Jude Adams is Adjunct Lecturer in Art and Design History and Theory in the South Australian School of Art, (Art, Architecture and Design), University of South Australia. She lectures in Australian art, contemporary art, gender and the visual arts and cinema studies. She has published on arts feminism, gender and Australian modernism, community arts and work-based learning. Adams was actively involved as an organiser and practising artist in 1970s second wave feminism.
Volume 29, November 2013
Sydney Women’s Art Movement (WAM) held its first meeting in April 1974. I was not there for the founding of WAM but joined soon after on my return from an extended period overseas. My memory of how I first heard about WAM is hazy, but as an active member of Women’s Liberation (WL) it was most likely that I obtained information from the WL newsletter or via other women’s movement networks. My introduction to a feminist approach to art and art history, however, began not with WAM but prior to this while I was in London. It is was here, where I first came into contact with Women’s Liberation and, where, inspired by feminist thinking, an artist friend and I began researching the history of women artists.
For those of us who came to feminism in the 1970s, it was an exciting, intense and empowering time. Anything was possible; everything was ripe for discovery, critique and change. We marched, campaigned, organised. Some of us lived in ‘feminist households’, belonged to consciousness raising groups and engaged with feminism on a variety of fronts. Thus having lived through this period and been familiar with many of the developments of seventies’ feminism, the narrative I will construct in this paper interweaves the personal, historical and anecdotal.
Speaking of my experiences, as an artist, an organiser, and as a ‘voice from the field’ implies putting myself at the centre of this narrative and speaking with some authority. My authoritative position, however, doesn’t come from status, success or expertise but from being a participant. Participation, which can be fluid, can wax and wane and is binarily gendered feminine (de Zegher xvi) (opposed to the masculinity of expert, sole authority, specialist) was an important aspect of seventies feminism. Like collaboration, participation signifies group effort over individualism. Collaboration and participation affirm democratic, supportive and anti-hierarchical structures or organisations and within an art world context, form an implicit critique of the figure of the heroic male artist who is central to traditional art history.
According to Anne Else who writes about the connected self in On Shifting Ground: Self-narrative, feminist theory and writing practice, the self that speaks as a participant rejects the position of ‘detached observer’ who preserves “distance between observer and observed, knower and known, subjectivity and objectivity” (Else 244). Thus the self that is embedded in this story of feminist art in the seventies is a relational self, a self that is formed by ‘interpretation, interconnection and inter-dependence’ (Else,“History Lessons” qtd in Else 5). It is about projects and self, formed in relationship to others and the ideas of the time. This mutable self is neither fixed qualitatively or temporally. The self that tells this story, looks back and interacts with the self of almost 40 years ago. What I recall, emphasise, omit or insert is dependent on the contingencies of memory, context and available data.
Collaboration (which again is finding favour in the art world), was perceived as a feminine way of working as opposed to male individualism. Collaborative ventures could be sites of creative empowerment generating new ideas; but the collaborative process could also be laborious, time-consuming and conflictual. That said I found working with others, even during times of tension or conflict, to be a self-affirming and productive experience. According to Diana Meyers in Feminist Perspectives on the Self by “cordoning off a social sphere of mutually attuned, mutually concerned women, separatism in all its forms turns down the racket of patriarchy”(Meyers). Thus separatist enclaves such as consciousness raising groups, WAMs and feminist collective projects that place value on conversation, connectivity and women-to-women relationships provide a foundation for the relational self and “relieve women of the burden of Otherness”(Meyers).
The aim of consciousness raising, the bedrock of WL, was to share experience and to demonstrate that oppression was structural and not the result of individual inadequacy. WAMs as sites of agency and intersubjectivity, built on consciousness raising by providing women artists and organisers with the opportunity to share ideas, reflect on experience and develop a visual language that communicated that experience.
This paper focuses on particular art projects and developments set within “the context of my ‘recollected’ experience”(Else 10). It makes no claim for neutrality, objective knowledge or truth; nor is it inclusive of all WAM activities in the seventies or all perspectives. Instead, my account relies on what Donna Haraway has referred to as “limited location and situated knowledge”(583). Furthermore, the projects I shall refer to are associated with Sydney and Adelaide WAMs in the decade 1974-1983, so important developments in Melbourne and elsewhere are largely absent. Hence, this paper which is neither an overview nor a definitive summary of seventies’ arts feminism, is underpinned by the “concepts of limited location, partial perspective and situated knowledges” (Else 12) and an example of what Susan Stanford Friedman has referred to as “the many localized narratives of feminism”(qtd in Else 11).
