wielding a large double-headed dildo. Part of the fallout was an indignant letter published in the next issue by five Artforum editors, two of whom (Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson) resigned and went on to found the journal October. Serving as the catalogue for a traveling retrospective, Lynda Benglis grants this art-world scandal its own chapter, reproducing not only the ad but the myriad articles and letters it provoked. Benglis’s confrontational image, apparently retaining its shock value even today, constantly resurfaces as an “issue” throughout the contributors’ essays.
Integral to Benglis’s gesture was the fact that the advertisement was a response to an earlier poster by Robert Morris—an exaggeratedly macho self-presentation as bare-chested biker, sporting a Nazi helmet, chains and sunglasses. Morris was a close friend and periodic collaborator, notably in their remarkable videos of the early ’70s. Benglis’s ad was therefore part of an artistic dialogue, a kind of checkmate to Morris’s provocation.
The catalogue illustrates a great many works made from 1966 to 2009, including ephemeral pieces
that no longer exist. Lavish in its use of color—absolutely necessary for an artist like Benglis—it also reprints important critical writing on her work, notably then Artforum associate editor Robert Pincus-Witten’s “The Frozen Gesture” from the same issue that contained the controversial ad. In addition to the six essays by the exhibition’s curators, there is an exceptionally thoughtful one by Paris-based critic Elisabeth Lebovici—an intelligent, provocative and theoretically informed discussion that interprets Benglis’s oeuvre in unexpected ways, in stark contrast to the faux-populist musings of American commentator Dave Hickey, who wrote the foreword.
Benglis is unusual among women artists for having achieved professional and critical recognition at a relatively young age, albeit in what was then a far smaller art world. Even more unusual was her respected position in a milieu composed of mostly male sculptors—Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Richard Serra and, of course, Morris. Although there was a period when feminist critics interpreted Benglis’s work in terms of feminine esthetics (highlighting the decorative and ornamental elements of her sculpture), retrospective viewing does not really support such a reading. Benglis acknowledged influences such as Pollock’s drip painting, the flung lead work of Serra and the use of the floor in Minimalist sculpture, but far more evident in her work is an exploration of diverse formal possibilities—color as it operates with various materials; strange juxtapositions of organic form and industrially fabricated fabricated material, from foam to glass, from Mylar to polyurethane—together constituting a career-long investigation of what “sculpture” can be.