Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on January 13, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Contemporary Women Artists

by Sherry Buckberrough


Art historians divide the twentieth century into the two chronological periods of modern and contemporary. The exact point of division is, however, up for debate -- in the 1950s, when the avant-garde moved to New York; in the 1960s, when Pop and Minimal Art usurped Abstract Expressionism; or in the 1970s, with the turmoil of post-Conceptual pluralism. In the history of women's art, though, the divide is clear and not an issue of artistic style. Contemporary women's art began in the late 1960s with the feminist "revolution," which arguably redefined art-world assumptions even further and cast the shadow of gender politics on all women's art of the period.

In 1971 Linda Nochlin posed the now-infamous question "Why have there been no great women artists?" and answered it by pointing to the social and institutional blockades that kept women as a group from receiving training, commissions, exhibitions, criticism, and preservation of their work in museum collections.[1] She proposed that being female historically limited women's choices of media, subject matter, and artistic movement. In the wake of her essay, critical interest shifted from judgment of what had previously been presumed to be the neutral quality of individual women's work to deconstruction of the cultural ideologies that had kept them in secondary positions.

The same year on the West coast, students in the Feminist Art Program, headed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro at the California Institute of the Arts, refurbished an old Los Angeles house and opened it to the public as Womanhouse. Working collectively, they gave expression to the realities of their lives as women, addressing female bodies, traditional gender roles, and the spaces of domesticity with biting visual metaphors. On the East coast, women artists took to the street to protest the lack of inclusion of their work in major museum collections. They formed working groups, organized exhibitions, and began journals that explored topics pertinent to their expanding political and cultural concerns. [2] Several women's cooperative galleries were founded, including A.I.R. Gallery and Soho 20, that continue in New York to this day.

Recently acknowledged by the exhibition "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" and the many articles and recordings that have followed it, the 1970s has been called the decade of feminist art.[3] Politically inspired and consciously provocative, work of the time was not readily absorbed into museum collections. The most famous example is Judy Chicago's gigantic The Dinner Party (1974-79; Brooklyn Museum), which engaged more than four hundred volunteers to make a triangular banquet table with place settings for thirty-nine significant historical women. Each was represented by a ceramic plate emblazoned with an iconic configuration of a vulva/butterfly sitting within a uniquely designed and generally lavishly embroidered runner. Shown nationwide at non-art venues upon its completion and then put in storage, it was given space twenty-five years later in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition and acquisition of women's art in American museums increased consequentially as a result of the feminist movement, though it still lags significantly behind the collection of art by men. [4]

Feminism also changed how women's art was received. Not all women artists ascribed to feminism then, nor do they now. Many who had spent their lives distancing their work from gender associations refused to suddenly switch political gears. Yet in the inflamed atmosphere of public debate around the issue, all women's work was inspected for signs of "being female." The possibility of a female aesthetic-visual qualities that could identify art as having been made by a woman-was rapidly pursued by feminist critics.[5] Although long since discredited as a limiting and "essentialist" approach to determining what is female, they identified softness, concern for detail, enclosures, and centralized, rounded, or layered forms (references to female anatomy) as female visual characteristics. Some feminist artists used these forms as political statements. Others -- for example, the Abstract artists Helen Frankenthaler, Alice Baber, and Louise Nevelson -- found their work labeled female despite their avid protests.

Abstraction was itself an issue. The stranglehold that it held on art criticism of the 1960s erected a barrier to the choices of many artists, male and female alike. Ruth Weisberg, who emerged from graduate school late in the decade, remembers the situation well: "If you're Abstract Expressionist, you can't do this, you can't do that, you can't have subject matter, you can't have narrative, but I knew these were things I wanted."[6] Her triptych Mirrors (1967 ) (fig. 17) demonstrates her insistence on figuration. Like contemporaneous male artists Robert Smithson or Larry Bell, she used multiple mirror reflections to explore complex spatial dynamics. Yet her insertion of a female body into the conceptual spaces they left empty returned their projects through representation to the familiar and human. Weisberg feminized, physicalized, and boldly personalized the "male" art of the period. Becoming a feminist early in the movement, she has spent more than forty years integrating feminist ideas with themes from the history of Judaism and images from the history of art.

Like all activist art, feminist art put political content in the foreground, often at the expense of the formal experimentation that had directed the avant-garde for more than a century. Elizabeth Catlett's work (fig. 18) provided one needed prototype for the fusion of significant form and political content in subject matter. Having been rejected from college programs and paid a second-tier salary as a teacher because she was African-American, she had plenty to say about racial injustice. She became the first student to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa, and emerged specializing in the portrayal of African-American women. Moving in 1945 to Mexico City, where she lives today, to work with the socially engaged print workshop, Taller de Grafica Popular, she engaged the graphic strength of expressionist form to create some of the most powerful images of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Catlett's career as an activist artist was already well established at the advent of the feminist movement. She not only joined the movement, but because of her many printed and sculpted images of "strong" women, she became one of its living heroines.