My narrative of feminism and art begins with the statement “I thought I was going to be the first woman artist”. This comment, made by an artist friend in reference to her art student days in America in the sixties, reflects the complete absence of women artists from art school curriculums pre 1970. My own student experience was only slightly better (and certainly, no teaching staff made mention of any women artists), but spurred on by reading Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) we set out to see what we could discover for ourselves about women artists. Many a day was spent in London at the Westminster library and the Victoria and Albert Museum library absorbed in old publications such as The Burlington Magazine, Walter Sparrow’s Women Painters of the World (March 1905; digitised copy at The Getty Research Institute, 2012), Mrs Ellet’s Women Artists of All Ages (1859) and taking copious hand-written notes as we discovered long forgotten women artists. Once back in Australia, this research formed the basis for ‘Women and Art’ courses that I taught, first at the WEA, Sydney (1976) and then Alexander Mackie CAE (later COFA, UNSW) (1976) and later still at the South Australian School of Art (UniSA). (Moving with the times these courses in the 1980s and 1990s gradually morphed into ‘Gender and Representation’ courses).
“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was important, not in terms of proving ‘greatness’, for the article succinctly demolished that line of enquiry, but in exposing how women had been denied educational and institutional opportunities. Nochlin’s essay however, also made reference to previously little known women artists, demonstrating that even those women who ‘made it’ suffered from history’s neglect. Consequently, an important task for prospective feminist art historians was to rescue them from oblivion and restore them to the art historical record. This strategy of recovering lost women artists informed many projects of seventies’ arts feminism.
Whereas “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was the bedrock of feminist art history the much more contentious question of a female sensibility enlivened debates on contemporary feminist art practice of the early seventies. A Female Sensibility or Female Aesthetic, as a reflection of womanliness or female experience, ranged from work that referenced the domestic crafts (traditionally relegated to the lower echelons of the visual arts) to the use of vaginal iconography and was first raised in early feminist art journals (Women and Art, Feminist Art Journal, Womanspace) and by artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. According to Nochlin, the notion that women’s art exhibited a common style, traits or characteristics was not necessarily borne out by evidence. (And it wasn’t till a decade later that the theoretical analysis by Griselda Pollock would bring a more nuanced approach to an engendered reading of women’s art of the past [Pollock, Vision and Difference]). Although Nochlin’s argument was persuasive, it didn’t diminish the thrill of discovering that some women’s work (notably, O’Keefe, Bontecou, Hepworth) did seem to lend credibility to the notion of an “unconscious use of the centralized void in female imagery” (Tickner 268).
Women’s art activities of the seventies, particularly those based in Anglo-American societies, emerged around the same time. The US west coast experience has become the dominant narrative of feminist art and while it may have been the starting point and an initial influence, it shouldn’t overshadow developments elsewhere. Although united by the issue of equality, feminist art practices in other countries were also subject to other influences and developed their own accents and points of difference, with some recognisable tendencies even preceding their emergence in America or Britain.
I think of my practice in the seventies as a feminist artist/organiser/curator/researcher as ‘all of a piece’. To quote Katy Deepwell, there are various ways of defining political activism but “it begins with critique” (Paradoxa 23:4). Whether researching women artists of the past or engaged in art making, my various practices were underpinned by feminism and its critique of patriarchy and hence qualified as art activism.
As documented elsewhere, initial WAM meetings attracted about 30 women but core membership was somewhat smaller. The regular attendees I remember include Jenny Barber, Vivienne Binns, Beverley Garlick, Barbara Hall, Valerie Odewahn, Frances Phoenix (nee Budden) and Toni Robertson. Early WAM projects (1973 -1974) instigated by Barbara Hall included a survey of gallery representation of women artists followed by a second survey on the professional expectations of women art students. As well as addressing issues of discrimination and sexism WAM also supported and promoted the work of women artists via the Women’s Art Register. The Register was open to all women artists to submit slides of their work and was used for documentation and educational purposes as well as publicising the work of women artists. WAM members also organised, curated and exhibited in exhibitions. Most of these exhibitions were theme-based, stemming from shared interests.
Not long after I joined WAM I encountered Ann Newmarch’s work at the Bonython Gallery (1974) in Sydney and reviewed her exhibition for the feminist magazine, Refractory Girl (1975). I titled the review “Art for Our Sakes” because the work seemed to correspond to many of the issues raised by women’s liberation, such as suburban isolation, mass media images of women and the female body. Newmarch’s work was striking, first because the female body was central to her work at a time when many women artists shied away from representing it. Second, by placing the body in a compressed foreground (often entrapped by window frames or fences) with the head covered, turned away or gaze averted, her female figures seemed to be caught in a space confronting the gap “between the ideal image of femininity presented to them and their own less than ideal selves” (Betterton, 220). I was impressed by work that addressed these concerns in such a confident and direct manner while managing to avoid being narrowly didactic or illustrative. Newmarch’s work which adeptly combined political comment and alternative representations of the female body, successfully meshing idea and articulation, seemed a radical departure from work I’d seen elsewhere that dealt with similar issues.
