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Inside Womanhouse, A Beacon of Feminist Art

  • Womanhouse exhibition catalog cover
June 2, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

In 1971, a historically important event took place in California – the opening of the first fully feminist exhibition titled Womanhouse. A young, yet already recognized artist Judy Chicago and her slightly older colleague Miriam Schapiro, who were the founders of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), organized this outstanding installation and performance art space together with their students and women artists from the local community. At the opening, only women were present, while the exhibition was open to all viewers. However, before we come to analyze the significance of the Womanhouse, it is necessary to highlight a few facts for a better understanding of the exhibition context.

The woman suffrage movement from the beginning of the 20th century was focused on the basic gender equality, while the women of the 1960s and 1970s demanded each aspect of women existence be explored – from sexuality and reproductive rights, through domestic labor and official legal inequalities, to domestic violence and marital rape. From the historical stance, the publishing of the book called The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963 was a crucial event in the rise of the Second wave of feminism, as well as the following legal victories concerning the status of women in the American society. Such an emancipatory discourse was part of a broader social shift characterized by the appearance of several other movements (the Human Rights, LGBTQ, pacifist, and environmentalist) and the culmination which happened on a global scale with student protests in 1968.

During the mentioned period, artists started embracing those ideas, and so the women started deconstructing the patriarchal matrix by radically abandoning traditional representational cannons and developing practices centered on the female experience, the appropriation of women crafts and materials, reinterpretation of history, etc. One of the pioneering figures of feminist art in the late 1960s was Judy Chicago (best known for her iconic feminist work Dinner Party) who already with her first solo exhibition inaugurated a different kind of specifically female sensibility. In 1970, the prolific artist started teaching at Fresno State College where she was able to release a program consisting only of women aimed to empower them to express female perspective in their work. However, this institution was not fully determined to support it, so in 1971 it officially became the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, the first-ever feminist art program in America.

Left Miriam Schapiro - Golden Pinwheel Right Judy Chicago - Rejection Quintet
Left: Miriam Schapiro – Golden Pinwheel, 1979. Image via Flickr / Right: Judy Chicago – Rejection Quintet, 1974. Offset lithograph. Oakland Museum. Image via Flickr

The Feminist Art Program

The Feminist Art Program was envisaged to take place in a new building; however, at the start of the school year in 1971, that venue was not finished, so the women organized themselves in a collaborative group project which would enable them to work; the result was Womanhouse, a site-specific installation and performance space entirely made by the students in an abandoned Victorian house located out of the CalArts campus.

The initiative was based on a method of group cooperation, meaning that the students would sit in a circle and express their thoughts on a certain topic of discussion. The intention behind this circular teaching technique was to create an environment for growth and to evoke a more womb-like atmosphere. The discussions were aimed to empower each woman to articulate her experiences, reach a higher level of self-perception, and ultimately search for subject matter suitable for her artwork.

However, many students were not satisfied with the approach proposed by Chicago and Schapiro, claiming it was a manifestation of their own power trips. On the other hand, Chicago insisted that her students were not able to escape from their own internalized sexism and difficulties dealing with female authority figures.

Nevertheless, Schapiro and Chicago were focused on helping students to overcome inherited patriarchal patterns of being a woman. They believed that by teaching the women to use power tools and proper building techniques, they would gain confidence and became much articulated concerning their artistic goals. Also, the important aspect was developing these techniques in an exclusively female environment.

Judy Chicago on Womanhouse 1974

The Womanhouse

The person behind the idea of Womanhouse was an art historian for the California Institute of Arts Feminist Art Program, Paula Harper, who supported the program. The students searched for a perfect house, and so they found an abandoned property belonging to the Psalter family; they went to them with their intention, and the house was granted by the city for three-month use during the project.