Trained in formalism themselves, many activist artists struggled to find their own meaningful balance between form and content. Sister Mary Corita Kent also took up the practice of printmaking and, like Catlett, committed herself to a communal workshop whose goal was social change. A Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, she taught at Immaculate Heart College in the 1950s and 1960s, turning her classroom into a multi-media event that no less a mind than Buckminster Fuller considered "among the most fundamentally inspiring experiences of my life." [7] Impassioned by the peace movement of the 1960s, her collaged screenprints used boldly colored abstract forms that called on the latest developments in American avant-garde painting, with written texts often taken from popular culture. Her formal assurance, combined with a penchant for Pop, produced designs in which she could risk incorporating staunchly political and heartfelt humanitarian messages.

Like Elizabeth Catlett, Nancy Spero created political work long before feminism. Committed to the human figure, as was her husband Leon Golub, the couple spent the early 1960s in Paris, where representation was more accepted. Curators and dealers visited the studio to see Golub's work, but refused to look at hers. After returning to America in 1964, Spero, like Sister Mary Corita, became an avid anti-Vietnam war activist, vehemently condemning unjust conditions of power, American arrogance, and male dominance. She was an early participant in the feminist art movement and a founder of the A.I.R. collective. Seeking ways to circumvent masculine traditions, she voided the "cult of the artist's mark" by using stencils, placing them strategically to create tension-filled fragility, while reviving ancient figures of women, altered in form to read as both powerful and vulnerable.

Feminist art was significant in opening the gates of art criticism to accepting content of other sorts -- personal, social, symbolic and narrative. Feminists celebrated older women artists like Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois, who had worked in obscurity during the long dominance of abstraction. The figurative styles of these women artists were reinstated as serious and were launched as contemporary and younger women artists took advantage of the freedom established by activist movements to explore both new and old modes of artistic expression. Glo Sessions's Portrait of Isabel Bishop (1988) (fig. 19) may be considered one of many homages rendered by women artists to women who preceded them.

Nancy Graves brought her knowledge of natural history and museum practices and a love of textural surfaces to work that offered a new look and fresh content to the art of the 1970s. Without strong ties to the feminist movement, she nonetheless emerged in sync with the revivals of craft, detail, and decoration found in work by such feminists as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff. Her foray into new and exotic media and her simultaneous work in painting, prints, and sculpture proposed new directions for the field in general. The same held true for Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, whose early work appeared in the early 1970s, breaking radically from the restrictions of Minimal Art. Bartlett expanded into color, representation, and potential narrative while Murray began an eccentric return to abstraction that accorded neither to Abstract Expressionism nor its heritage in color field painting. Women striking out in unique directions in form, content, and media, without political agendas, provided yet more solid role models for the next generation.

Feminist art of the 1970s by and large refused to perpetuate images of women invented by the patriarchy -- the pervasive culture of male dominance -- unless with irony. Those images included, of course, representations of women from popular media and from the history of western art, arguably created to satisfy the "male gaze." Harriet Casdin-Silver doubly defied the rules of the patriarchy: being the first woman to take up the new medium of holography as early as the late 1960s and, a decade later, making holographic images of women's nude bodies, including her own. Her three dimensional illusions represented "real" women as both dramatically present and perplexingly ephemeral, challenging expectations and opening new possibilities for imaging the female form. While the technical expertise required by holography kept most women at bay, the lack of critical tradition for assessing it as art allowed Casdin-Silver to experiment without formal or ideological boundaries. Her experience repeated that of nineteenth-century women artists' entry into the field of photography and, by the same token, her work received limited recognition during her lifetime because holography was not understood as an art form.

Early feminists sought to engage the female spectator by addressing women's concerns. The generation of the 1980s, on the other hand, often felt that feminist art had eliminated the pleasure principle at the core of the act of looking. Cindy Sherman's work is exemplary of the new attitude, which came to be known as postmodern feminism. Rejecting the cults of originality and authenticity that attended modernist art, Sherman reveled in media representations, first of 1950s films, later of fashion ads and art masterpieces. She usually begins by reinventing herself through makeup and costumes and positioning herself in carefully constructed settings that she documents in large-scale cibachrome photographs. Sherman's art questions the presumption that anyone has a stable identity. Her disjunctive, ironic, and yet playful images interrogate visual tropes of socially constructed femininity and, moreover, notions of what it is to be human. It is not unusual to find prosthetic body parts integrated into her uncanny simulations.

