Linda Nochlin on the many faces of contemporary feminist art.
There are few feminists who have been as influential, intellectually accessible, and prolific as Linda Nochlin, the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. She is also a journalist, critic, curator, and author of numerous books and essays on subjects ranging from realism and Courbet to representing the nude to such contemporary artists as Jenny Saville and Robert Bechtle. Nochlin is perhaps best known for her seminal 1971 article in ARTnews, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in which she assessed the social structures—extending from academic training to patronage to business and institutional attitudes—that influenced not only the art produced by women but their professional and art-historical status as well.
BAM: Your 1971 article is a comprehensive, very eloquent assessment of the state of women’s art at the time. Where do you believe feminism stands today?
LN: I think we’ve made a lot of progress. I know it’s not fashionable to admit it, but I’m just stating a fact. I think women artists occupy a better position today than they did 30 or 35 years ago. Some of the best artists in every medium are women. The problem is to make collectors, museums, and curators who aren’t really up on things see that there are many great women artists. There are collectors and curators who—out of habit, laziness, or even misogyny—simply don’t bother with women. But that’s happening less and less frequently as women begin to occupy the most prominent places in the art world as creative artists. I mean, who wouldn’t think of collecting Louise Bourgeois? You’d be crazy if you didn’t. Or if you were interested in video artists, you’d be foolish not to consider the videos of Sam Taylor-Wood or Pipilotti Rist, not to speak of women working in various media from other parts of the world—Shahzia Sikander, for example, or Ghada Amer, or some of the Latin American women, or the Japanese. They are major figures. They’re the ones who are doing the most interesting and challenging work. It isn’t that people have to be charitable toward women in general or to people of other ethnicities, as they often were in the past.
BAM: Did it become easier for women when abstraction came along, and then Conceptualism? Did these new ways of making art mean that women weren’t stuck with the academic tradition and didn’t have to compete with the established male artists? How has the art scene changed for women since 1971?
LN: It has changed, but in different ways in different parts of the world. I think that in third-world countries women are returning to tradition, although often in very challenging, sometimes negative, critical ways. Shahzia Sikander, for example, uses Persian miniatures as a basis for her work but asks questions at the same time, and she uses contemporary media, including video, to recast her own national background. Ghada Amer uses traditional stitchery to make what would be considered pornographic images. So, yes, they are turning to their own backgrounds, but they’re doing so in often quite challenging ways.
BAM: Aren’t there new avenues for invention now that weren’t available in the past?
LN: Absolutely. I think there are all kinds of avenues for critical thinking in visual language that simply weren’t there before.
BAM: Do you think feminism means the same things now as when you wrote your article?
LN: I think it means much more, although there were always complex artists working in the feminist movement. It is oversimplifying to say that all the 1970s feminists were “essentialists”—that is, single-minded. A lot of them were not. I don’t think Martha Rosler was an essentialist, or Joyce Kozloff, or Valie Export. But they were nevertheless feminists.
BAM: Do you still define yourself as a feminist?
LN: Very much so, but I believe that now there are feminisms. I am very open-minded. It’s a big mistake to think that feminism is the same everywhere. It’s important to recognize how notions of womanhood and femininity are constructed in different societies by different people. I think it’s a mistake when people define themselves entirely as essentialists. But women are still very critical. Someone like Sam Taylor-Wood, especially when she works with male imagery—and she does a lot with men that is very feminist without being blatant—raises questions beyond that of maleness as a given, femaleness as a given. And I believe someone like Mary Kelly demonstrated in the ’80s how sexual identity arises in the individual almost inevitably, using diapers as her medium.
In fact, every time I go to a show of a woman artist who is interested in gender issues, or who doesn’t even know she’s interested in them, I see a new, more open, more critical, more inventive kind of feminism. It often works unconsciously, against the grain.
BAM: What about abstract painting?
LN: In the ’70s, in the context of Minimalism, very often pattern, decoration, richness, and blood assumed a feminist mode. It doesn’t mean that it naturally had to have it, but often feminist implications arise in certain historical circumstances and within certain art meanings that are givens. If the given is that male artists are involved with Minimalism—Donald Judd and Richard Serra—then maybe something by someone like Eva Hesse will assume a feminine meaning. This is partly because Hesse was trying to think in oppositions, in a kind of dialogue, and also partly because a woman artist herself wants to engage in a formal argument.
