Feminist History 101: 5 Art Exhibitions You Need to Know

(originally published on Milk.xyz)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds, Image: Christie’s

Georgia O’Keeffe famously had a thing or two to say about being called the best woman painter by men. That response was: “I think I’m one of the greatest painters.” In other words, no condescending patriarchal crap here—she was one of the greatest painters, male or female.

Few would argue with her greatness—she did, after all, pave the way for American Modernism and changed the way we look at landscapes, cityscapes and spiritualism forever—but for those in the industry, the casual sexism O’Keeffe faced isn’t really a surprise. Art, like pretty much everything except for menstruating and giving birth, is a boy's club.

Luckily, things are getting better: O’Keeffe’s work held the star spot at London’s Tate Modern this summer, with a mega-exhibition dedicated to her, and last year MoMA held not one, but three, major solo shows dedicated to women (including Björk). MoMA also has its Modern Women’s fund, and the number of female artists being shown at the Whitney and the Guggenheim is growing. And there’s certainly no shortage of female shows to check out on either coast, from the Hammer Museum’s new Bureau of Feminism in L.A. to these five ladies repping the arts in New York.

To paraphrase Cassie, [we’ve] got a long way to go. But the movement is growing, and one day, we hope all this unequal bullshit will disappear. Until then, brush up on your art history and rediscover five seminal exhibitions that have taken women way, way further than before: 

1. An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture 
When: 1984
Where: MoMA

Don’t you just love it when a man says they’ll produce “an international cross-section of what is going on [in the art world],” and then proceeds to include only 13 women, out of a total of 165 artists? Yep, less than 10 percent. That’s exactly what MoMA curator Kynaston McShine did with this show in 1984. We have to thank him though, because without his sexist show and remarks—e.g. “Any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career,”—there wouldn’t be the Guerilla Girls and their witty posters that weren’t afraid to call out the major institutions that showed gender bias. So, like, all of them. 

2. Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0
When: 1974
Where: Morra Arte Studio, Naples

Abramović, like O’Keeffe, isn’t a super big fan of feminist label—“An artist has no gender; all that matters is whether they make good or bad art,” she told the Guardian—but still, her performance art piece Rhythm 0 made a powerful statement about the objectification of female bodies. As the “object”, people were allowed to do whatever they wanted to her—and they took advantage of it. Using tools she had placed nearby, such as scissors, a knife and a loaded gun, people cut her clothes, sexually abused her and held her at gunpoint. Sure, she was in control of the situation and had literally put herself there. But, noting that how violent the men in particular became, it was a scary insight into male aggression and threw up a big warning flare about the position of women in society. 

3. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party
When: 1979
Where: Brooklyn Museum

Image: Brooklyn Museum

The ultimate answer to all those “who you would have a dinner party with” questions, this installation pays homage to so many lady bosses throughout history, from Celtic goddesses to Native American explorers and medieval queens who slayed both metaphorically and literally (we’re not going to deny those were tough times). OG feminist artist Judy Chicago created it in the 1970s—it took her four years to complete—as a way of rewriting history and saying sure, there were a lot of great dudes but what about the women? She also took the piss out of male dominance in this piece by elevating traditional “women’s work”—textiles and ceramics, which she used to recreate the piece’s dinner party setting—to the realm of high art. And whether you think it’s the greatest thing since Sushi Cats or that there are just too many vaginas (there’s a stylized vulva on each plate), well, you can check it out in person and really decide—it’s now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. 

4. Elles @ Centre Pompidou
When: 2009-11
Where: Centre Pompidou, Paris

When Europe’s largest modern museum says it’s going to store its permanent collection and replace it with all-female art, you’re going to sit up and notice. This was a BFD, firstly because it meant the museum had to really think about its purchases and actually buy art made by women, and also because it proved that yes, the public did want to see this art: attendance to the museum’s permanent art collection increased by 25 percent and the show even extended its run, due to its popularity. Turns out that people enjoy seeing a woman’s name on the artist’s plaque. Groundbreaking, we know. 

5. WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution
When: 2007
Where: MOCA, L.A., and MoMA PS1, Queens 

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Red Abakan, 1969, courtesy of the National Museum, Wroclaw, Poland and Magdalena Abakanowicz

Nobody needs the establishment’s permission to acknowledge that they’ve “made it”—but way to shut the haters down. If anyone had any doubts about the influence of feminist art, particularly in the later half of the 20th century, they only had to look at this exhibition curated by Connie Butler (who is behind the aforementioned Bureau of Feminism mentioned above). This was the first exhibition to really look at the history, development and influence of feminist art, and was widely praised for not only being multi-disciplinary, but also for making sure lesbian artists and non-US voices had a space at the table. In fact, as art critic Holland Cotter wrote in his review for the New York Times, it only left people wanting more: “If you’ve held your breath for 40 years waiting for something to happen, your feelings can’t help being mixed when it finally does: ‘At least!’ but also ‘Not enough.’”