I was fortunate enough to meet Newmarch the following year when we both had work in the exhibition It’s Great to be an Australian Woman, Hogarth Galleries (Nov 1975). (Hogarth Gallery included a follow up exhibition in 1976, Women in Society). I exhibited Depilation: the unwanted hair story, a video in real time dealing with hair removing rituals necessary for achieving ‘the smooth bikini body’ and Newmarch exhibited the works We Must Risk Unlearning, Look Rich and Two Versions. Newmarch’s work continued with the themes and motifs introduced in her show of the previous year, juxtaposing the un-idealised, pensive, female figure with a collage of advertising images targeting the female consumer. These silkscreen prints which showcased the skilful use of vibrant colour evoked the seductive power of consumerism, adding a level of complexity to works dealing with women’s oppression.
I visited Newmarch in Adelaide (her home town) in 1975 when Toni Robertson (Sydney WAM member as well as founding member of Earthworks Poster collective) and I embarked on a ‘road trip’, first to attend the International Women’s Year (IWY) conference on Women and Politics (Canberra, September 1975), and then on to Melbourne and Adelaide to meet women artists and if possible interview them about their careers. Although we may not have realised it at the time, we were forming a network, an important development for women artists who had historically often been excluded from male artists’ networks as well as isolated from one another. In Adelaide, as well as renewing contact with Ann Newmarch we also met the artists, Mandy Martin and Pamela Harris. As printmakers Robertson, Newmarch, Harris and Martin had much in common; all four were producing bold, striking photo-stencil silkscreen prints that dealt with women’s issues as well as other, related socio-political concerns and had chosen to work in the medium of the silkscreen poster for reasons of dissemination and accessibility. IWY (1975) was a busy year for Sydney WAM and for feminists in general! Key events for Sydney WAM 1975 included the visit by leading US art critic and feminist Lucy R. Lippard as the Power Lecturer, the exhibition, Women Artists; 100 years 1840-1940 curated by Janine Burke (1975) and Women at the Pavilion, an IWY art festival held at Bondi Pavilion, Sydney.
The question of a female aesthetic, as well as being a topic of interest for emerging feminist art groups in London in the early seventies, also occupied the minds of Sydney WAM members. As noted by Barbara Hall in her summary of a decade of feminist art activities for the NSW Women and the Arts Festival conference (1982),
We used to talk about and around two subjects constantly in the early sessions of WAM: ‘an evolving women’s or feminist or feminine aesthetic’, which came from the American arts feminism scene, and that the personal is political’, which was a theme from the Women’s Movement proper (qtd in Moore 4).
The female aesthetic as exemplified in art could include any or all of the following characteristics; traditional domestic craft-based skills, pattern and decoration, an interest in the personal as subject matter, tactile qualities, veiling, layering, repetition, fragmentation and the use of pastel colours (Lippard 7, 49, 81). Arguably, however, the most notorious element associated with female imagery was vaginal iconography or the central focus or void most commonly associated with Judy Chicago’s work and referred to as central core imagery. While central core has generally been regarded as an American export, Vivienne Binns’ central core work (Vag Dens 1967) predates the theorising of vaginal imagery and Chicago’s Through the Flower (1973). Further, I recall, that by the mid seventies, there was less interest in seeking out the unconscious manifestation of central core imagery and more interest in using it as a motif of empowerment. In the latter part of the seventies, because of its association with an essentialist view of women, central core came under attack from the social constructionists and dropped from favour. It is likely that the relatively quick uptake of French Theory by a significant number of Australian artists and academics curtailed any further pursuit of practices that bore the taint of essentialism. Nevertheless, such connotations aside, for many women artists, the appeal of the female aesthetic and its offspring, central core, was as a strategy to affirm and celebrate female sexuality and identity.
Artist Frances Phoenix (nee Budden)’s textile-based works remain some of the most appealing and provocative examples of central core imagery. Drawing on housewifely sewing skills the artist loaded the domestic doily with sexual connotations thus confounding the Madonna/whore notion of femininity. Zips sewn into the centre of the works invited audience participation (if they dared) emphasising the qualities of tactility and spatial intimacy later theorised as characteristics of feminine desire Phoenix also produced the central core centrefold for the first issue of LIP magazine (1976) and was a founding member of the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group (women’s skills exchange) and the D’oyley Archive. Unfortunately, the archive was destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1985 while negotiations were in process for its sale to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. In conjunction with Marie McMahon, Phoenix curated, coordinated and exhibited in The D’oyley Show (1979). Both artists, who worked as volunteer embroiderers on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, were influenced by the feminist needlework historian, Rachel Maines as indicated by the text on the poster 'Fancywork: the Archaeology of Lives' which reads , "'Textiles can provide the kind of social, psychological, political and sexual information that is needed for a structured history of women's aesthetic thought.' Rachel Maines.”
