From the Archives: Exhibiting Gender

Barbara Kruger: Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face), 1983, photostat, red painted wood frame, 55¼ by 40 7/8 inches. Courtesy Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland.


In honor of Women’s History Month, we looked back in our archives for this article by David Joselit, which appeared in our January 1997 issue. Joselit appraises two exhibitions that approached the question of gender in different ways: “Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History,” organized by Amelia Jones at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art at UCLA, and “Gender, fucked,” organized by Harmony Hammond and Catherine Lord for the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. “Sexual Politics,” which featured work by artists like Barbara Kruger, Adrian Piper, and Mary Kelly, explored the tension between essentialist and constructionist approaches to art. “Gender, fucked,” with works by some thirty lesbian artists and collectives, including Nicole Eisenman, Carrie Moyer, and Dyke Action Machine, expanded or pluralized notions of femininity. The shows crystallized ongoing theoretical and artistic disputes that have divided generations of feminists. But while these debates might be contentious, Joselit stresses that we can all “be the beneficiaries of a new understanding of gender developed by both lesbian and straight women: a notion of pluralized sexualities and serious play, a more complex and hopefully less repressive logic of the self.” We present the article in full below. —Eds.


Feminist debates of the past three decades have had an enormous impact on the practice of art history. This has been reflected both in efforts to reclaim the largely overlooked art production by women throughout history, and to understand how visual representations of women participate in the establishment and maintenance of gender roles. But because so much of feminist art history relies on arguments which thematically or historically reframe works of art which are not explicitly feminist in their imagery or content, and because of the persistent institutional resistance to opening museums to the perspectives of women––as well as people of color, lesbians and gay men–– the models for making feminist exhibitions have been much less fully explored than the models for carrying out feminist scholarship. For this reason two recent shows were especially welcome: “Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History,” organized by Amelia Jones at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art at UCLA, and “Gender, fucked,” organized by Harmony Hammond and Catherine Lord for the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. 

As their titles suggest, these exhibitions approached the question of gender in dramatically different ways. “Sexual Politics” explored the tension in feminist art and art history between “essentialist” strategies in which supposedly timeless biological attributes are placed at the core of feminine identity, and “constructionist” approaches which understand gender as a historically specific formation of socially produced norms and ideological convictions. “Gender, fucked,” an exhibition of more than 30 lesbian artists and collectives, pushed the category of gender to the point of dissolution. The artists included establish a perpetual slippage between “male” and “female” attributes––but within the arena of an expanded or pluralized femininity

“Sexual Politics” built on the notion, forcefully expressed by Diana Fuss in her book Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, that essentialism and constructionism are not clearly separable viewpoints but are in fact profoundly entangled with one another. 1 The exhibition presented the art work most often identified––and demonized––as essentialist, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), in the context of works by 56 other feminist artists active from the 1960s to the present. To understand what is at stake in this revisionist project, one must recognize the often bitter disagreements that have divided feminist artists and theorists in recent decades. Pitted against those who have sought to build an imagery derived from feminine experiences like birth, motherhood and the subjection to violence by men is a subsequent generation of artists and academics, informed by poststructuralist theory, who have argued that any experience, including that of women, can only be understood through the shifting, ideologically inflected play of cultural stereotypes and masks. If the former group, often associated with the 1970s, 2 resents the latter’s underestimation of the material struggles which were necessary to open up a conceptual and institutional space for feminist art, a largely younger generation of theoretically oriented feminists is often profoundly resistant to having female identity summarized by the possession of a vagina, for instance, or the experience of menstruation.

Not surprisingly, these ongoing theoretical and artistic disputes, not to mention the hostility of mainstream critics to an openly feminist project, conspired to engulf “Sexual Politics” in an often mean-spirited buzz of disapproval which was only exacerbated by widespread complaints about Chicago’s perceived careerism and renewed charges that she had assisted in producing The Dinner Party. These are issues that needed to be aired, but unfortunately they threatened to overshadow the valuable thesis of the exhibition: that the production of essentialist imagery derived from the body cannot so easily be separated from constructionist art which understands the experience of femininity as a kind of masquerade.

