Oct 01 - Feb 26
by Susannah Magers
As the collective vision of the art historian Arlene Raven, the designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and the artist Judy Chicago, the Woman’s Building produced a prolific, inclusive system that ensured adequate press, professional visibility, publishing, and studio and exhibition spaces for women artists. While the exhibition Doin’ It In Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building may appear to be heavy on documentary material, it stands to reason that the legacy of a space that emphasized performances, happenings, consciousness-raising sessions, screenings, and action-based works, would be manifest on paper. The second volume of the stunning two-part catalogue for the exhibition quotes Derrida regarding this archival impulse: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory.”1As an ephemera enthusiast, I see the inclusion of these materials as a necessary and expected aspect of the presentation of this history.
Combining a variety of documentation in addition to artworks, the exhibition demonstrates the various ways these goals were accomplished: Levrant de Bretteville’s Womanhouse catalogues (1972); a moving 2006 video tribute by Cheri Gaulke to the late Arlene Raven; and selected responses submitted to What Is Feminist Art? (1976–77), a project in which Raven, Ruth Iskin, and Lucy Lippard asked women (such as Harmony Hammond and Rita Mae Brown) to respond to the titular question. In the video First Day Feminist Studio Workshop (1980), filmed by Nancy Angelo, the students speak about their expectations and initial impressions of female-centric learning. They almost unanimously wanted the relationships, conversations, and activity to continue after classes ended. The program’s philosophy encouraged collaborative work rather than the art school paradigm of breeding a few celebrated and solitary
artists. It challenged participants to cultivate community with lasting political impact. The exhibition’s documentary archive details the activities and efforts to build and sustain the community of the Woman’s Building in order to ensure its availability for generations to come.
In a letter written upon the decision to close the Woman’s Building in 1991, the Board concludes with the following statement, about donating its archives to the Smithsonian: “We are proud to have insured that the extraordinary history of the Woman’s Building will be visible.” Following the Smithsonian’s involvement in one of the most inflammatory censorship cases in recent history—the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly (1987) from an exhibition—the control over the presentation of history is more important than ever. Doin’ It In Public continues the tradition of self-historicizing as a mode of preservation.
Doin’ It In Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building is on view at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, through February 26, 2012.
Susannah Magers is an independent curator currently based in San Francisco. She received her MA in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts in 2011.