During the 1970s, a span of work from a group of revolutionary, sex-positive female artists was deemed too sexually explicit to be put on show. At the time, art dealer Leo Castelli famously said of video art pioneer Natalia LL’s pieces that played on physical sensuality: “America is not ready for this.”
New York- and Warsaw-based curator Alison Gingeras challenged Frieze art fair in London to bring back these artworks in a special exhibition – aptly titled “Sex Work” – that asks the question again: are we ready for pieces a number of feminists also thought should be kept in the dark?
Gingeras has no doubt: “In terms of context the world is ready because we are seeing … an egregious return of misogyny incoming directly from, for example, the president of the US. To go back in history and look at female artists who are using their sexual agency. It’s a retaliation against President Trump’s ‘grab them by the pussy,’ disgusting, degrading treatment of women.”
The American curator, who has held positions at institutions like Paris’ Pompidou Center and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is no stranger to sex-positive feminism: her first official show at Dallas Contemporary, “Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics” looked into sexual mores.
With “Sex Work,” she aims to celebrate nine woman artists who dared to put a transgressive spin on sexuality and who, for their forward-looking, feminist oeuvre, were suppressed from the commercial gallery narrative.
On the walls at Frieze there will be works by California-based artist Penny Slinger, whose surrealist collages opened new doors into female sexuality and enlarged the erotic imagery bank, and from American artist Marilyn Minter, a nightlife staple of the 1970s, whose style borrowed as much from advertising as from pornography. Polish artist Natalia LL, also part of the exhibition, notoriously indulged in bananas and frankfurters on screen, which caused uproar and titillation in equal parts.
The feminist black list
The 1970s are known for the sexual revolution, but this period was also teeming with feminist sex wars on more divisive themes like pornography.
“I was writing about the artist Jeff Koons, who infamously made this body of work in which he pictured himself with his wife, who is a famous Italian politician and porn star, Cicciolina, and I realized … that all of these women artists – decades before – were making work way more audacious than his,” said Gingeras about her initial interest in sex-positive feminism. “In fact, they formed a kind of matriarchy of art that paved the way for (Jeff Koons’) body of work that got a lot of attention and propelled him to worldwide fame.
“I was looking at all the artists that seemed to have been left out of the first big exhibitions (about feminist art history) by major museums and the common denominator had to do with graphic sexuality.”
All nine artists have been boycotted for their views on sexuality. Dorothy Iannone, nicknamed the original bad girl, had her works seized at a 1969 exhibition in Bern, Switzerland, and Penny Slinger saw thousands of copies of her book “Mountain Ecstasy” not only confiscated, but burned.
“The sad truth is that a lot of these artists are still forgotten or they don’t have galleries – or if they have galleries, they can’t afford to do an art fair and come to London and engage the expense.”
Is there an artist she wishes could have been included in the exhibition at Frieze? “Anita Steckel, who founded a group in the 1970s called Fight Censorship, which was a group of sex-positive feminist women who … were shunned. There are a few women in that group who are still alive and are amazing artists, but they haven’t found gallery representation.”
The artists Gingeras gathered for “Sex Work” have found fame later in life (all of them are over 60 years old now) as their work is uncovered by new and engaged audiences from younger generations, showing the art world it is never too late to mend.
“Someone like Betty Tompkins or Judith Bernstein are having their first reception while they’re in their 70s and they’ve become cult figures in the New York art world. If you didn’t know any better you’d think they were the young hot artist on the block even though they’re not – in terms of chronology – but in many ways, they are.”
“Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics” is on display at Frieze London until Oct. 8, 2017.