Problematically, as it was for some, the female aesthetic was seen as reasserting the feminine stereotype. But, for many of us, given that traditionally women’s domestic crafts, decorative ‘feminine’ style, and female subject matter were low in status and associated with hobby, amateur or minor arts, there was something positively subversive, empowering and downright pleasurable in making or viewing art that, so blatantly, showcased the despised feminine!
Linked to the question of the female aesthetic, was an interest in questioning one’s identity and place in the world. Given that women had traditionally been the object rather than the subject of visual representation, it was not surprising that emerging women artists and historians demonstrated an interest in self representation and female identity. This interest took a variety of forms. For example, in Women’s Images of Women (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1977) (curators, Jude Adams, Barbara Hall, Jenny Barber) an exhibition of work by Australian women artists from late 19thc-mid 20thc, we were interested in seeing how women artists of the past portrayed women. The path-breaking exhibition Experiments in Vitreous Enamels: Portraits of Women (artists: Vivienne Binns, Marie McMahon, Frances Phoenix, Toni Robertson)(1976) with its portraits of female family members celebrated a matrilineal genealogy. And Self Images (1977) (curators/artists Jude Adams, Barbara Hall, Jenny Barber) explored self-representation and identity.
Self Images shared a focus with other exhibitions of the time that were also dealing with the idea of “ourselves as women and as artists” (Self Images); for example Self-image – one week of creativity, (Melbourne 1977) and Anonymous: Notes towards a show on Self Image (Leeds, UK, 1982) an exhibition examining the “paradoxes women had to negotiate in order to indentify as artists, a term that in our culture is gender specific” (from exhibition notes in Pollock 238). (I continued to explore the theme of identity, albeit with a collective accent, in a later project in Adelaide entitled The Self-Portrait Quilting Bee, 1983).
Many of the projects dealing with identity and representation drew on the family album which as noted by Catriona Moore in Indecent Exposures remained an ongoing point of reference in feminist photography in the decade 1975-85 (44). The family album could be mined for evidence of matrilineal solidarity, for biographical accounts or reconstructed as the site of alternative families and narratives. During this period I was also busily raiding the family album, exploring how media representations of femininity impacted on family photography. As well as the family snapshot tradition I was also interested in fashion images, an interest shared with Sandy Edwards. In 1979 Edwards and I held a joint show at WAM in Adelaide exhibiting work that explored the role of female spectatorship in the consumption of fashion imagery. These text and photo-document based works were characterised by the vernacular, DIY aesthetics of conceptual art and drew on the codes and conventions of fashion imagery in an attempt to unpick its meaning and how it binds us to notions of femininity.
In 1976 Sydney WAM folded (but re-formed under various guises such as Womens Art Forum (1977-82) and the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group. The Sydney-based Women’s Art Registry was housed at the Tin Sheds at Sydney University, which was also home to the Earthworks Poster Collective). Reasons for WAM’s demise are varied. As noted by Moore, “as is often the case with small and under-resourced groups, members suffered from over-commitment and burn-out”(17). In WAM’s case, this was also compounded by changes in the personal circumstances of members and in diverging interests and priorities.
In 1978 I moved to Adelaide in order to undertake further study and joined Adelaide WAM in 1979. Adelaide WAM formed in 1976 and lost no time in setting itself a major task – The Women's Show (1977). A collective of more than 50 guided the show’s development with sub-groups responsible for specific disciplines such as visual art, theatre and film and over 150 works in The Women’s Show exhibition (Julie Ewington, The Women’s Show). Ann Newmarch exhibited works from her series Three Months of Interrupted Work (1977) [Figure 14]. These works, that depicted the same kitchen bench with its subtly changing array of objects, much like a not-quite-still-life, can be read as reflecting the spatial and visual confinement common to mothers of new babies. Newmarch writes how she placed her baby’s cot in the kitchen and worked around it ‘stealing’ what time she could in order to produce the work. “I see this series of work (about 15-20 versions) (as) very beautiful and a very strong feminist statement” (Newmarch).
In contrast to Sydney WAM, Adelaide WAM was more formally organised. With the benefit of funding it was able to support a part-time paid coordinator and establish premises in an inner city venue which included office, exhibition and library space. Adelaide WAM had a changing core membership of approximately 15 with a membership of 150 and held meetings, seminars, workshops, slide registry evenings and member exhibitions (Women’s Art Movement, 2).
Women’s experience was expressed in all forms of media but silkscreen posters often provided the most trenchant and witty comments on women’s situation. Posters such as those by Robertson, Newmarch and Harris aimed to inform and empower and to reach a broader audience than the usual art world coterie. While women’s posters have received critical acclaim (Butler, Ewington, Zagala), their unique contribution to Australian feminist art, as well as to the flourishing poster movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has yet to be fully assessed.
