June 2, 2011 | by Thessaly La Force
Toward the end of !Women Art Revolution, the performance artist Janine Antoni, who was born in 1964, recalls a moment when her professor, Mira Schor, asks if she’s heard of the work of Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, and Carolee Schneeman. Antoni hadn’t, and she went to the library to learn more. She found nothing, so Schor brought Antoni clippings and catalogues she had saved at home. The moment was profound. “I looked at this work,” Antoni said, “And I thought, ‘I’m making the work of the seventies.’”
!Woman Art Revolution, which plays for just this week at IFC, is a documentary by Lynn Hershman Leeson. The film weaves together decades of interviews with female artists, which Hershman Leeson began recording in 1966 in her Berkeley living room, and she continued recording through the next four decades.
There are over four hundred hours of tape, and it took Hershman Leeson three and a half months to watch it all—once. It is incredible. Nancy Spero, who died in 2009, shares a humiliating appointment with Leo Castelli: “Ivan Karp saw me. I was wearing high heel boots at the time. I was really kind of tall. Ivan is small. … He had me put [my tablet] on the floor so every time I turned the page, it felt I was genuflecting to him. And then he said, ‘What’d you bring these to me for?’” Here’s the late art historian Arlene Raven: “I stopped doing the dishes, making the three meals a day, the laundry, and the house cleaning and so on. The process of personal liberation for me resulted in the break up of my marriage.” The Guerrilla Girls appear: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Marcia Tucker, the founding director of the New Museum, talks about how she was hired as the first female curator at the Whitney, but at $2,000 less than her colleague James Monte: “So I went into see my director and I said, ‘Listen this is what’s happening and you’ve got to change it.’ And he said, ‘Oh well, the budget, the budget, the budget.’ And I said, ‘The New York Times, The New York Post, The Daily News.’ So it got changed!”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Hershman Leeson was raised Orthodox Jewish. A photograph of her from high school makes an appearance in the film. I mistook her black gown for formal wear, but when I met her, she corrected me. “No, I used to go out like that,” she said. What triggered the transformation? “Well,” she said simply, “Nobody dressed like that in Berkeley.” She was a graduate student there, studying art, when she decided to pick up a camera. “I thought filmmaking was silly,” she said. “And nobody thought it was going to be a film, either. They trusted me. I think if I was a real filmmaker, or if they thought I was, they would have been be more reserved.” I nod, recalling an interview with Judy Chicago in a public bathroom.
With grant money, Hershman Leeson hired three film editors to turn footage into a narrative. “One guy,” she said, “Had done a twelve hour thing on Martin Luther King and I thought, ‘Well, he’ll know.’ But he couldn’t do it either. He was there for six months and I got two-and-a-half minutes.” When the money ran out, she sat down and edited it herself. It took four years to find something that made sense. She says she hopes the film reaches a younger audience, and that people who aren’t in the art world will watch it. She hired Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney to write the soundtrack, explaining, “I wanted it to be entertaining and not just a bunch of women complaining.”
Hershman Leeson is also an artist, and after much deliberation, she decided to include her own work in the film. Was hard to keep making art in the seventies with no money, no fame, no institutional support? As I waited for her to answer, I wondered: Would any of us today have done the same? “Well most of the artists I know can’t do anything else,” she said. “They don’t have the skills to function in society.”