Female performance art during the mid-20th-century was closely linked with the evolution of second-wave feminism and political activism. Their work became increasingly expressive and provocative, paving the way for new feminist statements and protests. Below are 7 women performance artists who revolutionized the art world during the 1960s and 1970s.
Women In Performance Art And The Feminist Movement
Many female artists found expression in a new art form that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s: performance art. This newly emerging art form was in its early days strongly interwoven with various protest movements. This included the feminist movement, which is often called the second wave of feminism. Even if it is difficult to summarize different female artists thematically or through their works, a lot of female performance artists can, to a large extent, nevertheless be reduced to a common denominator: They mostly acted according to the credo ‘the private is political’. Correspondingly, many female artists in their performance art negotiate the womanhood itself, the oppression of women or they make the female body the theme in their artworks.
In her essay Women’s Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism that was published in The Theatre Journal in 1988, Joanie Forte explains: “Within this movement, women’s performance emerges as a specific strategy that allies postmodernism and feminism, adding the critique of gender/patriarchy to the already damaging critique of modernism inherent in the activity. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, coincident with the women’s movement, women used performance as a deconstructive strategy to demonstrate the objectification of women and its results.” According to artist Joan Jonas, another reason for finding a way into performance art for female artists was that it was not dominated by men. In an interview in 2014, Joan Jonas states: “One of the things about performance and the area that I went into was that it wasn’t male-dominated. It wasn’t like painting and sculpture.”
Many of the female artists presented in the following have first completed a classical education in painting or art history before devoting themselves to performance art.
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1. Marina Abramović
There is probably no list of performance artists without Marina Abramović. And there are many good reasons for it: Marina Abramović is still one of the most famous figures in this field today and continues to have a significant influence on performance art. In her early works, Abramović devoted herself primarily to existential, body-related performances. In Art Must Be Beautiful (1975), she repeatedly combs her hair while increasingly manically repeating the words “art must be beautiful, artists must be beautiful.”
Later, Marina Abramović dedicated herself to many joint performances with her partner, the artist Ulay. In 1988, the two even separated publicly in a symbolically charged performance on the Great Wall of China: after Marina Abramović and Ulay had initially walked 2500 kilometers towards each other, their paths parted artistically and privately.
Later, the two artists met again in a performance that is still one of Marina Abramović’s most famous performances today: The Artist is Present. This work took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abramović sat on the same chair for three months in the MoMA, looking into the eyes of a total of 1565 visitors. One of them was Ulay. The moment of their meeting turned out to be visibly emotional for the artist as tears were running down Abramović’s cheek.
2. Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono is one of the forewomen of performance art and the feminist art movement. Born in Japan, she had strong ties to the Fluxus movement, and her New York apartment was repeatedly the setting for various action art projects in the 1960s. Yoko Ono herself was active in the fields of music, poetry, and art, and repeatedly combined these areas in her performances.
One of her most famous performances is called Cut Piece, which she first performed in Kyoto in 1964 as part of the Contemporary American Avant-Garde Music Concerts and later in Tokyo, New York, and London. Cut Piece followed a defined sequence and was unpredictable at the same time: Yoko Ono first gave a short introduction in front of an audience, then she knelt on a stage with scissors next to her. The audience was now asked to use the scissors and cut small pieces of the artist’s clothing and take it with them. Through this act, the artist was slowly stripped in front of everyone. This performance can be understood both as an act that refers to the violent oppression of women and to the voyeurism to which a lot of women are subjected to.
3. Valie Export
The Austrian artist Valie Export has become particularly well known for her involvement with action art, feminism, and the medium of film. One of her most famous works to date is the performance entitled Tap and Touch Cinema, which she had first performed in public space in 1968. Later it was performed in ten different European cities. This performance can also be attributed to a movement that came up in the 1960s called Expanded Cinema, which tested the possibilities and limits of the medium of film.
In Tap and Touch Cinema Valie Export wore a curly wig, she wore make-up and carried a box with two openings over her bare breasts. The rest of her upper body was covered with a cardigan. The artist Peter Weibel advertised through a megaphone and invited the onlookers to visit. They had 33 seconds to stretch through the openings of the box with both hands and touch the artist’s naked breasts. Like Yoko Ono, Valie Export with her performance brought the voyeuristic gaze to the public stage, challenging the “audience” to take this gaze to extremes by touching the artist’s naked body.