Murals were another art form that was collaboratively produced, expressing a shared identity and socio-political objectives. The 1980 Adelaide WAM mural Reclaim the Night coordinated by Ann Newmarch, depicted the reality of women’s lives and advocated change in line with feminist demands. Driven by an agenda to make women’s experience visible, the above projects were equally radical in challenging art world notions of authorship and originality and in reaching beyond the gallery audience.
In Australia, in the early seventies, there were few women associated with the emerging genre of performance. As Barbara Hall commented, “women occasionally exhibited or performed . . . but were seldom mentioned by critics. If you were a woman artist or performer, people looked around for your boyfriend” (qtd in Moore 4). But as the pluralism of the decade took hold, women’s performance developed rapidly. This was certainly the case in Adelaide where the interest in post object art and the establishment of the Experimental Art Foundation (EAF, now the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, AEAF) created an environment that was particularly conducive to performance art. Both Adelaide WAM and the EAF scheduled specific performance months in their yearly calendars in addition to regular solo performances.
In contrast to the traditional representation of the female body as passive receptacle for male desires/fears, women’s performance reclaimed the female body as active; exploring a broad range of ideas from the political reality of women’s daily lives to spirituality and the environment. Arguably, of course performance and feminism were entwined from the very beginning, from the Feminist Art Program’s Womanhouse performances (California Institute of the Arts, 1972) to Carolee Schneeman’s iconic Interior Scroll (NY, 1975) and then tracing the activist strand of feminist performance back to the beginnings of Women’s Liberation and the Miss America beauty pageant protest of 1968. As well as performance in the public sphere, feminist activist performance was also influenced by the experience-sharing of consciousness raising. Participation was a key element in the memorable performances by Adelaide WAM members Jane Kent and Ann Marsh (Women’s Art Movement 50-51) and given that they were based on discussion, conversation and connectivity, could be seen as anticipating the Relational Aesthetic works of today.
The experience of women as gendered subjects was the starting point for performances I presented in the 1970s and 1980s. My interest was in revealing the hidden or privatised aspects of women’s lives, from the time-consuming and at times painful grooming and beauty rituals, to the ‘dark secrets’ of sexual or family abuse, to the round-the-clock work of parenting (for eg Washing Performance (1979) and Childcare - not an important issue (1980), the latter drawing on the language of street theatre and the performative aspect of early WL demonstrations). Landmarks (1979) was a performance in the EAF toilets which juxtaposed the milestones of life focused on appearance and display (first high heels, ball gown, the wedding dress) with a taped monologue of the milestones that don’t make it into the family album (menstruation mishaps, unwanted pregnancies, rape). My accompanying artist statement referred to “the splitting of our experience into good/bad, nice, not /nice, public/ private, which reinforces oppression and the structure of femininity.”
The last project I want to speak about is The Lovely Motherhood Show (LMS) (coordinator, Jude Adams supported by a collective) (1981). Whereas MMOM referred to memories of an older generation, The LMS addressed motherhood from the point of view of the mother-artist as expressed in Helen Sherriff’s painting, Happy Mother’s Day. The LMS, a collaborative project that developed from Adelaide WAM’s Workshops for Women and Kids showed work by more than 30 women artists and included a film program, a seminar, performances and an opening night rock band (The Mother Hoods!) with childcare provided. The exhibition was installed in the EAF then travelled to venues north and south of the city and on to regional areas in South Australia, inviting local input. To quote from the exhibition material, “The purpose of the exhibition is twofold. To demonstrate the conflicts and connections between attempts to work creatively and the commitments of motherhood and to communicate our own experiences and understanding of motherhood.” The exhibition provided an opportunity to “. . . not only to examine the myths that surround motherhood but also to search for a new language with which to express our feelings” (exhibition notes The LMS 1981). Two works by Ann Newmarch, Toothpiece and Queen of Hearts (colour me bold) illustrate the diversity of media and approach in expressing ideas about the role and experience of being a mother.
The LMS also functioned as an information-sharing site as artists were asked to supply a statement to accompany their work commenting on how work was achieved, given the constraints of motherhood. This input was valuable, for the opportunity to share information about juggling family and work was much less readily available then, than it is in today’s world of parenting magazines and mummy blogs. Works in The LMS drew on a wide variety of media with particular affection for the cloth nappy and the washing line; both functioning as either ground or support, as a metaphor for the repetitive tasks associated with ‘women’s work’ both in the home and in the workplace – or even as an example of the maternal fetish! A particularly moving, last minute contribution to the exhibition was a bundle of hand-made baby clothes bought for ‘next to nothing’ from a second-hand store. These were displayed as a ‘shrine’ or tribute To the Unknown Mother, a recuperative project whose debased craft skills and maternal sentiment could be seen as foreshadowing the aesthetics of the abject in contemporary art.
