Women Artists: What Have They Got and What Do They Want?
Monday, March 31, 1975
Artists Talk on Art, New York
Despite Barbara Zucker’s accusations of “boring” or maybe because of them—this was a lively event, and the two responses stirred things up a bit more. Perhaps now that we have lived another sixteen years, anyone of us would respond differently. For Zucker’s afterthoughts, expressed at, yes, another woman’s panel, also at A.I.R [Gallery], see the Afterword.1
Moderator: Corinne Robins
Panelists: Joyce Kozloff, Barbara Zucker, Nancy Spero, Phoebe Helman, Howardena Pindell, and Mary Beth Edelson
I think the best thing A.I.R. could do would be to have men. I hope there won’t be any more women’s panels and I hope this is the last one I’m on. You get what you want in this world by surprise, by doing the unexpected. They expect us to continue the way we are…. I don’t think feminism is the real world any more. The point was to get women artists taken seriously. Women still aren’t as equal as men, but I don’t think women’s galleries are helpful any more. I don’t think it helps to be in A.I.R.2
That statement came midway in a brisk discussion by six well-known women of the art world, speaking to a full house at the Soho Exhibition Center, an audience which included the video eye of Ingrid and Bob Wiegand, and a noticeable proportion of men.
Moderator Corinne Robins began by noting that the six women artists “all benefited from the women’s movement, as every woman has. But what happens when ‘The Year of the Woman’ is over? Feminism is getting to be a tired issue to many people.” (Robins’s added, however, that “the abuses are still there.”)
The six women showed slides of their work and described their artistic concerns, which could have been an evening in itself. The perception of six disparate and developed sensibilities was already a dense experience. The transition from Nancy Spero’s Body Count and Torture in Chile to “How much has the women’s movement influenced the direction of your painting?” was as difficult as Spero could have wished. But then the discussion swung into matters of practical, political and social concern, and the visual experience faded.
Howardena Pindell: Without the women’s movement I wouldn’t have shown so soon. If I weren’t part of the gallery [A.I.R.], I don’t know if I’d be showing yet.
Mary Beth Edelson: I was dealing with feminist subject matter before the movement, but I don’t think I understood why. Now I’m dealing in an overt way with feminist subject matter—pulled out and clarified by the movement.
Phoebe Helman: I think the women’s movement, even though it was helpful in some ways, has nothing to do with my work. I haven’t been affected in the studio at all.
Zucker: It’s much easier for the work to grow if it’s out there being shown….
Nancy Spero: The feminist movement won’t fizzle out. We could never go back to the old standards. The new knowledge is too pervasive … it’s in our bones.
Helman: It took outrageous things like dirty Tampax at the Whitney to get attention—then, hopefully, the pendulum swings.3
Joyce Kozloff: I can’t imagine what my work or my life would be like if I hadn’t gone through the women’s movement. My work and the movement are very connected—they developed together. I see many feminist women whose work has grown, expressing their own growth and new confidence and sense of themselves as women.
Robins: Some of the work in the Women Choose Women show  struck me as very timid. Then those women got more exposure. That gave them the guts to take chances—to be less timid, no longer second-hand artists.
Will there continue to be a need for A.I.R. and women’s galleries?
Spero: Eventually there will be a reconciliation, but we still need outposts of independence.
Edelson: I still see a need for A.I.R. and Soho 20, but we need to go on to another plateau. [U]ntil we integrate, we won’t have the main money and the main power.
Helman: It’s a heterosexual world. There comes a time when this kind of support becomes a crutch.
Spero: It’s not a heterosexual world. The art world is still male dominated. To join the system is to join the same old stuff. I’d still be excluded from commercial galleries…. There are still under 23 percent women in the Whitney Annual. We still talk about “good artists” according to male standards. Our standards for all artwork are male controlled.
Robins: As a writer and reviewer, I have more chance to speak and write about women’s art because AI.R. and Soho 20 exist…. In 1973, as a critic, I thought Women Choose Women was a major disaster.
Zucker: It’s time for a major museum to do a major show of women—not one started and paid for by the women—but started and paid for by the museum. [Quoting Vivian Gornick in the Village Voice]: “No one of us has the truth or the word or the only view or the only way….” It would be very comfortable for me to still be with A.I.R. I feel very fragile now. I left with great difficulty, but it was very important for me to leave.
Audience: The world is so sick, it seems to me our only hope is bastions of what we’d like it to be—don’t corrupt yourself with that other “reality.”
Helman: Don’t talk about Utopia! Are you aware of the politics that went on with the Women Choose Women show? That was politics!
Zucker: It takes a great toll on an artist to always have to do everything yourself, to schlepp, and call, and carry and photograph…. To survive, and do well, a gallery needs a lot of money. We got certain grants at A.I.R., but those were tokens.
Robins: But that’s part of every cooperative gallery.
Edelson: I like doing some of the work you object to, but I’d like to have someone do a little of it. I have a dealer too, but he makes so many incredible mistakes…. It’s nice to have a little control.
Man in Audience: What is women’s art?
Panel: Art done by a woman.
Man: Renoir dealt with the subject of women. Is he a woman artist?
Spero: That’s a male’s view. [W]omen are supposed to conform to his view. We want to see how we see ourselves.
My first comment is that, while the men never seemed to complain about the absence of women during all those years of “men only” galleries, many women found something missing in women’s galleries almost from the start. Is that because it’s a man’s world, or a basic difference in the needs of men and women?