Sarah Charlesworth and Ellen Carey were also part of the generation of the 1980s. Both are strongly feminist, though their work does not foreground feminist content. Both interrogate photographic processes, exploring how identity, politics, feeling, and form are constructed and fused by images. Carey, like Sherman, began by altering self-portraits, dissolving her image in structures and patterns that emerged in her experimentation with the photographic process. The large scale abstractions made from pulled Polaroids (fig. 20), for which she is now well known, developed from those early experiments with her own image. Charlesworth's work in the 1980s had more to do with reading photographs than making them. By rephotographing images from the media, she dissected the language of photography that does such a good job of convincing us of the reality of its illusions. In the 1990s she complicated her content, adding the allusions of written language to the illusions of photography itself.

The last two decades have provided a greatly expanded playing field for women artists. The economy of the 1990s pushed the growth of the art market both domestically and internationally. After a larger cultural backlash against feminism in the 1980s, artists and critics could see the "revolution" with fresh eyes. Forthrightly feminist work, such as Nina Bentley's assemblages, uses both charm and humor to comment on the plight of the corporate wife and has found positive reception.

Increased immigration to America, simultaneous with the forging of multicultural and global ideologies, brought the work of women artists from non-European cultural traditions onto the national and world stage and into museum collections. Hung Liu emigrated from China to the United States in 1984 to attend graduate school in art. Developing a practice of recycling old photographs of Chinese women into images that reveal invented personal narratives, she produces articulate hybrids of Chinese and Western stylistic traditions. Moroccan-American Lalla Essaydi's work also moves between photography and painting, though never combining both in one work. Like Hung Liu, she examines the situation of women in her country of origin. Covering their draped or nude forms in Arabic writing, painted in henna by the women themselves, she produces stunningly beautiful, pattern-drenched images that speak of women's right to enter the tradition of reproducing sacred texts.

Other women artists of the twenty-first century see feminism as just one of many interrelated concerns they have about the state of the world. Their gender politics are present but highly contingent. Irene Hardwicke Olivieri brings ancient knowledge of the earth in the forms of its flora and fauna into intimate physical and epistemological relation to human beings (fig. 21). Cynthia Westwood lingers on the image of women in the shower, seeing them from new perspectives that revise the tradition of the nude. Christine Breslin takes her camera into immigrant neighborhoods in Hartford, individualizing conceptions of ethnicity with her carefully composed, close-up portraits. Julie Heffernan, like Sherman, begins with the concept of the self-portrait. Yet her individuality is thoroughly obscured by her spectacular imaging of a world in which the realms of the real and the imagined, the human and the animal, the past and the future are presented in stunning and often explosive metamorphosis. Self-identity loses all boundaries, disappearing into cataclysmic amalgamations of natural and cultural memory. Although one understands that women artists' circumstances still constitute a position of difference, the subjects, media and issues that women engage now stretch across all modes of production. The problem of limitations for women artists has been replaced by the problem of choice.


1. Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" ARTnews (January 1971): 22­39, 67­71.

2. Among those in New York were Feminist Art Journal, Women Artists Newsletter/Women Artists News, and Heresies, from the collective of the same name; in Pennsylvania, Women's Art Journal; and on the West Coast, Chrysalis. An early political action group was WAR (Women Artists in Revolution), which picketed the Whitney Biennial for their poor inclusion of women in 1970.

3. "WACK!" was organized by Cornelia Butler at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angles in 2007; see Lisa Mark, ed., WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 2007). The exhibition "Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art," which featured women artists from around the world, showed the reliance of much recent feminist work on the artists of the 1970s; see Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin, eds., Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art (London and New York: Merrell Publishers Limited and Brooklyn Museum, 2007).

5. On statistics on solo exhibitions of women artists as well as many other markers of women's professional success between 1970 and 1985, see Ferris Olin and Catherine C. Brawer, "Career Markers," in Randy Rosen and Cahterine C. Brawer, comps., Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970­1985 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), pp. 203-30. For more recent statistics on a smaller selection of museums, see Eleanor Heartney et al., After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (Munich: Prestel, 2007), pp. 22-23.

6. See, especially, Lucy Lippard, "Prefaces to Catalogus of Women's Exhibitions" and "What is Female Imagery?" in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art (New York: Dutton, 1976), pp. 38-55, 80­89; and Margaret Mary Majewski, "Female Art Characteristics: Do They Really Exist?" in Judy Loeb, ed., Feminist Collage: Educating Women in the Visual Arts (New York and London: Teachers College Press, 1979), pp. 197-200.

7. Weisberg in Anna Meliksetian, "An Interview with Ruth Weisberg," Fabrik Magazine, 2008, http://fabrikmagazine.com/content/rth-weisberg/ (accessed July 13, 2010).

8. Quoted in Julie Ault and Martin Beck, "History/Sister Corita Kent: All You Need Is Love: Pictures, Words, and Worship," Eye Magazine 25 (Spring 2000),

http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature.php?id=16&fid=127 (accessed September 3, 2010).


About the author

Sherry Buckberrough is Guest Co-Curator for WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on January 13, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on January 7, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle of the New Britain Museum of American Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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