Criticism: A Feminist Reckoning

Cindy Nemser holding up a copy of the winter 1973–74 issue of the Feminist Art Journal. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Cindy Nemser Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

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SINCE 2017, women and men have begun to publicly name their abusers in online forums in response to the #MeToo movement. Their stories, once confined to whisper networks, are now public, thanks to the work of activists who have urged people to come forward, speak out, and demand greater accountability. #MeToo is often cast as a radically new development in the struggle for women’s equality, one reliant on social media. But a surprising precedent for today’s call to action can be found in a small art publication once produced in the Brooklyn apartment of art critic Cindy Nemser.

The first two issues of the Feminist Art Journal (FAJ), a quarterly that ran from 1972 to 1977, featured the column Male Chauvinist Exposé, which named artists, critics, and other art world personalities who treated their female colleagues with disrespect. The column was just one of the many ways that Nemser worked to help women voice their discontent with a clearly inequitable status quo. Even as Nemser blew the whistle on the art world, she wanted to be part of the larger conversation about contemporary art. She saw her journal as a means to introduce political issues into the art world.

FAJ was Nemser’s attempt to rectify the discrimination she personally witnessed and experienced in the ’60s and ’70s. Her article “Egomania and the Male Artist,” published in the journal’s second issue in the fall of 1972, called out Richard Serra for telling her to “fuck off” when she tried to interview him for an article, and accused Vito Acconci of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. (According to Nemser’s article, Acconci had invited the young woman to live with him and his then girlfriend, leading to a toxic love triangle that Acconci cast as a performance but that ultimately led to the student’s attempted suicide.) At the end of the piece, Nemser invoked a familiar question, and the obvious answer: “‘Why do they do it, these egomaniacal male artists?’ . . .  they have been allowed to get away with it!”

Nemser began her art-world career in 1966 as an aspiring art historian with an MA from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. She became a reporter for Arts magazine, and later wrote for numerous publications, including Art Journal, Art in America, and Artforum. While gathering information for a possible article in 1969, she attended meetings of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), a group of artists and cultural workers who organized actions to promote artists’ rights and institutional reforms. At the time, they held their meetings at Museum, an artist-run organization near Washington Square Park. Nemser’s resulting article in Art Journal, titled “A Revolution of Artists,” addressed how contemporary artists were engaging with the political landscape and rejecting capitalist materialism by making non-objects.1

It was at AWC meetings that Nemser was introduced to several women who identified as feminists and called themselves Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). Muriel Castanis, Juliette Gordon, Silviana Goldsmith, Carolyn Mazzello, Jacqueline Skiles, and others belonged to AWC, but formed their own group to address concerns of sexism and gender bias, a priority not shared by the majority at AWC. As Nemser recalls, women in the WAR group faced backlash from their male peers. In one instance, Juliette Gordon was met with derision when she spoke up about the lack of female representation in museum and gallery exhibitions, and said there should be a wing at the Museum of Modern Art dedicated to women.2

Though Nemser attended her first WAR meetings as a reporter who had not yet identified as a feminist, she credits the group’s consciousness-raising sessions for her conversion. In a meeting in the summer of 1969, a WAR member asked her if she had ever encountered problems as a woman in the art world. Something clicked. Nemser’s deep-seated frustration with the obstacles that had stymied her efforts to find success as an art historian and critic surfaced. Thinking back to the lack of support from NYU professors (who discouraged her from pursuing a PhD and told her to focus on American art since, as a mother, she would have trouble traveling to Europe) and Arts editors (who would not commission a feature story from her, even though she had been writing reviews for years), Nemser realized that these struggles all stemmed from sexist discrimination. In 1975 she wrote of this pivotal moment: “It soon occurred to me that the art world, my liberal, avant-garde art world, was no more exempt from . . . sexist behavior than any other world.”3 From then on, Nemser went to WAR meetings not just as a reporter but as a fellow feminist.

In January 1970, the group presented “X12,” an exhibition by twelve women artists, at Museum. In solidarity, Nemser reviewed the show for Arts, hailing it as “the first openly feminist exhibition.”4 She then began, with newfound fervor, to seek out more opportunities to write about women artists and their concerns. She attended meetings of other feminist groups, such as the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists, whose founding members included art historian Lucy Lippard and artists Faith Ringgold and Poppy Johnson. The group famously called for the 1970 Whitney Annual to include at least 50 percent female artists, though their demands were not met.

Pitching articles with a feminist angle, Nemser encountered myriad points of view among other women in the art world, many of whom did not share her feminist beliefs. She sent out a short questionnaire: “Do you believe there is discrimination against female artists? Have you ever experienced it first hand? And if so, in what way? Do you feel that reforms in regards to women artists’ rights should be instituted? What suggestions would you make?” The responses diverged widely. As reported in a 1971 Nemser article in Arts, Eva Hesse’s reply was curt: “Excellence has no sex.”5 Many others also denied the presence of sexism, expressing a belief that skill and merit would bring success, even in a male-dominated art world.

 

WHILE NEMSER was grappling with how to pursue her interests in both feminism and art criticism, she continued to write articles with a more neutral tone. In 1970 she published an interview with Eva Hesse in Artforum and a feature on Chuck Close in Art in America, which led to her second feature for the magazine, a 1971 essay on Gordon Matta-Clark’s and Alan Sonfist’s experiments with organic matter.