But the gallery in question, A.I.R., seems to have had a rather remarkable and nearly instantaneous success, considering that it is a cooperative and was initiated without “stars” or powerful patronage. It earned the respect and attention of the art world and the media from its inception and has had consistent review coverage that could be the envy of many a commercial gallery, let alone cooperative. Many of its artists have achieved prominence in the “establishment” and/or moved on from A.I.R. to “important” commercial galleries…. What do women want?
As for feminism being a “tired issue”—American culture does use up and throwaway issues as rapidly as last week’s TV Guide. But feminism seems to have more than a few twists and turns left before subsiding into its long-prophesied demise.
A Panelist’s Reply
Panelist Kozloff wrote a rebuttal to panelist Zucker, which ran in the same issue as the panel report. Aside from reviewing the controversy, which was a most urgent one at the time, Kozloff’s commentary is interesting today for having forecast much art of the ‘80s.
I felt pained to hear copanelist Barbara Zucker say that “women’s panels are boring,” “women’s shows are boring,” and “women’s galleries are boring.”
Clearly feminism is not boring and women’s art is not boring—quite the contrary. Then why are these attitudes suddenly around? One reason is that the approaches to talking about and showing women’s art have become repetitious and unimaginative. Why is it that women artists are always expected to talk only about “Is There a Feminine/Feminist Sensibility?” or “Do Women Artists Want to Be Part of the System or Make Alternatives?”—with panels divided between those who say “yes” and those who say “no,” so there is no possibility for the development of ideas and theory?
I have observed that women who have been through consciousness-raising and the political activities of the last five years have become strong, highly individualized artists. Their work reflects (in many different ways) a sense of personal and group identity. I see new kinds of imagery and content emerging: exploration of female sexuality, reflections on personal history, fresh approaches to materials, new concepts of space, a reexamination of the decorative (and the so-called decorative) arts, a reaching out toward non-Western sources and a nonpaternalistic attitude toward the “primitive,” direct political approaches to art making, and art which consciously parodies male stereotypes.
These are all vital subjects and none of them precludes the others. What is exciting to me is the diversity of ways in which women’s art is emerging. We should not be confined to generalities and tired rhetoric. Let’s talk about the art and the ideas around the art.
Letter to the Editor
Over the years we received a number of angry letters-to-the-editor about such matters as having said a speaker was hard to understand or having run a cover cartoon in the style of a male artist. Therefore Zucker’s letter seemed only mildly contentious. In any event, we duly printed it—and my reply:
I would like to clarify some points which were not accurately presented in the last issue of Women Artists News [“Women Artists: What Have They Got and What Do They Want”]. I was quoted by Judy Seigel as saying “You get what you want in this world by surprise, by doing the unexpected.” Out of context, it sounds absurd. I amplified the remark to explain that (in political circumstances) guerrilla tactics, or constantly changing actions, are often those which produce results. I also said that I feel Feminism in Art has become a safe harbor, not only for the artists themselves, but for those who criticize it, or, even more reprehensibly, dismiss it. It has become an easy, predictable target. I do not believe our strengths will be reinforced by staying in this polarized oasis. Rather, I feel one’s individual tenacity and visibility in the male and female world is more relevant.
I wish to also bring to light a fact Seigel excluded from her discussion of A.I.R., which is that, as a cofounder of the gallery, I know quite well it did not have the “remarkable and nearly instantaneous success” it allegedly enjoys without one solid year of slavish preparatory ground work and devotion on the part of all twenty women who first comprised its stable. In other words, A.I.R. didn’t “happen,” it was “made.” I do not know what kind of effort women must now make in order to push for continued change and recognition. I do know that in comfortably pursuing the familiar, we talk only to ourselves.
“You get what you want by surprise, etc.,” doesn’t sound absurd to me, in or out of context. The amplifications Zucker supplies are, I think, implicit. It’s not possible to repeat a two-hour panel verbatim.
As for her second point, I never meant, and doubt if the reader would think I meant, that A.I.R.’s success was unearned. I meant rather to admire a notable achievement. Obviously a project of this order, whether a gallery or a publication (even, for that matter, dinner-on-the-table), requires endless work, much of which never meets the eye.
So far as I know, by what I consider the relevant standards, A.I.R. has had an exemplary success. My question was whether Zucker’s expectations for such an endeavor might not be unrealistic. My guess is that a mixed, or men-only gallery of similar provenance, would not have fared so well.
In Terms Of count: unknown.
1 Judy Seigel, “Afterword,” in Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 323–25.
2 Howardena Pindell, Mary Beth Edelson, and Nancy Spero were members of the women’s co-op gallery, A.I.R. Barbara Zucker was a former member. This statement of Zucker’s was a shocker at the time. It wasn’t just that A.I.R. was getting much attention. [See above.] The love affair between the women artist’s community and A.I.R. was still going strong—much of the sympathetic art world, male and female, convened regularly at A.I.R. panels and openings. In retrospect, Zucker’s remarks suggest that what she had in mind was a larger effect than, so far as I know, has been obtainable in a co-op, whatever its membership.
3 Lucy Lippard noted in a subsequent letter to Women Artists News that those were clean tampons.
Written by Judy Seigel, “The Last Woman’s Panel?” was originally published in Women Artists Newsletter 1, no. 6 (November 1975): 1–2, 5. Barbara Zucker’s letter and Seigel’s response were originally published in Women Artists Newsletter 1, no. 7 (December 1975): 2. Both texts were reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 18–20. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.