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In their 1974 performance piece Please Sing Along, artists Nancy Buchanan and Barbara T. Smith donned white martial arts robes and engaged in what would best be described as hand-to-hand combat. Although just minutes long, the performance was a tense tussle punctuated by shoving, kicking, tumbling on the ground, punches to the back, screams of aggression, an attempted choking, and one particularly nasty slap. After the fight ended, leaving both women exhausted and in repose on the mat, they stood and engaged in a tender kiss and embrace before going their separate ways. Staged at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, the performance seemed to dramatize the ongoing, difficult task of forming oneself as a person, an artist, and a feminist—the collaborative labor of self-actualization.
Please Sing Along is currently on view as part of the exhibition how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, Barbara T. Smith at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. Curated by Michael Ned Holte, the exhibition is organized around the friendship between the three artists, whom all attended UC Irvine in 1969 (the very first year of its MFA program), and includes early pieces as well as works from across the artists’ careers. Buchanan, Hafif, and Smith are certainly associated with West Coast feminist art, but in a different way than Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro who, in the same years, brought the Feminist Art Program to another newly opened SoCal art school—CalArts. Coincidentally, the work generated in the CalArts program was on view simultaneously this spring in WOMANHOUSE at Anat Ebgi gallery, an exhibition that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the landmark exhibition/environment staged by Chicago, Schapiro, their students, and women artists from the community in 1972.
These two concurrent exhibitions on West Coast feminism provide an opportunity to think about a moment in the early 1970s in which the theorization and practice of “feminist art” were still very much in formation, as were the participating women, most of whom were in their twenties. These two shows and the practices on view therein call attention to the fact that the formation of the self is very much a social practice—an idea that is also a cornerstone of feminist thought. Looking at this history of nascent West Coast feminist art, at what these women made because of the communities that they had with each other, offers an important lesson: personal and political self-formation is collaborative labor, it is difficult and tender, and it is a lifelong process.
Art historian Jenni Sorkin has contrasted the “utopian communalism” of the Woman’s Building with “the rigorous individualism simultaneously promoted by CalArts.” She writes, “[A]t the Woman’s Building, … being a feminist artist was about something other than being an artist: it was, first and foremost, about being a fully formed person, who was able to come to terms with the suffering and/or injustice she had previously experienced in her girlhood, her family, her community of origin. It meant participating in a community of like-minded women.”1 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminist political self-consciousness was a deeply personal experience that was shaped by the pedagogical communities one worked within (whether a consciousness-raising group, the Woman’s Building, art school, a DIY space, etc.). Developing as they did within diverse contexts and within differently situated groups of women, feminist consciousness and feminist art were never monolithic entities. WOMANHOUSE and how we are presented overlapping but distinct networks of women artists who had and have different approaches to “feminist art” and varying degrees of allegiance to feminism.
In the introduction to the original Womanhouse exhibition catalog, Chicago and Schapiro conceptualized the project as a kind of feminist pragmatism—self-consciousness by doing. They chose to embark on Womanhouse with their students to start the academic year with “a large-scale collaborative project, rather than with the extended consciousness-raising sessions that had been held when the Program was in Fresno.” They describe how their previous students had to spend “a lot of time talking about their problems as women” before they were able to begin making work. Here, they hoped that these conversations might occur while the women engaged in making. “Female art students often approach artmaking with a personality structure conditioned by an unwillingness to push themselves beyond their limits; a lack of familiarity with tools and artmaking processes; an inability to see themselves as working people; and a general lack of assertiveness and ambition,” they wrote. “The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their artmaking out of their experiences as women.”2 In their conception of feminist artmaking, personal and political understanding are inextricably intertwined—and both can be reached through the process of making art.
Although not really part of Chicago’s circle, Smith and Buchanan did become members of the Woman’s Building in 1974 (the Woman’s Building in many ways grew out of the Womanhouse experiment). Still, in a 2022 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Smith explained: “I did not, and do not, consider myself a feminist. My work has feminist importance. I just think of myself as a feminist artist.”3 I understand Smith to mean that she didn’t formally join any organizations advocating for women’s liberation, but she did understand her works to function with a feminist politics —and that this politicality could exceed the sites of women’s spaces. For instance, Buchanan and Smith both staged feminism-inflected performances at F Space Gallery, the experimental warehouse cooperative they co-founded with Chris Burden and nine other classmates from UC Irvine. Smith and Buchanan’s self-formation happened within these communities too—and their work speaks to this fact.
how we are includes a vitrine with documentation and ephemera from Smith’s 1975 performance A Week in the Life Of…, for which she auctioned off parcels of her time, at first to literal bidders at a fundraiser for a Pasadena arts co-op and then later through other agreements. The piece lasted a year. Artist Rachel Rosenthal, for example, paid to exchange letters with Smith. In this work, Smith’s “self” was not presented as some stable thing emerging from a private core, but as a complex, ever-changing entity formed through interpersonal exchange. A wall text beside the vitrine quotes Smith’s description of her performances as “works that have engaged me on a deeply felt level, often excruciating, sometimes ecstatic. … [focused on my] own inner growth rather than works intended to entertain an audience.” Smith’s description echoes the idea of becoming through making that also defined the Womanhouse project.