4. Adrian Piper
The artist Adrian Piper describes herself as a “conceptual artist and analytical philosopher”. Piper has taught philosophy at universities and works in her art with various media: photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, literature and performance. With her early performances, the artist was active in the Civil Rights Movement. She is said to have introduced politics to minimalism and the themes of race and gender to conceptual art.
Adrian Piper dealt with both her being as a woman and her being as a Person of Color in her performances, which often took place in public space. Famous, for example, is her Catalysis series (1970-73), which consisted of various street performances. In one of these performances, Adrian Piper rode the New York subway during peak hour, wearing clothes soaked in eggs, vinegar, and fish oil for a week. The performance Catalysis III, which can be seen documented in the picture above, is also part of the Catalysis series: For it, Piper walked through the streets of New York with a sign saying “Wet Paint”. The artist had many of her performances recorded with photography and video. One such performance was The Mythic Being (1973). Equipped with a wig and a mustache, Piper walked through the streets of New York and spoke aloud a line from her diary. The contradiction between voice and appearance played with the perception of the viewers – a typical motif in Piper’s performances.
5. Joan Jonas
The artist Joan Jonas is one of those artists who first learned a traditional artistic craft before switching to performance art. Jonas was a sculptor and painter, but understood these art forms as “exhausted mediums.” In her performance art, Joan Jonas dealt in various ways with the theme of perception, which runs through her work as a motif. The artist was strongly influenced by Trisha Brown, John Cage, and Claes Oldenburg. “Jonas’s own work has frequently engaged and questioned portrayals of female identity in theatrical and self-reflexive ways, using ritual-like gestures, masks, mirrors, and costumes”, a short article about the Joans on artsy says.
In her Mirror Piece, which the artist performed at the 56th Venice Biennale, Jonas combines her feminist approach with the question of perception. As can be seen in the photograph above, the artist works here with a reflection of the lower part of a woman’s body and concentrates the viewer’s perception on the middle of the woman’s body: the lower abdomen is made the center of the depiction and thus also the center of attention. Through this kind of confrontation, Joan Jonas draws attention in a critical way to the perception of women and the reduction of women to objects.
6. Carolee Schneemann
Carolee Schneemann is not only considered an influential artist in the field of performance art and a pioneer of feminist art in this area. The American artist also made a name for herself as an artist who liked to shock her audience with her works. This includes, for example, her performance Meat Joy (1964), in which she and other women not only refreshed rolled in color but also through a lot of food such as raw meat and fish.
The performance Interior Scroll (1975) was also considered shocking, especially by her contemporaries: In this performance, Carolee Schneemann stood naked on a long table in front of a predominantly female audience and read from a book. Later she removed the apron and slowly drew a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina, reading aloud from it. The documentary photo of the performance shown here shows exactly this moment. The text on the sides of the image is the text that was on the strip of paper the artist pulled out of her vagina.
7. Hannah Wilke
The feminist and artist Hannah Wilke, who was in a relationship with the artist Claes Oldenburg since 1969, first made a name for herself with her pictorial work. She created images of the female sex from various materials, including chewing gum and terracotta. She aimed to counteract the male phallus symbol with these. In 1976 Wilke performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a performance entitled Through the Large Glass in which she slowly undressed in front of her audience behind a work by Marcel Duchamp entitled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Duchamp’s work, which obviously reproduced traditional role patterns by dividing it into a male and a female part, Wilke was seen as a glass partition and window to her audience.
With her art, Wilke also always championed a broad understanding of feminism and was certainly considered a controversial figure in this field. In 1977, she responded to the accusation of reproducing classical role patterns of women even with her nudity and beauty with a poster showing her bare-breasted, surrounded by the words Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism. Like Hannah Wilke’s work as a whole, the poster is a clear call for female self-determination as well as a defense against the artist’s classification into any patterns and categories that come from the outside.
The Legacy of Women In Performance Art
As this enumeration of seven famous female performance artists once again makes clear: performance and feminism were closely related for many female artists in the 1960s and 70s. Powerful female figures such as these aided the evolution of feminism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. However, their existence as women was by no means the only theme that was important for the works of these artists. All in all, all seven women can still be considered highly influential in the field of performance art – now and then.