History: Women in Art: 20th Century Feminism

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This module examines feminist art in North America and Great Britain and explores new directions for the artists and their ensuing artwork. You will learn how feminism has changed through the years, how women are viewed differently than in past generations, and what types of art have been produced up to this period, including multimedia, performance, and cross-disciplinary works. We will see how women also came together in support of large-scale projects like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.


  • twentieth-century modernism in the US
  • diverse voices and feminism
  • Judy Chicago–The Dinner Party
  • muralists
  • role reversals in art
  • Alice Neel portraits
  • Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, performance art and social issues
  • environmental art
  • changes in 60s feminism
  • Cindy Sherman–photography
  • public art
  • Jaune Quick-to-See Smith–modernism in Native American art
  • Maya Lin–Viet Nam war memorial


By end of this module, you should able to

  • list the women painters, photographers, sculptors, collage and performance artists of these eras
  • recognize the styles of the time
  • identify some of the differences between modern and postmodern art
  • discuss the socio-political shifts and how they affected the art being produced
  • describe women artists of different cultures–ongoing study until the end of the term

Identity, The Body, and Subversion

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)


Louise Bourgeois, "Untitled" 1950

Throughout the 1940's Bourgeois remained private with her art but was familiar with the artists of New York as she married art historian, Robert Goldwater following her artistic training in Paris. Her work demonstrates a modernist materialistic connection as her sculptures demonstrate her physical connection with the media. Her drawings also take on a similar design aesthetic, though her work adapts throughout the decades with infusions of post modern thought.

Materials, Eccentric Abstraction, and Post Minimalism

The detatched objectivity of the Minimalists and the disengagement of Pop and formalism pushed some artists to seek a way back to the individual. Louise Bourgeois, Lucas Samaras, and Lynda Benglis pioneered an expressionism of organic forms and unusual materials such as plastics and latex at the beginning of the 1960’s. The materials gave the sculptures a vivid sensation of touch. The amazing fact was that they succeeded in this formalist and pop oriented art world. The work was formal in that it embodied minimalism, but the materials gave these artists a more intimate touch that involved their own body experience.

One attribution to their success was a show called “Eccentric Abstraction” where Lucy Lippard (Lippard Discusses her Curatorial Career) grouped them together in 1966. The need to make something that felt real and present was what drew these artists to their materials.

Eva Hesse (1936-1970)

Eva Hesse, One More than One, 1967

Hesse used whatever materials were available to give her works a human presence that embodied her own feminine tortures. The breast-like forms are expressive of minimalism: "I feel very close to Carl Andre, I feel, let’s say, emotionally connected to his work. It does something to my insides. His metal plates were the concentration camp for me" (Fineberg 312). Hesse had a troubled life as she fled persecution from Nazi Germany during WWII and ended up in the United States for her short life.

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Eva Hesse, Hang Up, 1966, Contingent, 1969, and Untitled (Rope Piece), 1970

Her work later shifts away from the overtly sexual imagery to a simplicity that is embodied in the materials themselves rather than the form. She turned to Fiberglass and latex in 1968 because of the tactile quality much like skin. She states,

Art and work and art and life are very connected and my whole life has been absurd. There isn’t a thing in my life that has happened that hasn’t been extreme – personal health, family, economic situations… absurdity is the key word… It has to do with contradictions and oppositions. In the forms I use in my work the contradictions are certainly there. I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small, and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites (Fineberg 313-314).

Untitled Rope Piece undermines the notions of fixed scale and gives a three dimensional gestural field much like Pollock. In 1969, Hesse collapsed from a brain tumor and died the following year.




Feminism as a formal political movement took hold as female artists sought recognition within the realm of art history. The concepts of personal identity based on physical reality was important to not only women, but people of different races as well. Their positions in society had been repressed for centuries, and artists saw this as a time to express such differences and bring light to such issues.

Judy Chicago (b. 1939)

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Judy Chicago The Dinner Party, 1979 (Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth a Sacler Center for Feminist Art)

Judy Chicago's work highlights feminism. Her famous piece, The Dinner Party is a collaboration by more than 400 women completed between 1974 and 1979. It demonstrates a discourse for women in art and the record of history. Symbolic of women’s achievements and struggles with inscriptions of women’s names on the floor and the table runner. The plates are designed with vaginal motifs.

Nancy Spero (1926-2009)

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Nancy Spero Atom Bomb, 1966 and Bomb, 1968

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Nancy Spero Artemis, Lowenfrau, Lion, Woman c. 30000 B and Friends, 1992 and The Not to be Seen, 1988

Nancy Spero is considered a humanitarian and social activist. She used historical images to shape her dialogue. The images are read as symbols leading toward a narrative highlighting the similarities and differences between ages.

Ana Mendieta (1948-1985)

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Ana Mendieta Tree of Life Series, 1977

Mendieta was a Cuban born performance artist who focused on her own body in nature expressing her sensuality of experience. In her Tree of Life Series (1977), Mendieta places herself literally into nature. In her work, the female body is a primal source of life and sexuality like the Palaeolithic Venuses. There is a literal transformation of body to nature by covering herself and becoming one with the landscape similar to personifications of nature and the occult practices that came to the Caribbean with the Yoruba slaves in the sixteenth century. There are many feminist issues that play an important role in interpreting this work as well as the sense of the materials in nature while photography documents and communicates the artistic vision.

