the rebel feminist artists of the 70s, uncensored

We speak to the curator of a groundbreaking new show featuring the work of four provocative female artists who repurposed porn, painted penises, and were decades ahead of their time.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
12 January 2016, 6:45pm

Cosey Fanni Tutti, TG Promo A, photograph by Szabo

In a memorable scene near the end of Transparent Season 2, an aging radical feminist toasts, "here's to the last remaining extremists." It's easy to forget sometimes, in this current wave of viral, all-embracing feminism — when young actresses post beautiful well-informed essays about intersectionality on their Instagram accounts — that attitudes haven't always been as inclusive as "your feminism is your own." A new show at the Dallas Contemporary art museum, opening this week, brings together the work of four feminist artists who were not only censored by the art world but also marginalized by their contemporaries in the mainstream feminist art movement.

Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel, Betty Tompkins, and Cosey Fanni Tutti were all active in the 70s and all sidelined because of the confrontational nature of their work. "One cliche of [mainstream] feminist work made at that time would be a fiber art weaving of something that looks like a vulva," jokes curator Alison Gingeras. The highly sexualized paintings, collages and photographs of Joan, Anita, Betty, and Cosey were not that. Joan painted lifelike portraits of couples having sex; Betty's "Fuck Paintings" were based on clippings from porn magazines; Anita reimagined New York skyscrapers as giant penises; and Cosey Fanni Tutti reclaimed images taken of her as a sexworker as her own art.

Cosey Fanni Tutti, Szabo Sessions (2010)

According to more orthodox feminists at the time, when it came to art, vaginas were good, penises and sexual desire were bad. Steckel's 1972 solo show The Feminist Art of Sexual Politics caused an uproar. Even Semmel thought Tompkins' monumental images of penetration were not truly feminist. And Cosey Fanni Tutti's 1976 Prostitution exhibition at the ICA in London provoked a debate in UK parliament and was forced to close prematurely.

In 1973, Steckel formed the "Fight Censorship" collective with artists including Louise Bourgeois, with the goal of actively creating sexually explicit art. Steckel's handwritten manifesto for the group famously reads, "If the erect penis is not 'wholesome' enough to go into museums — it should not be considered 'wholesome' enough to go into women."

Joan Semmel, Touch (1975)

In the leadup to the exhibition, Alison answered our questions about these O.G. feminist heroes and what it means to show their work together for the first time.

How did the idea for the show come about?
In 2010, I had written an essay about Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven, and I began sketching out a matrilineage of artists whose work enabled him to make that series. There are all of these precedents, like Betty Tompkins and Cosey Fanni Tutti, that did what he did, and got so much credit for, well before him.

The show is also a response to the first attempts to make an official or mainstream feminist art history. There was this big exhibition in 2007 called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. It was a really ambitious, encyclopedic show and it left out two of the artists that I put in this show.

Joan Semmel, Hold (1972)

Who made up the "mainstream" feminist art movement in the 70s?
One of the most famous examples is the feminist art program at CalArts, which was run by Miriam Schapiro, and all of these artists who made work that was very vaginal. That imagery was a commonality. Even just the phallus was seen as a tool of patriarchy. Acknowledging heterosexual desire, that's really where the problem came in — which is ironic because that's the most normative thing in our society. Who would have thought that being a straight woman and articulating that subject position would be subversive? But it was. And maybe it still is.

Anita Steckel, New York Landscape (c. 1970-1980)

What do you think feminists today can learn from these artists?
In many ways, I feel like this show speaks to this new generation of millennial women who have unproblematically adopted feminism. It's saying, "Here's your untold history." The current paradigm of this kind of libertine, outspoken, sex-forward agency — that happened in the 70s, and women suffered for it.

I think that this whole show is about that type of agency. These were not passive women — they were seeking a fight. They were bringing the terms of the debate to the center, as opposed to waiting for a reaction to what they were doing. But I think, too, that that was just the reality because they had no visibility. Betty Tompkins' works were in her apartment from 1975 to 2002. They were never shown until a dealer, Mitchell Algus, rediscovered her in 2002.

How shown were the other three?
Anita, very little. She was known during that period, but she kind of died in obscurity. Betty was a teacher, and making work in isolation. Joan had a bit of a career, but again the resurgence of interest in her work has been in the last ten to 15 years. And Cosey had a double existence because she was a musician as well, and a cult figure because of that. Her art has been shown in Europe but she's not a household name. I put her in a group show at the Tate Modern and we had to really insist that she be included.

Anita Steckel, New York Landscape 5 (c. 1970-1980)

How do Joan, Betty, and Cosey feel about this new interest in their work?Betty, I think, feels euphoric about having this better-late-than-never [recognition]. And in New York she's become this cult figure. Young artists adore her. She's become "cool"! Nate Lowman did a show with her in his space.

The reason it's so important to look at this group now is that there's so much work being made right now that is borrowing from their aesthetic and conceptual interests. Everyone needs a precedent, everyone needs heroes. So it's important to give them their due and celebrate them, no matter how late we are.

'Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics' opens on January 17 at Dallas Contemporary.

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Paintings #2 (1970)


Text Alice Newell-Hanson

Cosey Fanni Tutti
Dallas Contemporary
Betty Tompkins
Anita Steckel
Joan Semmel
Black Sheep Feminism
alison gingeras
the art of sexual politics