3.4 / Review

!Women Art Revolution

By Lani Asher November 3, 2011

Bay Area conceptual artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson describes her multi-platform documentary project !Women Art Revolution (!W.A.R.) as “the remains of an insistent history that refuses to wait any longer to be told.” That history is primarily told through Hershman Leeson’s interviews over forty years with many of the most influential feminist artists, curators, and historians of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s: Judy Chicago, the Guerilla Girls, Suzanne Lacy and Judy Baca, Yvonne Rainer, Rachel Rosenthal, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneeman, Nancy Spero, Marcia Tucker, and the list goes on. It is a history that encompasses war, identity politics, gender discrimination, sexuality, motherhood, and race.

Spain Rodriguez. Panel from !Women Art Revolution: A Graphic Novel.

!W.A.R. is at times a raw and uneven but ultimately moving and always deeply personal account of feminist art and feminist art history structured around the ethos of process favored by many of the artists featured in the film. In this vein, Hershman Leeson offers multiple platforms for viewers to become participants in a larger conversation. In addition to archival footage and photography, she splices in panels from cartoonist Spain Rodriguez’s accompanying graphic novel adaptation, which is being pitched as part of an ambitious study guide aimed at high school and college students. Stanford University hosts all the footage that could not be included in the final cut in an online archive. And Hershman Leeson encourages viewers to post their own photographs, artworks, and videos on the related community-curated RAW/WAR: Revolution Art Women website and blog.

This approach is fitting given that !W.A.R. is not a comprehensive survey of feminist art or feminist art history. Rather, it maps the rich terrain of friendships, enmities, generational conflict, and divisive issues that second wave feminism carved within the art world. For example, Marcia Tucker, a former curator at the Whitney Museum of Art, reveals something about the institutional sexism of the day when she recalls how she threatened to go to the New York Times when the Whitney hired her at a lower salary than her male coworkers. Tucker, who was eventually fired, went on to found the New Museum in New York, framing the institution around many of the principles she learned from consciousness-raising groups, community groups, and self-help organizations. There were also internal battles. Franklin Furnace founder Martha Wilson recounts how the sometimes volatile Judy Chicago screamed at her for calling her peers’ work prescriptive, saying, “Don’t you understand what we are trying to do here? We are trying to support these young women!”  

Feminist Studio Workshop at Sheila's house, September 1973. Courtesy of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville Archives

!W.A.R. also includes voices that question the long-term effects of this legacy. Artist Alexandra Chowaniec, who is also one of the film’s producers, contends that “there’s a fear within my generation that identifying with feminism is a limitation and not a foundation,” while art historian Amelia Jones states contra to Hershman Leeson: “For complex and perhaps obvious reasons I don’t think feminism managed to substantially change the way art is produced, exhibited, and written about.”

While the direct effect that the !W.A.R. project will have on future generations remains to be seen, it certainly helps to protect the legacy of and enrich the conversation surrounding the artists of the second-wave. Hershman Leeson has offered these radicals the opportunity to speak their own history, and that gesture will change the way feminist art will be produced, seen, and understood.

!Women Art Revolution was screened at the Roxie Theater on October 11, 2011, as part of Bioneers Film Night.

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