AU Museum Gives Women's Work the 'Space' It Deserves

Miriam Schapiro's 52-foot-long
Miriam Schapiro's 52-foot-long "Anatomy of a Kimono" hails from the mid-'70s. (Galerie Bruno Bischofberger)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Focused and urgent, American University's "Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators" reasserts early feminism's core message: Size does matter.

Women, this show reminds us, should take up as much space as men -- both physically and metaphorically.

Curated by the eminent art historians Norma Broude and Mary Garrard (both of whom have contributed essays to these pages), the exhibition at the Katzen Arts Center collects large-scale works -- early feminist agitators Faith Ringgold and Miriam Schapiro look especially impressive here -- made in the shadow of the 20th century's most male-dominated movements: abstract expressionism and minimalism.

Where ab-ex was about gesture and minimalism about its lack, a certain strain of feminist art on view at the Katzen took formerly scorned "women's work" -- quilting and decorative painting -- and magnified it a zillionfold, scaling up women's themes into man-size formats.

Schapiro's imposing "Anatomy of a Kimono" is a 52-foot-long stretch of fabric and acrylic on canvas from the mid-1970s. The artist collected donated handkerchiefs while touring the country and cobbled them together with other fabrics to form large, Asian-inspired shapes. Look closely and you'll discover that personal details -- such as a woman's name embroidered on linen -- become the fuel of a political artwork.

The 40 pieces filling the Katzen's bottom floor carry an agenda. They ask us to return to early feminism's basics. For instance: Let's tally the square footage men occupy on museum walls. Let's count the major works in this show that aren't owned by major museums. This calling to account is assertive, whiny and, in the minds of this show's curators, very necessary.

"We've been in a long period of theory and non-activism," Garrard says of the decades since the 1970s feminist revolution inspired artistic passion. "We want them to get mad again."

In its assertion of large-scale objects and the ire it wears on its sleeve, "Claiming Space" is a very different exhibition from that other feminist show in town: "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution," organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until Dec. 16. That sprawling exhibition featuring nearly 300 works was being organized as Broude and Garrard conceived their show; some trading of exhibition lists and vying for works ensued. But the two exhibitions are entirely different entities.

Where "Wack!" catalogues, "Claiming Space" expounds. The AU show's lack of breadth is easily made up in clarity of vision.

Where artists from both shows overlap, American occasionally outdoes the larger exhibition. Ringgold comes off as nothing short of a genius here. (Her paltry representation in "Wack!" is a shame indeed.)

"Claiming Space" includes her epic painting "Die," which reads like a "Guernica" for America's civil rights battles. About women, race, violence and abuse, it's an elegantly choreographed dance of death that has remarkable formal rigor. Ringgold's "The Flag Is Bleeding," a more sedate picture with similar grievances, takes Jasper Johns's flags and politicizes them in a way Johns never did.

The fact that this is an object-oriented show is key to its success -- images like Ringgold's may lack subtlety, but they pack major punch. Yet objects weren't all the feminists were up to. They took advantage of emerging video and performance genres, arenas uncolonized by either sex.

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