The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991 is also based on an exhibition, in this case a traveling 21-person show. With the exception of Wilke and a few others (e.g., Lynn Hershman, Susan Hiller, Elaine Sturtevant), the selected artists, born in the late 1940s and 1950s, are often labeled as “second generation.” Although it is arguable whether they are deconstructivists, as art historian Griselda Pollock avers in her essay, they do represent a coherent grouping. What links Judith Barry, Dara Birnbaum, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherry Levine, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman et al. has less to do with Derrida than with their reworking, for critical purposes, the established icons, signs and conventions of mass media and consumer culture. Moreover, rejecting traditional mediums, all these artists developed their work in photography, video, photo/text and, in the case of Holzer’s early pieces, text alone. Equally “second wave” is the adoption of psychoanalytic theory—by artists like Barbara Bloom, Silvia Kolbowski and Mary Kelly—as an artistic strategy to expose the psychic as well as social mechanisms of sexism, fetishism and militarism.
It goes without saying that most of these artists are now very widely recognized. Indeed, Sherman may well be the best-known woman artist in the world. Sturtevant (b. 1930), less acknowledged, is thus both the oldest participant and the sole wild card. Since the 1960s, her art has consisted of exactly copying the work of now-canonic figures: Duchamp, Warhol, Johns and so forth. Whether this makes her kin of Sherrie Levine is an open question.
The welcome inclusion of three women of color—Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems—raises questions about the ways in which feminism, deconstruction, simulation, appropriation, psychoanalysis and postmodernism do business with one another. How does (or should) one reconcile art intended for the public sphere (Holzer’s “Truisms”) with the practices of institutional critique (Lawler’s arrangements or Levine’s appropriations)? How does work directly addressing historical reality (Martha Rosler’s Vietnam War collages) relate to postmodernist practice? Do terms like “identity,” “identity politics” and “gender identity,” typically refused (or subverted) by white artists, have other valences for artists of color, who, obviously, are “raced” in a far more concrete and oppressive fashion? Are sex, gender and race of equivalent weight in the politics of representation? Does the fact that Weems’s “Tabletop” series stages specific predicaments of black women as family members, lovers and friends, or that Piper and Simpson invoke the history of slavery and disenfranchisement, sit uneasily with, say, the witty dollhouse interiors of Simmons or the dazzling fetish images that comprise Charlesworth’s “Objects of Desire”?
Such questions are worth pursuing, making one wish for some discussion of race and its representations. The essays written by the exhibition’s organizers, Nancy Princenthal and Helaine Posner, chief curator of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, N.Y.—along with other texts by art historian Tom McDonough on fetishism, Griselda Pollock on psychoanalysis, and Duke University professor Kristine Stiles on the feminist critique of domesticity—discuss many of the themes and procedures manifest in this quintessentially postmodernist ensemble. But the neglected topic of race is the fault line that leads inexorably to the issue of “the political” in contemporary art, to the limits and possibilities of art-in-the-gallery as an agent of social or political change. Which is to say that the foundational insight of the women’s movement, the now clichéd motto “the personal is political,” operates in two directions, nowhere more inescapably than on subordinated or marginalized populations.
This concern is directly addressed in Suzanne Lacy’s book, a compilation of her writings on her own practice over a 30-year period. In contrast to the other offerings, Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics is a far more modest production, in keeping with its university press imprint and its less visual substance. Lacy’s title, however, immediately poses serious questions about activism and art. Given the author’s long career performing individually and collaboratively, and later orchestrating large numbers of participants in public performances, we might well ask if social engagement is tantamount to “leaving” art.
Considering the full scope of Lacy’s work, as this anthology encourages, requires a few contextual observations. Lacy (b. 1945), like many California artists, was inspired by Allan Kaprow as a teacher, thinker and producer of Happenings. Furthermore, the Woman’s Building in L.A., the numerous West Coast feminist groups, Womanhouse at CalArts, etc., all contributed to an activist—and populist—orientation that stresses merging art with life in the service of social change. Lacy’s working-class origins have made her very attentive to issues of class and race, which, with feminist politics, are fundamental to her work.
In contrast, however, to the Deconstructive Impulse artists, who reflect many varieties of feminist thought, Lacy remains close in spirit to the feminism that emerged in the late ’60s. Many of her most significant performances directly addressed women’s issues, especially rape, prostitution, pornography and physical aging. With a canny understanding of mass communications, Lacy calibrated her staged actions to garner media attention, and to be readily comprehensible to those outside the art world. One of the most consistent elements of her activity is its emphasis on forming multiracial alliances under the banner of “Women.”
As an activist who directly engages the public in her artwork, Lacy has touched hundreds of women’s lives, although she acknowledges the impossibility of measuring long-term effects, or determining her work’s efficacy in sparking social change. And while it is undoubtedly a positive development that museums and publishers are now producing so many women-artist shows and monographs, the institutional and esthetic fissures between art, theory and political praxis remain, as always, a perpetual challenge to feminists—and, indeed, to artists of whatever gender.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “The Deconstructive Impulse” at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, N.Y., through Apr. 3, and traveling to the Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, N.C., Aug. 25-Dec. 5. “Lynda Benglis” at the New Museum, New York, through June 19.
ABIGAIL SOLOMON-GODEAU is professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.