Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramovic and Tracey Emin are among the most successful women in art today. Their work regularly appears in international museum shows, is prized by top collectors and has no trouble getting attention in the press. If their market share still does not approach that of male peers like Richard Prince, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, at least they didn’t have to wait for fame as long as Louise Bourgeois, who emerged as a force when she was over 60.
Until the first wave of feminism, most women artists were known only to themselves. That was certainly the case for the dozens of groundbreakers who appear in “!Women Art Revolution” (!W.A.R.),” a new documentary by the San Francisco-based artist Lynn Hershman Leeson that will have its first New York screening tonight at the Museum of Modern Art.
In interviews conducted over the last 40 years, contemporaries like Yoko Ono, Hannah Wilke, Nancy Spero, Carolee Schneeman, Yvonne Rainer, the Guerrilla Girls and Judy Chicago attest to the almost total exclusion of women artists from museum collections and art history itself. The situation was worse for African-American artists like Howardena Pindell, Betye Saar and Adrian Piper, who were even more invisible to the mainstream.
What they were up against in their youth comes clear early in the film, in scenes in which Leeson asked people on the street in front of MoMA to name three women artists. With the occasional exception of Frieda Kahlo, most drew a complete blank.
Things are different now, of course, when young artists like Elizabeth Peyton, Kara Walker and Cecily Brown can zoom into public consciousness right out of the gate. But that is due partly to the pioneering feminists featured in the film, which has a soundtrack by Carrie Brownstein, the former front-woman for the all-girl band Sleater-Kinney, and includes the only known footage of the late Marcia Tucker, the visionary curator who founded the New Museum.
Leeson, 69, began videotaping her friends in 1968, when she was still a student at the University of California, Berkeley, but forgot about most of it until 2004, when she sold her archives to Stanford University and rediscovered the footage.
“A lot of people came through my living room in those days,” she says of her Berkeley experience. “Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs â€” all kinds of people. But I only captured the women who were making art because that’s what I wanted to do. It just seemed the best way to document what they were doing.”
DESCRIPTIONCourtesy Galerie Lelong, New York Ana Mendieta’s “Documentation of an untitled work,” 1972.
Berkeley was then the heart of the free speech movement, which generated such radical groups as the Black Panthers and politicized a generation that found its voice in protests against the war in Vietnam. All of it serves as the context for the women artists who banded together to make their presence felt, chiefly through performances that called attention to the blind eye the art establishment turned on them at the time.
As one example, Leeson cites the moment Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris withdrew from the 1970 Venice Biennale to protest American involvement in Vietnam. They put together another show in New York that included many of their own contemporaries. There wasn’t a single woman among them.
“We all felt that something transformative was occurring, and that we were part of it,” Leeson recalls in the film, which has been popular with audiences on the festival circuit over the last year and will open for a commercial run in June.
To go with it, she collaborated with Spain Rodriguez, one of the original Zap Comix artists, on a graphic novel that highlights significant moments in this “secret” revolutionary history and includes a thoroughly researched index of every exhibition and performance by the women in the film. It goes on for 57 pages.
“Women are the outtakes of history,” says Leeson, who teaches at the San Francisco Institute and is working on the last in a trilogy of films that stars Tilda Swinton and Marilyn Manson. “And younger people know nothing about it. What I had was just a fragment, but I wanted to get it out.”
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “!Women Art Revolution” (!W.A.R.) screens tonight at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, and opens June 1 at the IFC Theater. She is also included in “Touched: A Space of Relations,” a group show on view through April 16 at the Bitforms Gallery, 529 West 20th Street.