Around that time Nemser met Patricia Mainardi, a figurative artist and member of the Redstockings, a radical feminist group that had formed in 1969. Along with artists Marjorie Kramer, Irene Peslikis, and Lucia Vernarelli, they started Women and Art, which they deemed the “first women artists’ feminist-oriented journal.”6 This experience helped Nemser, who officially joined Redstockings, solidify her position as a feminist critic and activist. But the magazine folded almost as soon as it began. Marxist and non-Marxist feminists clashed over a plan to include a Marxist insert written by men in the second issue, which was never printed.

After this schism, the editors of Women and Art dispersed. Nemser and Mainardi joined forces with artist Irene Moss to establish FAJ. The journal set a precedent for what a feminist art publication could be. Save for a few exceptions, all the articles were by women. Faith Ringgold, Marcia Tucker, and Howardena Pindell were some of the most prominent contributors. The journal featured interviews with female artists such as Yvonne Rainer, Janet Fish, and Barbara Hepworth, as well as long-form essays on women working in music, theater, and literature. Art historians provided notable articles on women’s contributions to medieval art and Surrealism. There were even satirical pieces such as Nemser’s 1972 “Interview with Successful Woman Artist,” a fictitious conversation with an abstract painter who avoids other female artists like the plague. All told, FAJ offered multiple points of view, united by a fundamental belief that art plays a crucial role in elucidating society. In a letter from the late 1970s, Nemser wrote of the journal’s ethos: “We believe that art has the power to change people’s thinking and their lives for the better and that, at this moment in history, women’s art is moving quickly and forcefully in this direction.”7

In the first issue, Nemser published her article “Stereotypes and Women Artists,” which had been killed by Art in America’s editor Brian O’Doherty. The piece argues that male critics strategically used language to demean and undermine the art of women. Nemser quotes two reviews of Helen Frankthaler by Donald Judd, in which he says her paintings are “united by emotion,” and that her “softness is fine, but it would be more profound if it were also hard.” Peter Plagens, writing on Georgia O’Keefe in Artforum, says that “whether or not there are sexual parts lurking in the pictorial configurations may never get affirmation one way or the other, but in the light of her whole work the idea is painfully trivial.” While Judd’s points rely on an essentializing concept of femininity, Plagens’s comment reveals a deeply ingrained resistance to considering the influence of gender on artistic practice and criticism.8

Of the thirty articles in the first issue, six were written by Nemser herself. Though subsequent issues had more contributors, all had writing by Nemser, who became FAJ ’s sole editor-in-chief when Mainardi left in 1973 to focus on her painting practice. FAJ provided readers with motley musings on the work of female artists, on what it was like to be a woman in the art world, and on blatant gender discrimination. Nemser described the journal as “moderate.” “We are not militant or anti-male. We don’t feel that men are the enemy,” she told a reporter for the Boston Globe.9

The same Globe article described FAJ as the “watchdog of an establishment machismo.” The journal became a source for stories that unveiled sexism in the arts. It was also the earliest publication of its kind to cultivate a wide readership over a considerable period. By the end of its five-year run, FAJ had a circulation of eight thousand copies—an impressive following in light of the journal’s low budget and niche interest—and Nemser printed ten thousand copies of the last issue. A contributor to a 1978 issue of Art Workers News described FAJ as “famous for being a catalyst and inspiration for women artists coast to coast.”10 

FAJ sustained itself for almost the entirety of its life span through subscriptions, grants, and sales, soliciting advertisements only for its final issue, which was organized around the theme “Women in Pursuit of Success!” By this time, Nemser and her husband were running the magazine almost completely on their own. Though FAJ’s popularity had grown, there weren’t enough funds to sustain it. Nemser was never able to pay herself a salary. She had hoped that the publication, which began as a black-and-white tabloid format newspaper and became a glossy magazine in 1975, would become a slick color periodical, as widely read as Artforum or Art in America. Nemser made the last issue of FAJ the most impressive one yet: more than fifty pages, on coated paper, with color illustrations. Then she let her venture expire.

Nemser’s letter to subscribers in the fall of 1977 announcing the journal’s end prompted an outpouring of support. Joan Marter, a professor at Rutgers, wrote: “The loss of the Feminist Art Journal will have a serious impact on the field of Women’s Studies. However, I want to thank you for your remarkable accomplishments in the field. You were certainly among the first to raise the consciousness of the art world to women’s issues.”11 Feminist art historian Eleanor Tufts wrote: “Well, I just can’t let the demise of your excellent journal go by without congratulating you both on this pioneer publication. You made a great contribution bringing attention to women’s art and gaining for it the prominence it has today.”12

After FAJ, Nemser continued her writing career, venturing into theater criticism and fiction. There are now three editions of her book Art Talk, an anthology first published in 1975 containing numerous interviews with female artists, some of which were first published in FAJ. The series is a valuable resource illuminating attitudes toward feminism and art in the 1970s.

Writing to the editors of the new newspaper HER New York in 1993, Nemser gave this advice: “We need a press that analyzes the sexist underpinnings of seeming ‘objective’ presentations. . . . Just be honest about the way sexism still controls every aspect of our world.”13 Nemser’s legacy persists, as her mission to make the art world more diverse and accessible has been taken up by others. FAJ broke ground for similar and arguably better-known feminist art magazines such as New York–based HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics (1977–93), produced by the collective of the same name, and Los Angeles–based Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture (1977–80), which was started by members of the Woman’s Building in downtown LA. Though mainstream publications have now absorbed feminist perspectives, FAJ remains significant because it placed feminism front and center as the organizing principle of the publication—an approach that, even today, looks daring and new.