The central premise of American director Lynn Hershman Leeson’s film !Women Art Revolution (2010), which screened at the Melbourne Festival over the weekend, is summarised near its conclusion: “When artists are battling for space in the cultural memory,” she says, “omission — or, even worse, eradication — becomes a kind of murder.”
Taking this observation deeply to heart, Leeson’s documentary tells the hitherto untold story of the American feminist art movement. Born out of the 1960s counterculture, the feminist art movement was one of the most diverse in American history. However, as Leeson’s documentary reveals, its history is still largely unknown.
The film begins with a damning series of vox pops filmed outside the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006. Visitors are asked to name three female artists. They can name only one: Frida Kahlo.
To rectify this state of affairs, !Women Art Revolution examines over three decades of women’s creative practice in America. The documentary is chiefly made up of interviews with artists involved in the movement. Each of them vividly recount their aspirations and the impediments they faced promoting their work.
Leeson filmed the interviews featured in her documentary over 35 years, amassing an extraordinary amount of footage that she has now finally released. Her subjects include choreographer Yvonne Rainer, artist Judy Chicago, filmmaker Miranda July, the activist group the Guerrilla Girls, film critic B. Ruby Rich and curator Marcia Tucker.
!Women Art Revolution is not really about painting, sculpture or photography per se. Rather, it is about history.
Leeson’s contention is that, without concerted political effort, women’s art in the United States would have remained marginalised by the art establishment. Moreover, without a deliberate act of recording and archiving, the feminist art movement itself would also be forgotten. !Women Art Revolution is therefore a political act of remembering as well as a documentary.
!Women Art Revolution is extraordinarily successful in fulfilling its goals. Leeson proves herself an insightful and detailed chronicler of the era.
The film illuminates a significant part of American cultural history and provides unprecedented access to the women behind the movement. Leeson not only gives her artist colleagues the visibility that they have largely lacked; she also shows the vivacity and humour that characterised women’s artistic practice in 20th-century America.
The documentary’s most powerful moments are those that demonstrate how marginalised women artists really were in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most telling anecdotes occurs when Leeson reveals that the production of !Women Art Revolution was largely funded by recent sales of her early “Roberta Breitmore” portraits.
Leeson had originally found a buyer for the work back in 1975. However, upon hearing that the artist was female, the buyer decided that the purchase was a bad investment and returned the paintings. 35 years later, the same art was appraised for more than 9,000 times its original price. Its sale partly funded Leeson’s documentary.
In an otherwise enlightening retelling of art history, one difficulty that !Women Art Revolution encounters is the relationship it forges between feminism’s present and its past.
The notion of “pastness” is a troubling obstacle for anyone still interested in promoting feminist ideals. Scholars such as Angela McRobbie have noted that feminism is regularly characterised as “over and done with” in contemporary discussions. Recast in this way, feminism becomes easier to dismiss as “no longer needed”.
Through its historicising tone, !Women Art Revolution unwittingly risks consigning the feminist art movement to a bygone era. This is in spite of the lively, intelligent women and colourful artworks that populate the film.
Leeson begins the proceedings by mentioning the preconditions for the feminist art movement, such as the student activity at UC Berkeley and the 1968 Miss America protest. Rather than breathing life into the historical past, the footage of Black Panthers and protesters on the Atlanta Boardwalk casts a nostalgic pall over the first half of the film.
This sense of “pastness” could have been overcome if !Women Art Revolution had more strongly emphasised the link between the feminist art movement and contemporary women’s artistic practice. Fortunately, Leeson acknowledges that her 90-minute documentary will inevitably omit much information about feminist art’s “evolving history”.
At the film’s conclusion, viewers are invited to visit the RAW/WAR website, a community-curated online collection of women’s artworks. Here, old and new women’s art mingle alongside one another, and viewers can judge the legacy of the feminist movement for themselves.
!Women Art Revolution successfully produces the feminist art movement as a coherent event and inscribes its practitioners into history. Viewers will certainly be able to name more than three women artists after watching Leeson’s film. All that is missing is a chance to see first-hand the artworks that these women produced.