Remembering the Future:
The Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s in Hamburg

Today, Cindy Sherman and Martha Rosler, whose art careers began in the 1970s, are superstars. At the time, however, feminist artists weren’t exactly high in demand; on the contrary, they were either ignored or subjected to considerable resistance. Now, a Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsthalle pays homage to this rebellious avant-garde, which is every bit as modern and radical as it ever was.
Gina Pane, who staged performances in which, clad in a white shirt, she cut herself with a razor blade; Valie Export, who let strange men grope her breasts in her Touch Cinema; Lynda Benglis, whose nude self-portrait with a double dildo unleashed a veritable porno scandal in the art magazine Artforum: these images are iconic today, precisely because they’re so radical. While it can seem as though society has grown more liberal and progressive since the 1970s, the anger and courage with which these women disrupted not only the prevailing gender roles, but also the conventions of the male-dominated art establishment, remain awe-inspiring to this day. It comes as no surprise, then, that younger generations reconstruct and reenact these performances; that the aesthetic of the feminist pioneers is reemerging and is continuously recycled not merely in art, but also in the fashion world. Yet this nostalgic yearning for a feminist radicalism might also suggest how little sense of political and cultural progress still exists today.

Anyone in need of a refresher course can now recharge their batteries at the Hamburg Kunsthalle. Sponsored by Deutsche Bank, the Kunsthalle presents a comprehensive exhibition on feminist art of the 1970s encompassing over 150 works by 30 women artists. The works were selected from the collection of the Austrian energy concern Verbund, thanks to the pioneering work of the collection’s curator, Gabriele Schor. The Hamburg exhibition provides far more than a historical reconstruction, presenting many unknown works and rediscoveries. The show includes the very early, bewitchingly delicate and funny black and white works of Cindy Sherman, made prior to her famous Film Stills. These are juxtaposed with very similar photographic self-orchestrations made by women artists that hardly anyone knows today: the New Yorker Martha Wilson, for instance, who was one of the most influential people on the Manhattan art scene in the 1970s, but had her first solo gallery show in 2008. When the Verbund Collection began collecting works by Francesca Woodman, the American photographer, who took her own life in the early 1980s at the age of 23, was still known almost exclusively to insiders. Only a few years later, the Guggenheim and the Tate put on major retrospectives of her work. In Hamburg, rare works by Woodman are on view along with the dreamlike images that have since become famous.  

An example like Francesca Woodman inspires courage; it shows how relative success or failure can be to an artist’s importance. Yet it’s a fate that most women artists in this exhibition share: that they were only discovered by a wider audience either very late in their careers, or posthumously—a fate that is completely unjustified, when one regards Eleanor Antin’s touching gender performances or the conceptual poetic work of the Italian artist Ketty La Rocca, whose work is also part of the Deutsche Bank Collection.      

Austria is not just Valie Export, who in her performance Action Pants of 1969 posed with a machine gun, spread-eagle in a pair of crotchless pants. The Verbund Collection already played a major role in the international rediscovery of Birgit Jürgensen. The same thing is currently happening with the Austrian artist Renate Bertlmann, whose actions of the 1970s are sometimes reminiscent of the British performance artist Leigh Bowery.  

The Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s is a history of being pushed aside, and of standing back up again and again. The exhibition not only makes it clear how women artists have undermined gender roles and have demanded their rights, but also how rigid the art establishment was and continues to be, the treasures it disregards and ignores, and the creativity that it has suppressed—against all of which these pioneers also directed their tireless fight.

The Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s
Works from the SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

3/13/2015 – 5/31/2015
Kunsthalle Hamburg