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Cherish the Ladies: Feminism at 30-Something

The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power 1973-91

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Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, Purchase, New York

January 15 through April 3, 2011

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Durham, North Carolina

August 25 through December 5, 2011

The Thesis

Context is everything. That's what Dada artist Marcel Duchamp taught us. His followers, late 20th century Appropriation artists, learned this lesson well. These Appropriationists recontextualized images found in fine art and popular culture in order to expose the hidden messages that influence our minds. We call this practice "Deconstruction." Now, thirty years later, curators Helaine Posner and Nancy Princenthal cast their art-historical eyes back to the Baby Boomer Appropriation era in their exhibition The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power.

Composed of 67 works by 22 female artists, the show focuses on art about power and powerlessness portrayed in popular culture: magazines, newspapers, film, and television. The artists' desire to dissect these cultural constructs came about during the heyday of Deconstructivist discourse imported from France through the texts of nouveaux philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The term "deconstructive impulse" was invented by Craig Owens for his essay "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," published in Hal Foster's anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodernism Culture (1983). This exhibition hinges a good deal on Owens', Foster's and Douglas Crimp's work, students of Rosalind Krauss who explained it all to us at CUNY/Graduate Center back in the late 1970s.

Posner (Chief Curator of the Neuberger Museum) and Princenthal (noted art critic and professor) added their own twist to Deconstruction while writing the book After the Revolution: Women Artists Who Transformed Contemporary Art (Prestel, 2007) with art critic Eleanor Heartney. They noticed that contemporaneous critics failed to comment on the feminist aspect of power imagery in these Postmodern recontextualizations of media, as if the works were "gender blind." This exhibition intends to make up for their omission.

I don't agree 100% with the premise, though I do applaud the content of the show. From my perspective, the "gender blind" critiques reflect the Late Bloomer Baby Boomer belief that women had entered a Post-Feminist era. By 1989, Randy Rosen et al celebrated this optimism in Making their Mark: Women Artists Enter the Mainstream, 1970-85, an exhibition and catalogue, which I reviewed for Women Artist News (Spring-Summer 1990).

At that time, professional women detested the "woman" qualifier. To that end, the critics (male and female) were complicit. Their commentary did not make gender distinctions. For in those days (and somewhat today as well), the F word (feminist) could easily marginalize or devalue the work on the art market. (Context is everything.)

In the exhibition catalogue, celebrated feminist art historian Griselda Pollock points out in her essay "What Women Want: Psychoanalysis and Cultural Critique" that women artists from that era certainly addressed the "gender norms and ideologies of difference" in the media through the appropriation of the male gaze toward hot babes in suggestive clothing (I am thinking of Cindy Sherman's B-movie stills of fictive films and Dara Birbaum's Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman ). Thankfully, Pollock cites Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock's exhibition Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, as an enormously influential show at the New Museum in 1984. The exhibition and catalogue introduced French psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan's phallo-centric theories on power and sexuality to an audience outside the academy.

The Deconstructive Impulse revisits many of the women artists included in the New Museum show (Judith Barrie, Silvia Kolbowski, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler and Mary Kelly). A study of both shows would help us contexualize the Neuberger's effort within the history of curatorial constructs. However, that's not happening here.

The Content

My purpose is to praise this show and encourage art-lovers to see it. The exhibition, overall, is immensely satisfying. Still funny, sassy, and sexy, the work remains heartbreakingly relevant too. Take for example, the Guerilla Girls' The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, first printed as a poster in 1988.

  • Working without the pressure of success
  • Not having to be in shows with men
  • Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs
  • Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty
  • Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminist
  • Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position
  • Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others
  • Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood
  • Not having to choke on those big cigars or paint in Italian suits
  • Having more time to work when your mate dumps you for someone younger
  • Being included in revised versions of art history
  • Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius
  • Getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.

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