In 2006, polls taken outside New York’s Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Art found that most museum-goers were unable to name three women artists.* Most stopped at Frida Kahlo, though many could not remember her last name. If you find yourself at all troubled by this, you need to see “!WOMEN ART REVOLUTION,” playing at the International Film Center, as soon as possible.
“WAR” is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s remarkably eloquent documentary of the feminist movement in art. In forty-two years worth of film footage and interviews, we become witnesses of the courage and outrage of women whose work was largely ignored by institutions, museums and galleries. It is, as David Fear noted in his June 1, 2011 review in Time Out, “a monumental act of reclamation.”
Part of what makes the film so compelling is that it offers a reclamation of our own experience as well. For someone who, like me, came of age during the Women’s Movement of the 1970’s, this film felt like home. I knew these larger-than-life women – beautiful, gifted, strong, outrageous, tender. They were a community to which I belonged. And as I watched the women’s art movement develop, I felt all the hope and love and anger I felt the first time – when I was living it. I remembered why I loved being a member of the tribe of women. And I was aware of how much we have lost through the “post-feminist” decades. Mostly, we don’t feel that way about each other anymore. We don’t feel like “sisters.” We don’t have a sense of the community that will hold our own pain and our struggles as we ourselves hold all of theirs. We don’t have the sense (I don’t, anyway) that we root for each other to succeed because we are connected at the heart.
But the evoked nostalgia may simply be a fringe benefit. Regardless, I recommend this film strongly: for its history of one of the most important movements of the last century, for its survey of a fascinating community, and for its humor.
* Here are five from the film: Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta, Martha Rosler, Judith F. Baca, Alexandra Chowamiec. While not part of this movement, I can’t help but believe such eminent artists as Joan Mitchell, Elaine De Kooning, Lee Krasner and Alice Neel, among others, have benefitted from the increased recognition and opportunities shown to women.