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.