It is often forgotten that The Dinner Party itself––composed in part of 39 plates with explicitly vaginal imagery honoring 39 women from prehistory to the early 20th century––is rooted in and complemented by a serious research effort aimed at identifying and reclaiming hundreds of female historical figures, another 999 of whom are commemorated on the work’s porcelain-tile floor. This supposedly essentialist project also included a series of textual “Heritage Panels”––making use of the documentation-rich approach favored by 1970s Conceptualism––to create a sophisticated lineage of feminine activism leading from ancient goddesses, through the efflorescence of women in religious institutions during the Middle Ages, to their suppression and feminist reemergence in the 19th and 20th centuries. 3 In revisiting The Dinner Party, I could not help relating this deployment of archival research to other politically engaged projects of the 1970s, like Hans Hacke’s tracing to the ownership of New York City tenements.

To many readers a comparison between Haacke and Chicago might seem absurd, and yet for me it exemplifies the opportunity offered by “Sexual Politics” to rethink the history of feminist art. For even the most biologically explicit art of 1970s feminism sought to link the body to cultural norms and constructions. If, for instance, we read the plates of The Dinner Party against the dominant critical grain, and remember that there is not one “essential” vaginal form on display but rather 39 differentiated “portraits” produced in an abstracted language saturated with cultural references to each honoree, it becomes impossible to see this work as a simple form of biologism.

Of course we should not conflate Chicago’s particular intersection of the body and social discourse with works by artists like Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Adrian Piper and Millie Wilson, all of whom are included in the exhibition. Rather than reclaiming the physical territory of women’s bodies through a celebratory representation of biological function, these artists locate femininity in a play of socially conditioned roles or behaviors which are projected onto individual women. In their art, they explore the ways that these external stereotypes are internalized through the psychic formations of language, which, according to psychoanalysis, structures subjectivity. The point is that each type of work seeks to find the site where the supposedly private experiences of femininity are transformed into public images. The differences between what has been known as essentialist and constructionist art may thus be redrawn in less polemical terms. Whereas the former seeks to produce a visual language from female biology, the latter reverses these priorities by understanding the body not as the source of social norms and discourses, but rather as their effect.

For me, then, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), represented in the exhibition in a photograph documenting the 1964 performance, exemplifies the gesture that was enacted over and over, and in a multitude of ways, by the artists in “Sexual Politics.” In this work Ono, clothed in a smart suit, allows and even exhorts her audience to cut pieces of her garment away. She is gradually “unveiled,” suggesting that her cultural persona has been peeled away, leaving…what? It would be easy, and undoubtedly wrong, to suggest that Ono allowed her true (biological) “self” to be revealed––in fact the impossibility of doing so is the crux of this work. Cut Piece suggests that the act of unveiling is an endless process––and that undressing only pushes normative structures of gender into even more intimate domains, like the voluptuous inner folds of Judy Chicago’s dinner plates. 4

In much of the art in “Sexual Politics,” as in Ono’s Cut Piece, femininity is perceived as a constellation of veils, or masks, but the fundamental importance accorded gender in structuring subjectivity is never seriously questioned. One of the weakest aspects of the exhibition is its reinscription of conventional female functions in its thematically organized galleries. These include, among others, “’Female Imagery’: The Politics of ‘Cunt Art’” and “’A Woman’s Place Is in the Home’: Politicizing the Domestic Sphere.” Such categories accurately summarize feminist themes. Yet in looking at elements from Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1974-79)––an extensive, psycho-analytically informed work which reflects on a mother’s attachment to and ultimate separation from her son––Renee Cox’s Yo Mama (1993)––in which a strong, voluptuous woman holds a child at waist level––I wondered why these works might not be seen as examples of “fetishism” rather than “Bodily Functions: Menstruation, Birth, Maternity.” And I wondered why maternity itself might not be rethought in terms of “Intimacy, Eroticism, Autobiography,” another of the exhibition’s rubrics.