According to the critic Holland Cotter feminist art is “the formative art of the last four decades” (Cotter). Such recognition by Cotter and others is encouraging, if belated, but I think the specific legacy of 70s arts feminism can best be summarised in the following manner.
First, feminism brought women’s art to the attention of galleries, museums and the wider public. The activities of WAMs and enlightened gallery colleagues meant that dealers and curators could no longer plead ignorance in regard to women artists. Since the seventies there has been a marked increase in the number of women included in survey shows, offered solo shows and given retrospectives. Feminists were also instrumental in initiating women-only group shows, with both contemporary and historically-based exhibitions proving popular with the public and making some headway in addressing the gender imbalance.
Second, feminist art radically expanded the notion of what art is, what it can be. It introduced a whole range of practices, media, aesthetics and subject matter that, because of their categorisation as domestic, feminine, applied or amateur, had previously been rejected or marginalised. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the highly detailed and decorative work of Del Kathryn Barton, twice winner of the Archibald Prize, would have found institutional acceptance if feminist art hadn’t paved the way by legitimising ‘feminine’ content and style. Similarly, the representation of subjects associated with the female body, such as menstruation, childbirth or ageing are no longer taboo.
Third, Nochlin’s question, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and the ensuing feminist recovery projects of the seventies led to the development of the innovative research field of feminist art history, theory and pedagogy. It also inspired the introduction of feminist art courses in university art schools and fine art departments, providing female students with role models and establishing a genealogy of women artists. Moreover, it’s worth noting that feminist art groups provided a space of alternative learning, not unlike the current ‘educational turn’ in art and exhibitionary practices (Rogoff).
In sum, the legacy of the 1970s is nothing short of making women’s art and women artists visible. That said, the current critical acknowledgement of seventies’ feminist art should not eclipse the developments in feminist art and theory of later decades. Indeed, the postmodern critique, particularly the theories of postcolonialism, proved a useful corrective to some of the more generalised feminist notions of the previous decade that had masked differences and inequalities (of race, class, ethnicity and sexual preference) between women. For feminist art workers, one of the problematic issues was the clash of inclusivity with curatorial discrimination, a situation not easily resolvable. As articles and commentary in feminist art publications of the day reveal, ideas and practices were often disputed. Nevertheless, feminist art groups and related activities provided a sense of forging a new direction, experimenting aesthetically and of working outside established parameters which proved to be exhilarating. As the past four decades has demonstrated, arts feminism remains an ongoing, exciting and ever-expanding discourse.
The decade approach to tracking developments is neat if not always accurate, but there is some truth to the notion of a decadal shift in feminist thinking between the 1970s and the 1980s. My own exit from the seventies was heralded by three publications that I read in the transition period between the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: ideology and meaning in advertising (1978) which introduced me to semiotics and the ideological work of images, Tearing the Veil: Essays on Femininity (1978) edited by Susan Lipschitz which addressed the construction of femininity in a patriarchal society and Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman’s essay, “Textual Strategies: The Politics of Art-making”(1980) which although somewhat prescriptive, provided a framework for approaching feminist art in a more analytical and critical way. In reality, paradigm shifts are rarely smooth; while I found the above texts to be exciting, presenting new and challenging ideas, other readers were initially hostile, particularly in regard to Barry’s and Flitterman’s text which privileged deconstruction over essentialism and threatened the principle of inclusivity. (Interestingly enough this text, itself, has recently undergone revision; thus the wheel turns.)
Since the seventies the situation for women artists has greatly improved. Women artists of the past have been rescued from historical oblivion, art deemed feminine because of its concerns, aesthetics, media or manner of working is now more readily accepted; but, if gender equality is measured by equal representation then it is apparent that we are not there, yet. As the wonderfully, informative website CoUNTess Women count in the artworld has so ably demonstrated there is a “substantial gap between men’s and women’s representation in Australian art journals, exhibitions, museums and major events” (Miles 5). Clearly, there is still work to be done.
Feminist art issues seem to coalesce around questions – “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Is there a female aesthetic? Are We There Yet? “Whose Art Counts?” (Miles 5). Similarly, women’s issues in general gain media traction when posed as a question such as ‘Can Women Have It All?’ (Slaughter, Small, Marquand 57). ‘Having it all’ refers to women having a successful career as well as a family (a combination that men have always taken for granted!) For women artists there’s often a third element thrown into this family/career mix and that is that women artists often need to undertake paid work in order to supplement a fledgling career as an artist. CoUNTess has pointed out that the period when gender imbalance, in terms of gallery representation, is most extreme is the 35-50 age bracket (CoUNTess). This 15 year gap would seem to correspond to the years when women are most likely to have family and domestic responsibilities and may therefore account for the fact that “despite being the dominant sex at art schools, most women fail to realise fully-fledged art careers” (Westwood 14). If there is substance to this claim then including life-planning and mentoring as part of the art school curriculum could prove helpful to female art students by alerting them to possible practical or cultural obstacles on the road ahead.
