Hear Them Roar

An astounding thing about Simon Zalkind, the director of the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, is the way he turns the ridiculously modest facility into a place that's guaranteed to have an important exhibition, as it does now. The show in question has the epic title of Upstarts and Matriarchs: Jewish Women Artists and the Transformation of American Art: 1970-Now, and it is one part of the Mizel's sixth annual interdisciplinary project. The topic this time, of course, is an exploration of the recent past through the lens of Jewish women artists. The display is one of the first in the country to place the rise of feminist art in an art-historical context -- and to identify most of its key players as having been Jewish.

The title is not just long-winded, it's thoroughly informative as to Zalkind's intent. However, he left out what he calls "the F-word" -- by which he means "feminism" -- because he felt the noun would influence viewers to take a stand for or against the show before they even saw it. The "Upstarts and Matriarchs" part of the title refers to the fact that it includes pioneers of one generation as well as their followers in the next; the "Transformation of American Art" references how these feminist artists not only changed the arts but made the art world more woman-friendly.

I guess we need to start at the beginning. For most of the history of Western civilization, men dominated the fine arts, and women were essentially excluded. Although there were exceptions, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that some women began to rise to the top ranks of artists. I'm thinking here of Camille Claudel, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. By the 1950s, women were still on the sidelines but were beginning to make more substantial headway, and a whole generation of female modernists, such as Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson and Joan Mitchell, came to the fore. Even around here, there were Mary Chenoweth and Martha Epp.

Led by the progressive politics associated with the youth culture of the 1960s, women's rights emerged in the 1970s as a serious focus for many young women, especially those interested in art. As Upstarts and Matriarchs lays out, these early feminist artists rejected not only the notion of a male-dominated art world, but also the commitment to modernism that was embraced by men as well as the older generation of women artists. This rejection of modernism is the genuine revelation of the show and also gives it intellectual weight.

Feminist artists may have been single-minded in their intent to feminize art, but the various styles they embraced had many unintended consequences. By creating art about the female identity and simultaneously ignoring the key issue of modernism -- the debate between the formalists and the anti-formalists -- these artists threw the baby out with the bathwater, thus anticipating postmodernism.

Artists in the first wave of contemporary feminism created wildly original work and pushed it into the public consciousness. Though these women were definitely doing something that was guaranteed to outrage many in the art world -- they were rejecting modernism, after all -- they promoted the idea that male critics didn't like their work because their art was by, for, and about women. But a convincing argument could also be made that critics rejected most feminist art on aesthetic grounds alone.

Putting this show together was a little tougher to do than Zalkind had thought it would be. Typically, he can get everything he needs from a handful of private or institutional collectors. But this time, he was unable to find collections of feminist art and had to deal mostly with the artists themselves. It's not surprising that such collections are rare: Political art of any kind is, by definition, difficult, and that's why collectors tend to avoid buying it.

For Upstarts and Matriarchs, Zalkind assembled many of the stars of feminist art, notably Judy Chicago, who came to Denver to appear at the opening and, according to Zalkind, was mobbed by more than 500 people all vying for a seat, wanting to hear her talk about her life and times. Another big-name artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who was born and raised in Denver and now lives in New York, presented a talk a couple of weeks later. Gail Levin, an art-history and American studies professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, also made a personal appearance. Levin was a contributor to the scholarly exhibition catalogue, as was Elissa Auther, an assistant professor of contemporary art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

A major section of the show is given over to Chicago; seven of her pieces are included, and one of them was done collaboratively with her husband, Donald Woodman. Chicago gained lasting fame for her installation "The Dinner Party," a gigantic dinner table set with ceramic plates and textile accessories meant to represent important women from history. The imagery on the plates and in the textiles was based on vaginal shapes meant to oppose the phallic forms so common in art. The use of female-associated crafts, such as ceramics and textiles, was an aspect of Chicago's installation that had a wide influence on future artists. The Chicago pieces in Upstarts and Matriarchs, such as "Study for Im/balance of Power," deal with her current interest, the Holocaust, which she represents through a feminist prism.

Another big part of the show is dedicated to Ukeles, with documentary photos that record two of her influential performance pieces. In "Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside," from 1976, Ukeles washed the front steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut; in the other, "I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day," she recorded the activities of 300 maintenance workers at New York's Whitney Museum of Art. "I Make Maintenance Art" includes color photographs, drawings with collage, text pages, a notebook, the announcement, labels and a button -- all done by Ukeles. The Ukeles pieces are installed in the atrium space down the hall from the Singer Gallery proper (the atrium has recently been named the Cooper Balcony in honor of donors).

Hannah Wilke's two photomontages also address political issues conceptually. Though she is best known for outrageous images of female genitalia, Wilke's pieces here are pretty tame -- but that doesn't mean they aren't provocative. This is especially true of "Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism," an offset poster with a self-portrait of Wilke in the middle. For the photo, Wilke has covered her body with little models of vulvas that she's made of chewing gum.

Chicago, Ukeles and Wilke make the point that early feminist art was postmodern because it was chiefly reliant on content as opposed to form. Not unrelated to this postmodern aspect of the works is the renewed interest among feminists in representational imagery instead of abstraction. This was an important polemic for feminists, many of whom argued that abstraction was a male concept. This idea, like a lot of early feminist concepts, was brilliant strategically: By embracing representational imagery, a generation of feminist artists was able to figuratively bury the previous generation of women artists, who were dyed-in-the-wool abstractionists.

Another giant of this art movement is Miriam Schapiro, and several of her insightful works based on the needle arts were lent to the show by the Missoula Art Museum in Montana. Though Schapiro is a Matriarch, the works here were done in the late 1990s. She was formerly an abstract expressionist, oddly enough, but now makes prints based on lace doilies, collars and bonnets, as in "Anonymous Was a Woman II: Deer." The original needleworks were traditionally made by women, and they make direct references to women's place in the domestic realm. Though they are meticulously representational in their depiction of the lace, the prints also function as abstract pattern pieces that have tremendous iconic power. Elaine Reichek's pieces are similar; her fabric-based prints incorporate embroidery and look like needlepoint samplers.

Using what could be called "women's work" for inspiration -- as Chicago, Schapiro and Reichek do -- is a trend that has inspired many others. Think how often current work with feminist themes includes the use of fibers or ceramics, or both.

Standouts in the pioneer group also include the Nancy Grossman portraits of figures masked with underwear, but I could happily live without her sculpture of a man with a gun coming out of his face. Nancy Spero, Ida Applebroog, Audrey Flack and Joyce Kozloff are among the other history-making feminists in the show.

In addition to a roster of nationally known artists, Zalkind included two painters from Colorado: Margaretta Gilboy and Sandra Wittow. Both have long and distinguished art careers, and both paint in a contemporary-realist style. Gilboy's "Aspects of the Divine" places painted images of two eroticized female dancers side by side. In Wittow's "Innocence Lost," there's a series of separate images -- a couple of broken eggs, a couple of rosebuds and one of a pair of bronze baby shoes, among other things -- that are assembled to create a narrative about sexual reproduction.

Looking back at the way feminism revolutionized contemporary art, it's hard to imagine that only thirty years ago women were systematically barred from participating in the art world. Today, many top players in contemporary art, not to mention the art majors at colleges and universities, are women.

In the 1970s, when so many of these artists began to embrace feminism, it would have been impossible to imagine a show like this one. The fiery female artists in Upstarts and Matriarchs would never have put up with a man at the helm. Zalkind was clearly aware of this, and he suggests that there should be a another, bigger show presented at a major institution with a woman curator. Maybe I'm being a sexist here since I'm also a man, but I think Zalkind did a great job.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia