When Feminism Ruled CalArts 

LOS ANGELES — Judy Chicago’s most famous work, the elaborate place setting known as “The Dinner Party,” literally created a place for women at the proverbial table. But Chicago’s goal to reformulate the canon went far beyond individual artworks. For four years, she spearheaded an experimental, performance-based studio at California Institute of the Arts, an incubator that would produce some of the most well-known second-wave feminist artists and history and, as the exhibition The Feminist Art Program (1970–1975): Cycles of Collectivity argues, a diverse third-wave movement, too.

The archival exhibition, full of photographs, ephemera, letters, and syllabi, is mounted at REDCAT, a venue run by CalArts in downtown Los Angeles. With this affiliation, the exhibition romanticizes the art program’s short-lived history, failing to address why it shuttered after only four years. It follows Chicago’s launch of the Feminist Art Studio at Fresno State College in 1970, where her students formed the C.U.N.T. Cheerleaders to call out patriarchal systems, to her CalArts recruitment by another feminist art trailblazer, Miriam Schapiro, and her eventual departure to focus entirely on the Feminist Studio Workshop and the Woman’s Building. Together, the two built a curriculum that let women challenge the male gaze, advocate for reproductive rights, and pointedly admonish their abusers. 

In just four years, an impressive roster of artists passed through the studio. Suzanne Lacy, Faith Wilding, and Susan Mogal are just three of the famed feminist artists who established their voice in this program, which, despite addressing assault, rage, and the oppression women felt under patriarchy, was often a ceremonious atmosphere. This seeps through in the photographs of Suzanne Lacy’s “Car Renovations” (1972), where the artist invited her classmates to vandalize an abandoned car she spotted off highway 162. The vehicle, which looks like it was gutted in a chop shop, pops against the dirt in its new, brightly painted pink and red hues. Flowers spill from the hood and a velvet heart pulses from the trunk. Like most projects in the studio, Chicago had only been firm about one requirement — that the work had to be “feminine.” Lacy’s car, which had been rusting in the ravine for months, was finally towed away once it became a beacon of girlish imagery.

While the majority of CalArts students at the time were White women, The Feminist Art Program addresses the common critique of second-wave feminism, its lack of diversity and intersectional criticality, by drawing connections between the program and subsequent generations of women of color who studied at CalArts. The exhibition highlights artists who applied CalArts pedagogy in minority-run art spaces; for instance, Linda Vallejo, a Chicana artist and one of the few women who launched the Latinx printmaking studio Self Help Graphics & Art, was deeply involved in curating performances at the Woman’s Building, a feminist art space founded by Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven in 1973. Though technically an independent institution, the Woman’s Building allowed CalArts students to leave their bubble in Valencia and disrupt the art scene 40 miles away in Los Angeles.

One of the new works commissioned for The Feminist Art Program further emphasizes the ripple effect from the 1970s studio to today. Gala Porras-Kim presents “More Letters to a Young Woman Artist,” a crowdsourced collection of letters from female artists written to a speculative audience of younger women navigating their career path. It is both an homage to and a continuation of Schapiro’s work, “Letters to a Young Woman Artist” (1974), in which she had 17 of her students seek advice. In Porras-Kim’s iteration, the letters are solicited from a diverse crew of alumni, and the respondents encourage readers to study their ancestors, practice self-care, and set intentions. It’s a reflection of themes and buzzwords that currently resonate, but the letters are written in earnest. Fifty years after the Feminist Art Program was established, it is no easier to be a woman in the arts world.

While the letters indicate that it is still difficult for women to succeed as artists, the syllabi on view show that feminist theory, at least, has been allowed to spread in the classroom. Though the Feminist Art Program lasted only four years, it laid the groundwork for dozens of courses that established the intersectional feminist theory to come.

The Feminist Art Program (1970–1975): Cycles of Collectivity continues at REDCAT (631 West 2nd Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) through February 18. The exhibition was organized by REDCAT Chief Curator and Deputy Director, Programs, Daniela Lieja Quintanar, with Assistant Curator Talia Heiman, independent curator Lucia Fabio, and artist/curator Ekta Aggarwal, with research support by Ana Briz, Julia Raphaella Aguila, Arantza Vilchis-Zarate, and Yishan Xin, and Janet Sarabanes as curatorial advisor. The exhibition was designed by Kim Zumpfe.

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