My final point concerns the current shift in professional identity from stable to mutable, and the subsequent increase in lateral career mobility. In today’s art world the modernist idea of art as a singular vocation is undergoing change. Many art graduates now opt for multi-professional career paths such as artist/art writer/curator. If (as we are regularly told), women are good at ‘multi-tasking’, then the ability to accommodate different career directions, whether sequentially or concurrently, could be advantageous! However, if progress in this direction falters, if there is a return to traditional, fixed notions of the artist’s role, then a portfolio career could handicap women artists who may have opted for professional diversity out of necessity rather than choice. If artistic success is measured only in terms of one’s track record as an artist, if only single-minded dedication to one’s art at the exclusion of all else is called for, then the woman artist with the multivalent art career is more likely to be dismissed as a dilettante rather than lauded as a Da Vinci, a Duchamp or a Damien.1
1. All 3 are famous (male) artists but are also known for their other skills. Leonardo da Vinci, the original 'Renaissance' man, Marcel Duchamp vacated the art world for long periods of time and Damien Hirst is described in Wikipedia as "artist, entrepreneur and art collector."
Betterton, Rosemary. “How do Women Look? The female nude in the work of Suzanne Valadon”. Ed. Rosemary Betterton. London: Pandora Press, 1987. 217-234. Print.
Butler, Roger. Women Hold Up Half the Sky: The Orientation of Art in the Post War Pacific (exhibition catalogue). Melbourne: Monash University Gallery, 1996. Print.
Cotter, Holland. “The Art of Feminism as It First Took Shape”. The New York Times March 9 2007: n.pag. 5 December 2012. Web.
CoUNTess. Wednesday June 17 2009. <https://countesses.blogspot.com.au/> 10 September 2012. Web.
de Zegher, Catherine. “Introduction”. Women Artists at the Millennium. Eds. Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher. Cambridge Mass: October Books MIT Press, 2006. xv-xx. Print.
Deepwell, Katy. Editorial. N.paradoxa; international feminist art journal (online) London: KT Press, 1996 Vol 23: 4 <https://web.ukonline.co.uk/n.paradoxa/index.html> . 15 September 2012. Web.
Else, Anne. “History Lessons: The Public History You Get When You’re Not Getting Any Public History”. Going Public: The Changing Face of New Zealand History. Eds. Bronwyn Dalley and Jock Phillips. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001. 127. Print.
Else, Anne. On Shifting Ground: Self-narrative, feminist theory and writing practice. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington. 2006. Doctoral Dissertation. https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/xmlui/handle/10063/237 . 21 September 2012. Web.
Ewington, Julie. “Women’s Show”. The Women’s Show, Adelaide 1977. Women's Art Movement (SA) St Peters: Experimental Art Foundation, 1978. n pag. Print.
Ewington, Julie. “Political Posturing”. Anything Goes: Art in Australia. Ed. Paul Taylor. South Yarra: Art and Text, 1984. 88-97. Print.
French, Blair. Hanru, Hou. “Today’s vocation of artistic production in a world oscillating between crisis and opportunity”. Broadsheet 42.2 (2013): 91-93. Print.
Flitterman, Sandy and Barry, Judith. “Textual Strategies: The Politics of Art-making” Screen 21.2 (1980): 35-48. Print.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Making History: Reflections on Feminism, Narrative nd Desire.” Eds. Diane Elam and Robyn Wiegman. Feminism Beside Itself. New York, London: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Haraway, Donna. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives". Feminist Studies vol 14.3 (1988): 575–599. 11-54. Print.
Le Marquand, Sarrah. “I’m not elderly: I’m a wicked adolescent”. The Advertiser 4 November 2013: 29, 55-57. Print.
Lippard, Lucy. From the Centre: feminist essays on women’s art. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1976. Print.
Lipschitz, Susan. (Ed) Tearing the Veil: Essays on Femininity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. Print.
Lovely Motherhood Show. 1981. Exhibition notes.
Meyers, Diana. "Feminist Perspectives on the Self". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2010 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/feminism-self/ . 1 October 2012.Web.
Miles, Melissa. “Whose Art Counts?”Art Monthly Australia 224(October 2009): 5-8. Print.
Moore, Catriona. Indecent Exposures: twenty years of art feminism photography. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1994. Print.
Newmarch, Ann. Email correspondence between Jude Adams and Ann Newmarch 13 May 2013.
Nochlin, Linda. "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" ARTnews (January 1971): 22-39, 67-71. Print.