Jenny Holzer (b. 1950)

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Jenny Holzer Murder has its Sexual Side and Private Property Created Crime

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Jenny Holzer Protect me from what I want and The Future is Stupid

Holzer was able to create “truisms” beginning in 1997 by painting and later by gaining access to billboards, and electronic signage. Her projects include projected text, LED lights, plaques, and painted signs and have been displayed in public spaces and in museums.

Barbara Kruger (b. 1945)

Video: Barbra Kruger In Her Own Words (NGA)

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Barbara Kruger I shop therefore I am, 1990 and You are not yourself

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Barbara Kruger Your body is a battleground, 1989 and Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face

Kurger combines slogans with images creating trendy graphic design based on her eleven years of graphic design experience. She recently produced a grand installation at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC. Even her earlier works still resonate today.


Guerilla Girls

The Guerilla Girls Posters

GG_Fist.jpgThe Guerrilla Girls are a group of women artists and scholars that came together after the “International Survey of Contemporary Art” in 1984 at MOMA where very few women artists were represented. They have appeared on television, advertised, distributed leaflets and poster, and now have a web-page to bring attention to race and gender discrimination in the art world.

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954)

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Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Stills 21 and 13 and Untitled 92, 1978 and 1981

Cindy Sherman uses appropriation creating intimate narrative fragments in her photographs to create many layers of readings implied through costume and setting. In 1977, she began photographing herself in 50’s outfits and other costumes and settings. These are not self-portraits in an ordinary sense as she explores a wide range of roles for women but based on the prefabricated roles of movies and media.

Her work challenges the idea of fixed identity and has had a large impact on encouraging younger artists (women) in the nineties to use photography in this personal way. Sherman states about her work that "They’re not at all autobiographical, yet the pictures should trigger your memory so that you feel you have seen it before." (Fineberg 471)

Alice Neel (1900-1984)


Alice Neel, Self Portrait1980

Neel was a portrait painter whose work is often confrontational showing the character of her sitters. She painted her friends, family, and neighbors as well as celebrities and scholars. Her estate maintains a website with all of her work.

Kiki Smith (b. 1954)

Kiki Smith Women with Sheep, 2009

Kiki Smith is the daugther of Tony Smith and uses tactile materials in a figurative way to bring a visceral quality to her representations of the human form.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940)

Smith is a Native American artist whose work explores her heritage and the relationship between Native Americans and contemporary America. 


Yoko Ono

Vanessa Beecroft

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Vanessa Beecroft Shows, 1998-2001

Beecroft made paintings influenced by fashion design drawings. She also produced performances in which nude and semi-nude fashion models are placed in public spaces. She structures her shows in a way that the models become more like mannequins, overtly sexual, but depersonalised in structural arrangement and engagement with the viewer. The grids or structures in which she places the figures are similar to the commodification of previous artworks such as those by McCollumn.

Mariko Mori

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Mariko Mori Play With Me and Subway, 1994

Mariko Mori is a New York and Tokyo based artist who graduated from fashion design school and was a fashion model. She often uses makeup and photography to create a total fantasy world around herself in installations. In Japan, she dressed as a sexy cyborg and put herself into public for photos similar to the works by Cindy Sherman. In Play with methere is a double meaning, connecting her to the toy store, and the sexual availability in a utopia of pure unemotional sexuality. She states that "when you wear clothes, you become a personality, you become the clothes (Fineberg 495)."

Mariko Mori Pureland, 1996

Mori's photo prints are done on a massive scale (10 x 12 feet) creating a panoramic reality. In 1995, she sifts to experimenting with computer manipulation to create 3-D Virtual Reality videos that are accompanied by 20 ft wide images.

Mariko Mori Wave UFO, 2003

Mariko Mori: Oneness from UM Stamps School of Art & Design on Vimeo.

Maya Lin



The Four Roles of the Artist

Contemporary Women Artists Listing


Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940. 3rd ed., Pearson, 2011.


Information Version
2019-11-01 15:16 SCantor
updated links to new tabs, added bios and links to works for Ono, Beercroft, Mori, and Lin. Added link for Earth Art, deleted broken link for Four Roles of the Artist
2019-11-01 14:57 SCantor updated links to new tabs, changed bio for Sherman to museum website instead of non peer reviewed website, added links for works and interview, updated Neel, both Smiths (added works, bio links) 13
2019-11-01 14:28 SCantor updated links to new tabs, fixed links for Holzer, added links for Kruger. 12
2019-11-01 14:05 SCantor updated links to new tabs, corrected link for Feminism, edited grammar. Fixed broken link for Mendieta bio, added link to Artforum exhibition review 11
2019-11-01 13:43 SCantor updated links to new tabs, added links for Eva Hesse works, added reference for Hesse (for Fineberg text) 10
2019-11-01 12:56 SCantor updated links to new tabs, changed link for Bourgeois bio to Guggenheim, added links for Bourgeois sculpture Cumul I, Minimalism, Pop Art 9
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