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Five highs and five lows in the history of feminist art, subject of the new documentary '!W.A.R.'

June 16, 2011 |  9:00 am

Guerillagirls Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has been making a documentary about feminist art off and on since 1964, when she says she was a “freshly radicalized graduate student at Berkeley.” Since then, while making her own identity-obsessed art (performance, photography and more) as well as three films of different genres starring Tilda Swinton, she has gathered 12,428 minutes of footage—feminist performances, protests and interviews included.

While that stop-and-go working method surely has its disadvantages, fundraising momentum among them, it also has an upside. The result—an 83-minute feature called "!W.A.R." with a nod to the 1960s collective known as "Women Art Revolution"--surveys a broader range of artists over a broader period of time than any other that film on the subject to date.

It covers a cluster of artworks exploring issues of identity, sexuality and domesticity, from a 1964 performance piece by Yoko Ono inviting the audience to cut off her clothes to a 1992 performance by Janine Antoni using her hair as a paintbrush, with colorful bits from the Guerrilla Girls (shown above) at various turns.

It includes conversations with deceased artists like Nancy Spero and Hannah Wilke. And it revisits the political roots of feminism, which shared its lifeblood with the same cultural revolution that led a generation to protest the Vietnam War. In the process, the film does not pretend to be comprehensive but offers a sampling of  moments in the rather fluid and dynamic history of feminist art, in which seeming achievements are frequently undercut and apparent obstacles often overcome.

Below we've culled a list of 10 memorable moments, both good and bad, that figure in the film.

"!W.A.R." had its L.A. debut at the Hammer Museum Tuesday and runs at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills from Friday to June 23.

--Jori Finkel


1962: The first edition of H.W. Janson’s "History of Art," which quickly becomes a classroom staple, does not include any women artists.

1971: The catalogue for LACMA’s groundbreaking “Art and Technology” show is published, featuring a

yearbook-style grid of photographs on the cover. Every one of the 64 artists and scientists or technology-industry collaborators pictured are men.

1975: Hershman Leeson makes her first sale of work (including a fictional self-portrait and a robot painting) to a collector, before her buyer learns she is female and returns it because it would be “a bad investment.”

1985: Radical body-based artist Ana Mendieta, a Cuban refuge who most famously created imprints of her body in the mud or grass and used human blood to poetic effects, fell to her death from a 34th-floor apartment in Manhattan. Her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was tried and acquitted for second-degree murder.

1988: Judy Chicago’s "The Dinner Party," a 1970s installation with distinctive (and vulvar) place settings commemorating 39 artists, could not find a permanent home when it returned to the U.S. after a global tour. U.S. congressmen, who call it “pornography” in official House proceedings, prevented it from being acquired by the University of the District of Columbia.

1969: Before founding the New Museum, Marcia Tucker landed a job as curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She describes the hiring process in a spirited interview conducted shortly before her 2006 death. Then-museum president David Solinger grilled her on her personal life, asking questions that are now illegal, such as her age. “I said: let me tell you why you don’t want to hire a woman. First, no man will ever be able to work for me. Secondly, we know that women can’t do budgets, and third, once a month I’ll go crazy and nobody will be able to get near me.” He laughed and she got the job.

1970: Judy Chicago begins the country’s first feminist art program at Fresno State College, which quickly led to a feminist program with Miriam Schapiro at Cal Arts and the 1973 founding with other artists of the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, an unprecedented community-education-exhibition center.

1976-83: Judy Baca leads hundreds of artists and community members, including teenagers at risk for gang activity, to make an epic mural on Tujunga Wash Drainage Channel near Los Angeles Valley College: “The Great Wall of Los Angeles." The goal was tell the history of the city from a non-white perspective.

1985: The Guerrilla Girls—a group of women activists wearing gorilla masks to remain anonymous (a conceit born after one of their members misspelled the word "guerilla")—begin to expose the sexism of New York’s leading museums and galleries with cheeky posters and stinging interventions. Or, as one poster pop-quiz put it, “If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History month, what happens the rest of the year?” They offer one answer, upside down: “A. Discrimination.”

2006: The sweeping survey “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., the year before a “global” feminist art show opens at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The Brooklyn museum acquires “The Dinner Party.”

Photo: the Guerrilla Girls with their poster, "The Birth of Feminism," and T-shirt, "The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist." Credit: the Guerrilla Girls