Pollock, Griselda. “1982 Dossier: Anonymous: Notes towards a show on Self Image.” Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985. Eds. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock. London: Pandora, 1987. 238-243. Print.
Pollock, Griselda. “Chpt 3 Modernity and the spaces of Femininity”. Visions and Difference: femininity, feminism and histories of art. London: Routledge, 1988. 50-90. Print.
Rogoff, Irit. “Turning”. E-flux 11/2008. <https://www.e-flux.com/about/> .27 February 2013. Web.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. The Atlantic July/Aug 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/ . 12 October 2012. Web.
Small, Cassy. “The different ways we can have it all”. SMH Aug 26 (2013). https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle . 18 October 2013. Web.
Tickner, Lisa. “The Body Politic: female sexuality and women artists since 1970”. Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985. Eds. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock. London: Pandora, 1987.263-275. Print.
Westwood, Christine. “Women’s Works: women artists’ work practice and domestic life”. The Australian 6 October 2005: 14-16. Print.
Williamson, Judith. Decoding advertisements: ideology and meaning in advertising. Michigan: Marion Boyars, 1978. Print.
Women’s Art Movement. Women’s Art Movement, 1978-79. St Peters(SA): Experimental Art Foundation, 1980. Print.
Zagala, Anna. Redback Graphix. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2008. Print.
Figure 1: Robertson, Toni. International Women’s Day poster. 1980. Silkscreen. (Image based on photograph of Jude Adams. Photograph by Toni Robertson.) 76 x 51 cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 2: Hall, Barbara. Women’s Art Registry poster. 1974. Silkscreen poster, size unknown. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 3: Newmarch, Ann. Fence 111. 1973. Drawing, pencil on paper, 58.3 x 41.5 cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 4: Newmarch, Ann. Queen of the Home 11. 1974. Pencil, pastel, watercolour, synthetic polymer paint and photocopy on paper, 74.2 x 53.6 cm (sight). South Australian Government Grant, 1974. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 7410P66. Copyright courtesy of the artist.
Figure 5: Newmarch, Ann. Two Versions. 1975. Colour screen-print on paper, 71.9 x 51.3 cm. South Australian Government Grant, 1974. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 8510G29. Copyright courtesy of the artist.
Figure 6: Newmarch, Ann. We Must Risk Unlearning. 1975. Colour screen-print on paper, 71 x 55 cm. South Australian Government Grant, 1974. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 8510G27. Copyright courtesy of the artist.
Figure 7: Phoenix, Frances. Period Piece. 1976. Felt & zippers set into canvas. 62.5 x 27.5 x 7cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 8: Phoenix, Frances. Kunda. 1976. Padded doyley and zipper set into canvas. 40 x 40 cm. Photo by Frances Phoenix. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 9: Phoenix, Frances. Soft-aggression Centrefold for LIP magazine. 1976. Paper and paper doiley. 29.6 x 39 x 8cm (when opened). (Multiples produced by the LIP collective). Photo by Frances Phoenix. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 10: Marie McMahon with Frances Phoenix for the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group (WDNG). The D’Oyley Show. 1979. Silkscreen print on paper ('Fancywork: the Archaeology of Lives' number 8 of a set of 12 education posters), 79.2 x 50.1 cm. Image courtesy of the WDNG. Under Creative Commons License.
Figure 11: Phoenix, Frances. Matriarchal Mothers. 1976. Drawing, coloured pencils on paper. 36 x 28 cm (approx size of combined  works). Photo by Frances Phoenix. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 12: Adams, Jude. Self-image (detail). 1976. Collage of photocopied photographs and text. 100 x 76cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 13: Adams, Jude. Untitled (detail). 1976. Collage of magazine images, photocopies and text, 80 x 100 cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 14: Newmarch, Ann. Three Months of Interrupted Work. 1977. Colour screen-print on paper, 45.1 x 30.3 cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 15: Newmarch, Ann (and WAM members). Reclaim the Night. Mural.1980. (Work in progress). Photographer, Ann Newmarch. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 16: Adams, Jude. Child-care – not an important issue. Street performance. 1980. Photographer unknown. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 17: Sheriff, Helen. Happy Mother’s Day. 1981. Oil painting. 90 x 60 cm (approx). Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 18: Newmarch, Ann. Toothpiece (detail). 1981. Installation (etched zinc plate, crocheted bedspread made by Ann’s mother, Mary Newmarch, magnifying boxes, milk teeth). 160 x 60 x 60 cm (approx). Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 19: Newmarch, Ann. Queen of Hearts (2) (Colour Me Bold). 1978. Silkscreen print on paper, 73.7 x 45.9 cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Figure 20: Adams, Jude. January 8th-15th, 1979 (detail). 1979. Polaroid photos. Size unknown. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.