Besides the white communities of women artists on view in WOMANHOUSE and how we are, there were also important exhibitions and communities of women of color in formation at the same time, whose histories trouble the white canon of feminist art in Southern California. Even before the founding of the Feminist Art Program or the Woman’s Building, Black women artists were forming community and making efforts to show their work. In July of 1970, artist Suzanne Jackson staged L.A.’s first exhibition of Black women artists in an exhibition called Sapphire Show at Gallery 32—a space that she ran out of her loft. Six artists participated: Gloria Bohanon, Betye Saar, Senga Nengudi, Yvonne Cole Meo, Eileen Nelson, and Jackson herself. The recent Ebgi show seemed to make a quiet nod to this history by including a 1966 lithograph by Saar and two 1990 mixed-media pieces by Bohanon in their show, even though neither artist was affiliated with Womanhouse (though Saar did co-curate Bohanon’s work in the 1973 show Black Mirror at Womanspace, which was part of the Woman’s Building). Sapphire Show was conceived after only one female artist was included in a show of Black artists at the Los Angeles headquarters of the evaporated milk company Carnation in 1970. Jackson was just 26 years old when she mounted the exhibition, and the other participants were also women who were still finding their footing in an art world that systematically excluded them. These women forged their political consciousnesses and their art careers simultaneously. In a 2021 interview with the New York Times, Jackson remarked: “We’re still a kind of family. The ‘Sapphire Show’ was our beginning and our impetus.”4
The diverse formal approaches of the aforementioned artists demonstrate that West Coast feminist art cannot be reduced to a simplistic illustration of “female imagery,” as Chicago and Schapiro’s classic 1973 essay on central core imagery was titled.5 In much of the 1980s and 1990s scholarship on feminist art, critics and historians identified a divide between West Coast feminism (labeled essentialist) and an anti-essentialist strain of theory and practice emergent from London and New York. Scholars contrasted the early feminist art of the 1970s, which employed vaginal symbols, goddess imagery, body art, and women’s work practices with a second generation of 1980s feminist artists who used deconstructionist, postmodern, and conceptual techniques. At first glance, WOMANHOUSE and how we are could seem to fall on either side of such a stylistic and methodological divide, but seeing these two exhibitions together weakens the binary of cunt art and conceptual art (a divide that numerous feminist art historians have contested in the past 25 years). Seeing WOMANHOUSE and how we are together makes evident that cunts are conceptual and conceptual art can be cunty. In tandem, the shows provide nuance to our existing notions of early West Coast feminist art and the forms that it took.
WOMANHOUSE and how we are, for example, both contain works that reference a central core. The WOMANHOUSE show is full of cunts, frills, goddesses, and female archetypes. Karen LeCocq’s Feather Cunt (1971) is a tactile little parcel made of burgundy velvet and pink feathers that rests gingerly atop a blush doily. The art in how we are is less pink and more engaged with the methods of conceptual art, but it nevertheless also explores vaginal imagery. Buchanan’s Twin Corners (1975) is a triangular pile of metal shavings and debris heaped in a corner (not unlike Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” candy sculptures made 15 years later) and paired with a photograph of her upside-down bush lodged in the corner of a room—the bristly, three-cornered form represented in two media. Whether employing feathers or metal shavings, both groups of women were coming to terms with feminist ideas (such as reclaiming and celebrating images of the female form) through their work and the art communities in which they participated; self-formation and self-understanding were a communal endeavor.
Works in both shows indicate that the use of the body in early feminist art was not simply a de-contextualized signifier of the vagina. Embodiment was understood conceptually as imbricated with the social world. In her 1976 book From the Center, Lucy Lippard identified the body and autobiography as hallmarks of feminist art practice. In these shows, the embodied and the autobiographical do not pertain to an individual laboring alone but to the formation of the self in a sociopolitical context.
In a mail art piece titled Sympathetic Magic (1972), Buchanan sent personal ephemera from her archive (including a photograph of her maternal grandmother, a grammar or secondary school report card, a letter from an old boyfriend, a page from her diary, and a canceled check) to people she had never met, but who were recommended to her by friends. Marcia Hafif suggested Frank Bowling, Barbara T. Smith suggested Shirley Shivers, and Chris Burden suggested Tom Marioni. Buchanan’s self is shown to be formed through interactions with family, schooling, romantic partners, and all of the social networks signaled by the people who helped facilitate the piece in the first place, her identity a collectively produced series of scattered fragments—a complex entity that emerges through exchange. Sympathetic Magic, along with the other feminist works on view in these two shows, demonstrates a key component of feminist practice: discoveries about selfhood take place within a collaborative ethos and the labor of self-consciousness happens within friendships.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 28.