As its title suggests, “Gender, fucked,” refused even the destabilized category of femininity that “Sexual Politics” retained, and as a result it was a much more lively, if less academically exhaustive, exhibition. 5 ”Gender, fucked” included work exclusively by lesbian artists, which in itself makes the project worthy of serious consideration, given the marginalization of lesbian art and theory not only in mainstream visual arts organizations but also among many heterosexual feminists. 6 For if the thematic categories which organized “Sexual Politics” are founded in experiences like birth, menstruation and possession of a “cunt,” this implicitly establishes femininity as the “other” of masculinity. The artists in “Gender, fucked” emphatically refuse this binarism in favor of a dizzying and, for this viewer, exhilarating theater of gender performances in which qualities of “masculine” and “feminine” are put in perpetual play causing them to lose their force as opposing terms. As Catherine Lord states in her catalogue essay, “masculinity is a necessary territory to recolonize, and an irresistible moving target.” 7 It goes without saying that this imperative is directed to women, not men.

One of the most striking qualities of “Gender, fucked” was its sophisticated recourse to a strategics of representation: less time was spent on defining gender than on deploying its discourses for particular ends. This is clearest in works by activist collectives like Dyke Action Machine (DAM) and fierce pussy, and by Carrie Moyer for the Lesbian Avengers. In one of fierce pussy’s posters, a straight couple is pictured along with a legend that reads, “You’re too fucking straight to walk these streets. NO SPECIAL RIGHTS FOR HETEROSEXUALS!” Here homophobic rhetoric developed by the radical right is turned back onto straight people. But for a gay viewer, there is more here than just a turning of the tables: it is an exuberant refusal of minority status and an aggressive appropriation of authoritative discourse. Indeed, one of the best qualities of “Gender, fucked” is the bold, unapologetic tone of most of the work included. Artists like Elise Dodeles (who paints herself with lingerie and strap-on dildo), Nicole Eisenman (whose cartoonlike drawings are suffused with confident eroticism) and Carrie Moyer (whose 1994 painting The Pussy Eater explicitly celebrates lesbian sexuality) make the “cunt” art included in “Sexual Politics” seem timid. 8 In place of the impulse to monumentalize their bodies, these lesbian artists use visual means to set their desires in motion.

One of these means, as Lord suggests, is the appropriation of sexual attributes presumed to be masculine. Some of the most interesting work in the exhibition insists on the undecidability of “male” and “female” gender positions as well as the instability of traditional definitions of gay and lesbian. Catherine Opie’s full-length portraits confound identification: Mitch presents a swaggering lesbian-to-male pre-op transsexual, whereas Renée shows a woman dressed in the garb of a sailor, one of the icons of gay male desire. Kaucyila Brooke’s Tit for Twat: Madam and Eve in the Garden (1993-96) complicates gender by inventing narratives which pluralize femininity rather than defining it monolithically in opposition to masculinity.  Through a series of photomontages, Tit for Twat retells the story of Adam and Eve in the form of a legend of two women, as mediated by contemporary television talk-show hosts (whose programs are probably the source of what most Americans know about gay culture). By dispensing with the male, the female is instantly transformed, and comes to occupy a much broader range of positions––both assertive and submissive––than would otherwise be possible. In a riveting videotape based on her series of photos of C-Lee and Tucci, a Seattle couple engaged in lesbian S & M sexuality, Claire Garoutte represents a form of consensual sexuality in which fantasies of power and control are experienced among rather than by men against women.

It would be a serious mistake to think of “Gender, fucked” as relevant only to lesbians, although I think that the pleasures it afforded were undoubtedly more intense for gay women and men. Like “Sexual Politics,” it approached gender not as a timeless, biological fact but rather as a social praxis which encompasses a vast range of economic and political struggles within the ostensibly private domain of sexuality. Imagining a form of femininity which is not in thrall to masculinity, and which moreover may appropriate any of masculinity, and which moreover may appropriate any of masculinity’s privileges at will, might seem like a threat to men, straight and gay alike. But in fact, as the enormously productive influence of feminist theory on art-making and on scholarship by men has demonstrated, we, too, can be the beneficiaries of a new understanding of gender developed by both lesbian and straight women: a notion of pluralized sexualities and serious play, a more complex and hopefully less repressive logic of the self.