Notes from an Old Maenad in the Trenches
At 68, I was part of the second feminist charge in Los Angeles. I was among the first group of women to gain anything resembling an equal share (thanks to Marcia Tucker) in the Whitney Biennial of 1973. I hosted one of the first L.A. feminist meetings at my Venice beach studio with Eleanor Antin present. My friend Channa Horwitz set off the alarm—the only woman in Maurice Tuchman’s LACMA Art and Technology project (1967 – 71), Channa was not allowed to build her project or be in the exhibition, and her proposal was relegated to the catalogue. The women artists organized, showing up for the opening wearing Tuchman masks. Women in the ’70s (like Tuchman’s starlet wife, Blossom Plumb) were more likely to wear satin hot pants; most of our L.A. sisters dressed like bimbos.
The L.A. feminist movement followed on the heels of our sisters’ in New York. Not all of us were part of the Judy Chicago club, which came a bit later. Some of us found Judy’s narcissism and need to hog the spotlight fatiguing, and the vaginal imagery thesis simplistic. Older artists like June Wayne and Claire Falkenstein had been in the trenches years longer. Claire, a member of the Ecole de Paris, was often photographed with a cocktail hat and black gloves in the ’50s. I loved her Parisian Dior New Look photos.
Claire’s stories about how badly Sam Francis and the boys had treated her in Paris were riveting. She was an old warhorse who had fought hard in bad circumstances to survive. When you felt like shit, she was the one you could ring up for a salty pep talk. I saw a Los Angeles exhibition of her work at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts a few years ago and was overcome with emotion. Her crazy use of materials (large lumps of glass welded in) was still fresh and courageous. She had had little support and faded into semi-obscurity. I remember her being lonely and surviving on synagogue commissions.
Jack Keroac’s work is now being reprinted. Things come back around. The first postmodern feminist burst produced some amazing documents that could also use a reprint, like the Heresies and Elima journals. The next generation of feminists dismissed conversations about Goddess worship and feminine spirituality as embarrassing. A starchy theoretical bent descended with artists like Jenny Holzer. The body was out. A male dominated Logos has taken over the art world and these private rituals with goddess worshipers have receded into yellowed pages.
A ritual by Mary Beth Edelson with women dancing (dressed as sperm) around a large vagina sculpture for a fertility ritual also needs a reenactment. Someone asked Carolee Schneemann if the original participants could do a re-staging of “Meatjoy” (1964); sadly many are now deceased. I miss the fact that spirituality had a real place in art in the ’70s. You could wear grape leaves or wear nothing, and worship at some ancient altars. I love the photographs of Mary Beth in ancient goddess caves with her circle of candles, and Carolee covered in snakes. There is a tacky grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes in a church on 14th Street. I find myself going there, wishing the art world had an equivalent.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.