The women had to commit to a complete reconstruction of the house before transforming it in an exhibition space, and this process lasted from November 1971 to January 1972. In order to be effective, they had to delegate the choirs such as cleaning, painting, replacing windows, and installing lights. New walls were built for practical and aesthetic reasons and women learned wallpapering techniques to refurbish one of the rooms; they were advised by the crew about the basic electrical wiring. The women worked eight hours although they were not accustomed to – they came from the mid-class background. There were a lot of complaints and authority issues, and to deal with the frustration of learning new techniques, they organized meetings to raise collective consciousness.

While Schapiro took care of Womanhouse‘s installations, Chicago was focused on other media, especially the performances. Other local artists, such as Carlo Edison Mitchell and Sherry Brody, were invited to take part and exhibit their works alongside other women. The students also provided the exhibition tours through which they were able to speak about their artwork while confronted with criticism.

The house was fulfilled with a number of feminist installations, sculptures, performances and other forms of art. The artists which gathered around Womanhouse basically thematized white, heterosexual, cisgender, and middle-class experience of womanhood in early 1970; they used the space to express their disagreement with the patriarchy and spread awareness about the women issues.

There was a number of rooms in the Womanhouse which differed thematically (Nurturant Kitchen, Dining Room, Bridal Staircase, Crocheted Environment, Leaf Room, Leah’s Room, Personal Space, Painted Room, Red Moon Room, etc.), however, all of them were modeled on the basis of the same critical interpretation of ideological and social roles that women were (and still are to a certain extent) subjected.

Judy Chicago led the workshops in the Living Room of the house, and the ideas for those performative actions were derived from “informal working sessions”, in which the women played out aspects of their everyday lives (Three Women, Cock and Cunt play, Waiting, The Birth Trilogy, etc.)

Womanhouse by Johanna Demetrakas

The Legacy of Womanhouse

Shortly after the opening, Womanhouse gained attention on a national scale since it radically represented the first visual survey of feminism in the early 1970s, especially after Time magazine made a review of the exhibition. Naturally, it caused a widespread debate – as the conservatism was still high there were many individuals who strongly opposed this exhibition. While some critiques were aimed towards the lack of aesthetic standards proposed by the radical feminist art projects such as Womanhouse, others insisted it was more of a therapeutic than an art project. The exhibition was not scholarly analyzed at the time because it was a pioneering Feminist art project, but it has achieved to illustrate and subvert the constructed identity and the implications of the same.

Although it lasted for a short while, the complete insight in Womanhouse was made possible through a 1972 documentary film produced by Johanna Demetrakas. Namely, Miriam Schapiro contacted this filmmaker and so she shot 47-minute long footage about the project which was produced by the American Film Society and is a part of Women Make Movies. Another film called Womanhouse is Not a Home was made by Lynne Littman and directed by Parke Perineduring, which was screened in 1972 on the local KCET PBS channel; it encompassed the sequences of the installations, the statements of women artists explaining their work, as well as a consciousness-raising session with Gloria Steinem.

Although the Womanhouse exhibition cannot be entirely reconstructed, there were few exhibitions which featured the reenactment of some of the rooms. It is worth mentioning that the Bronx Museum of the Arts featured The Dollhouse made by Sherry Brody and Miriam Schapiro, then Womb Room by Faith Wilding, the recreation of Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom, and Shoe Closet made by Beth Bachenheimer. The legacy of Womanhouse is virtually present through the website of the same title aimed to celebrate the achieved success and to underline the importance of issues raised by the original exhibition into the twenty-first century.

As the years passed by, the other artists became aware of the radicalism and immense contribution to women struggle for social emancipation Womanhouse had, so they started embracing those ideas by referring to this piece of history. This outstanding initiative marked the first phase of feminist art which spanned and grew through the upcoming decades. The principals, methods, and values it set are still really relevant not only for women but for any other marginalized social groups in a contemporary moment saturated with neo-conservatism and right-wing discourse.

Featured image: Womanhouse exhibition catalog cover. Image creative commons.