10 Famous Feminist Artworks


Anita Steckel — the artist who “always felt a tension between being a woman who liked men and being an artist who chafed at the limits that men had historically placed on women” — died several weeks ago, according to a new report from the New York Times . The Brooklyn-born feminist artist was known for her erotic artworks, unabashedly depicting the male nude form, which created a controversy in the 1970s. In response, Steckel started an all-female art collective known as the Fight Censorship Group. It included notables such as Louise Bourgeois and Hannah Wilke. The Times shares part of Steckel’s mission statement for the group. The manifesto concludes with:

“If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women. And if the erect penis is wholesome enough to go into women then it is more than wholesome enough to go into the greatest art museums.”

The pioneering artist is best known for her humorous, but poignant, painted photo montages and self-portraits, depicting Steckel as a nude, King Kong-sized woman straddling a New York City skyscraper, conquering the phallic skyline. In memory of Steckel — and since we’ve been chatting about a few other cultural elderstateswomen today — we wanted to take a look at several famous feminist artworks. These are just a few of the groundbreaking contributions that opened up a dialogue about feminist concerns, sexism, sexuality, and more. Tell us who else belongs on the list in the comments below, after checking out our gallery past the break.

[Image credit: JoetheLion]

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party

Created between 1974 and 1979 (with the help of several hundred volunteers), Judy Chicago’s mixed media installation The Dinner Party consists of several colossal, banquet-style tables. Included are 39 different place settings for mythical and historical women, celebrating their cultural achievements. Each place setting features a unique butterfly/flower-like sculpture rising from the plates, meant to symbolize a vulva. There are 999 names of other important women inscribed amongst the installation.

“Do I still hope that feminist art can make a difference in the world? My answer is yes. I continue to believe that we need an art that can help us see the world through other people’s eyes and thereby lead us to a future where the world will be made at least a little more whole.”

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen

Martha Rosler demonstrates the function of multiple kitchen implements (sometimes in rather violent ways) like an anti-Julia Child in her darkly humorous 1975 video, Semiotics of the Kitchen.

” … First of all, it took on television … and that’s why it’s preferentially shown in a monitor, a little box. And it is about a kind of framing of women as the creature in the kitchen. And so the box serves that function of the frame, or the cage, again. And it is … I purposely went for only hand tools, because I wanted it very much to be the idea of the tool as the extension of the person. So it was the woman’s hand, and then it becomes the woman’s body in a number of gestures.”

Faith Ringgold, The Picnic at Giverny

Harlem-born artist Faith Ringgold is famous for her “story quilts” that explore themes of race and gender, particularly in the art history world. One work about Matisse finds the artist commenting on his use of black models and the link to male desire. Many of the narratives center on a fictional heroine named Willa Marie Simone who goes to Paris to become an artist. The Picnic at Giverny (1991) reverses Willa’s submissive role and shows the figure boldly painting in Monet’s Giverny garden, while a nude Picasso poses along the sidelines.

“I became a feminist because I wanted to help my daughters, other women and myself aspire to something more than a place behind a good man.”

Photo credit: Nancy Spero from Torture of Women by Nancy Spero, Siglio, 2010

Nancy Spero, Torture of Women

Nancy Spero first confronted social and political injustices with the 1976 collage work, Torture of Women. The 125-foot long scroll consists of 14 panels (we’ve shared just a portion above), took several years to make, and combines image and text — namely first-person testimony taken from Amnesty International reports about dead or missing women, definitions of torture, and violent mythological tales.

“I’ve always sought to express a tension in form and meaning in order to achieve a veracity. I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it. When women are in leadership roles and gain rewards and recognition, then perhaps ‘we’ (women and men) can all work together in art world actions.”

Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked… ?

Anonymous activist group Guerrilla Girls have been asking important questions about women and the art world since the mid ’80s (in gorilla masks, even!) “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” demanded an explanation for female inequality on the walls of museums — pointing to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recent Guerrilla Girl works have questioned the lack of female presence in Hollywood and other messy politics. Head to the Brooklyn Museum this Thursday for a Guerrilla Girl performance and book signing.

“We’re feminist masked avengers in the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman. How do we expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture? With facts, humor and outrageous visuals. We reveal the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, the and the downright unfair.”

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece

In 1964, Yoko Ono invited audience members on stage for a conceptual performance piece called Cut Piece. While kneeling quietly on the floor in a traditional, passive Japanese pose, viewers were offered the chance to cut her clothing away piece by piece until she was naked. Audience members reacted differently (depending upon what country the work was performed in) as Ono transformed herself into a vulnerable object — a role she felt had long been forced upon women in art and media.

“We are now at a stage where we are eager to compete with men on all levels. But women will inevitably arrive at the next stage, and realize the futility of trying to be like men. Women will realize themselves as they are, and not as beings comparative to or in response to men. As a result, the feminist revolution will take a more positive step in the society by offering a feminine direction.”

Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. — Starification Object Series

Hannah Wilke’s 1974 “performalist self-portraits” found the artist transforming her body into a grotesque, satirical statement on feminine beauty. Wilke posed à la pinup style — often topless — with tiny folds of bubble gum covering her body like blemishes, made to look like miniature vulvas for her S.O.S. — Starification Object Series. (The forms were reminiscent of her famed 1960’s vulva sculpture works.) Ironically enough, Wilke often found herself defending the photographs, as many suggested it was her beauty that made them most compelling.

“I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman — chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out, and pop in a new piece.”

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison

Though much of her work centers on a personal narrative, Louise Bourgeois’ exploration of female anxiety, feminine roles, and sexuality transcend her own stories. Femme Maison (Woman House) depicts a familial structure engulfing a nude woman, obstructing her identity, and isolating her from the world. The meaning seems pretty obvious, but the image was one Bourgeois played with from early in her career and remained no less profound.

“I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.”

Cindy Sherman, Centerfolds

Cindy Sherman hasn’t always described herself as a feminist, but the metamorphic photographer has become an icon thanks to her memorable female characters. Sherman’s 1981 Centerfolds series depicts female stereotypes seen in the media. Untitled No. 96 — a garish portrait of an orange-colored woman clutching a crumpled personals ad (pictured above) — is one of several images that toy with cliché gender roles and voyeurism, inspired by the center spreads in fashion and pornographic magazines.

“The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”

Laurie Simmons, Early Color Interiors

Laurie Simmons’ early photography series shot during the late 1970s depicts elaborate dollhouse scenes of suburban malaise with a female doll at the center of the fantasy/factual narrative.

“I’d set up empty interior spaces— miniature rooms and furnishings and lit them with direct sunlight or harsh contrasty theatre lights. I truly felt that they could be mistaken for real places and in this sense became enamored of the camera’s ability to tell lies rather than portray the truth.”