I don’t think the work all came out of the vagina or anything like that. I think it all came out of the thinking of very ambitious artists who happened to be women. These women wondered, How am I going to place myself in relation to the art language of today? And this is one way that they thought about it—that the work could be made out of something ephemeral; that it was going to be antigeometric in a sense, though not always; that it was going to have organic references even though it was abstract; that it might be vulnerable and subject to disappearance—all of which reads as somehow feminine. Meanwhile, others—male artists, mostly—were making things that might last forever.
BAM: I guess you can also have painting that is somewhat ironic, like the work of Beatrice Milhazes, who riffs on the overtly, baroquely decorative and lacy. As the issues of feminism—that is, the original issues—become less urgent or more diffuse, the problem will become how to engage the world, no?
LN: I don’t think that the position of women is going to cease to be problematic. That’s utopian. We live in a world where women are oppressed, where in certain countries they can’t initiate court cases, where they have marriage thrust upon them. Even polygamy is coming back, and some forms of oppression are tied to religion. This happens around the world. These issues are not going to go away.
Even in terms of art, as far as the market is concerned, women artists do not get the prices men do. There are rare exceptions, as in the case of Louise Bourgeois, perhaps.
BAM: But even she didn’t command such high prices until late in her life.
LN: There are still battles to fight in that area, although women are curators—often well-paid curators who work very hard—and dealers. But do they often take women artists on? Not necessarily. And as for museum directors—think of that!—how many big museums do women direct? Women tend to run alternative spaces or small museum galleries, not major museums and the like.
BAM: But the situation for women has changed in terms of the art itself.
LN: Yes, in terms of expectations, in terms of what’s out there in the galleries. I’m going to point out, too, that the trope of “woman as exception” has always been popular. You think of people like Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun or Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morisot or Rosa Bonheur—probably one of the most popular artists of the 19th century—or of Georgia O’Keeffe, arguably the best-known woman artist in the United States. They’re not very highly respected in vanguard circles. People don’t know exactly what to do with “women as exception.” They’re like some odd bird out there that has done something unusual.
BAM: What about people like Marie Laurencin and Sonia Delaunay? Couldn’t they, too, be considered somewhat exceptional?
LN: Not really. Sonia Delaunay was wonderful, but it was her husband who had the name. She made money for them by doing design and decorative art on the side, but Robert was considered the important artist.
However, in the pre–Soviet Union and early Soviet Union, you really had women right in there doing abstract art. It was the only time that a whole group of women were included in avant-garde circles on a par with male artists.
BAM: Which woman artists today are carrying the banner?
LN: I would say people like Janine Antoni and Pipilotti Rist and Sam Taylor-Wood and Jenny Saville. They’re still young, and there’s a generation still younger than they are. I think Rachel Whiteread is brilliant and original, and there’s also a sense of covert domesticity, a counterargument to the assertive monumentality and permanence of someone like Richard Serra.
These are women who very deliberately make their art entangled with pleasure and violence. One of my absolute favorites is Angela de la Cruz, who I think is utterly splendid. She combines rage and elegance and is very much a world artist. There’s also Sarah Lucas, a fierce feminist—fierce at least on gender issues.
BAM: Now that women have become more comfortable with their situation in the art world, do you think that there is more humor in their work?
LN: There’s more everything. And there’s also a lot of tragedy. Women are doing a lot of in-between work—combining paintings, objects, installation, performance. And a lot of photography.
BAM: But aren’t men doing that, too?
LN: Yes, but I think there is a difference in terms of the gorgeousness and vulnerability in the women’s work. I think Cecily Brown, with her violently animated surfaces, has been dealing with sexuality, beauty, and aggression. Her work makes constant reference to the connection between the act of fucking and the act of painting. Brown borrows from the painterly traditions of the 19th century.
BAM: You point out in your “Global Feminisms” catalogue essay (“Women Artists Then and Now: Painting, Sculpture, and the Image of the Self”) how “anti-painting,” in the form of photography, video, installation, and performance, gained popularity among women, like Australian artist Tracey Moffatt, because “they were associated with feminist refusal of the patriarchal reign of the painted masterpiece.” These other media offered an independent territory for expression.
LN: I think one of the most important innovations of the “Global Feminisms” show is an engagement not only with the problematics of painting, but also with the various ways in which painting interacts with local traditions.
And I think gender—or the instability of gender—is very important throughout the world, as in the photographs of Catherine Opie, where she appears as a Madonna-like figure who is obviously homosexual, nursing her son.
Even more outrageously, Hiroko Okada, a woman, parodies the idea of motherhood being an exclusively feminine condition in her ink-jet print of two big-bellied men smiling at their situation.
Barbara A. MacAdam is deputy editor of ARTnews.