Women Artists Together is a thought-provoking study of how the women’s liberation movement galvanised a generation of women artists. It offers a fresh perspective on the history of the women’s art movement and considers how it was shaped by collaboration and togetherness. Retracing 1970s liberation politics, Amy Tobin emphasises how artworks emerged from – and contested – feminist paradigms and contexts.
In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Amy Tobin reflects on the writing of her new book, the complexities of the women’s liberation movement and the ongoing work to be done in the sphere of feminist art and politics today.
Article by Amy Tobin
I’m writing this after picking up the advanced copy of Women Artists Together: Art in the Age of Women’s Liberation from the Yale offices in Bedford Square. It’s strange to see it in three dimensions after months of working on pdfs and print-outs, and many more years of word processed drafts and notebook scrawls. The best part is the illustrations, which range from well-known views of famous works – Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1975–79) for instance – to reproductions of hard to access artworks and archival sources. I move across many different media and pay close attention to works that were contingent or no longer have a material presence. In part, I hope this attests to the rich potential of the archival collections I visited in preparing this book – many of which are now entering institutions, special collections and radical repositories – as well as what is possible to do in book form, which is harder to achieve in other formats like the exhibition.
It was the treatment of reproductions that drew me to Yale in the first place. Long before the kernel of this book had been planted, I sought out Yale publications for the quality of their images, as well as for their careful choreography throughout a book. I love a plate section too, but the combination of text and image on the page goes beyond illustration, creating points of resonance beyond explication and perhaps sometimes also in resistance to it. In Women Artists Together, I wanted the images to serve as resource in their own right, more than a supplement to the argument. This is fundamental to the point I want to make: that art made in the age of women’s liberation, informed by political struggle, is richly complex because that moment was complex, animated by hope for change, but also immense variance, difference and sometimes division. In turn, I am arguing that art – broadly understood – holds this complexity in its ambiguity. So rather than define a feminist politics or a feminist subject readily traceable in art of the moment, I want to think of feminism as transformative, creating a space for new ways of thinking, being and relating, and artists as active contributors to that effort.
While I see this feminist work as ongoing (and evident in many periods and places), Women Artists Together focuses on the ‘Age of Women’s Liberation’. By this I refer to the years of the Women’s Liberation Movement’s greatest concentration, roughly between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. This ‘Age’ is imprecise because it felt different for different people, and protagonists moved in and out of the Movement for many reasons – political, personal, social. I’m interested in the uneven rhythms of the Movement, and many of the case studies in the book register ambivalences around women’s liberation and feminism, as well as constitutive agonism and vigorous empowerment. In citing ‘Women’s Liberation’ as a historical period, I’m not emphasising its significance over that of other struggles, but posing it as influential, even as something to move away from. It’s important to revisit the transformations and frictions of this era in our contemporary moment when there is a renewed interest in the politics of the post-war period coinciding with the deprivations of state-imposed austerity. In the art world, too, there is a revised interest and investment in women artists working in and around feminism, both commercially and institutionally. This Autumn I look forward to seeing Women in Revolt!, the long-awaited exhibition on women’s liberation art in the UK curated by Linsey Young, to which I also contributed a catalogue essay. But there is still work to do. The political debates of the 1970s are often minimised as naïve or the subject of nostalgia, and sometimes discounted. On the one hand, this threatens to neuter the force of these artwork, on the other it denies the many personal histories and collective debates, yet to be properly accounted for.
Critiques of women’s liberation come from legitimate places that challenge violence both within and without political organising, then and now. There are contemporary struggles that have mutated from debates in the 1970s, but these can be named and contested without evacuating the complex processes of constituting feminist politics. Yes, feminism is not without fault, sometimes too limited in the age of women’s liberation because the early emphasis on sexual difference above other axes of oppression meant that important issues were diminished or dismissed – but such hierarchisation of struggles is not unique to women’s liberation. It was also intensively worked out in the movement through decentralisation and the prominence placed on personal experience as the route to political consciousness. This is the ‘togetherness’ I’m interested in. Solidarity between women took many forms, dimensions, and shapes, sometimes by collaborating directly or working collectively, and sometimes by working in proximity. Women Artists Together is organised by bringing different stories into proximity rather than into a single narrative.
The stories in this book focus on artists working in Britain and the United States. The Anglo-American framework allows me to trace meaningful differences between these contexts, which are sometimes taken to be interchangeable (through a shared language) and sometimes irreconcilably different (the US associated with a positivist ‘cultural feminism’ and the UK with hyper-critical, theoretical practices). By putting case studies into proximity from different regions, I describe points of productive contact and solidarity as well as mistranslations, diversions and disagreements. Each chapter takes on a different theme, from consciousness-raising and feminist infrastructure in chapter one, to domesticity in chapter two, history and spirituality in chapter three and sex in chapter four.
Women Artists Together emerges from a community of feminist activism, organising and scholarship but it is primarily a book about art and artists. I hope it will take a place on bookshelves alongside the many titles that have occupied my own, for those who are interested in this field, but also for those working in other areas of the discipline and beyond. In the context of this series celebrating fifty years of Yale in London, I want to highlight some of the remarkable and innovative books that have shaped my work, and the authors who’ve provided an example for my scholarship: Lisa Tickner and her Modern Life and Modern Subjects (2000) and London’s New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s (2020), Briony Fer and The Infinite Line: Remaking Art after Modernism (2004), On Abstract Art (2007),and Eva Hesse: Studiowork (2009), Lynda Nead and The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Postwar Britain (2017), Griselda Pollock and Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory (2018) and Women in Art: Helen Rosenau’s ‘Little Book’ of 1944 (2023) and my own academic supervisor Jo Applin, and her Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture in the 1970s (2012)and Lee Lozano: Not Working (2018).
Read an extract from Women Artists Together below:
About the Author:
Amy Tobin is an academic and curator at the University of Cambridge, where she is associate professor in the Department of History of Art, curator, Contemporary Programmes at Kettle’s Yard, and fellow of Newnham College.
About the book:
Women Artists Together
A fresh perspective on collaboration, collectivity, and conflict in the women’s art movement of the 1970s.
Taking class, gender, race, and sexuality as central concerns, the book includes examples of inspirational feminist activism as well as fallings out, disagreements, and antagonism. Across four chapters, Tobin looks at the work of UK and US based artists including Judy Chicago, Mary Beth Edelson, Rose English, Harmony Hammond, Candace Hill-Montgomery, Claudette Johnson, Suzanne Lacy, Howardena Pindell, Ingrid Pollard, Carolee Schneemann, Cecilia Vicuña, and Kate Walker. Groups include the Feminist Art Programme at Cal Arts, Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union, Where We At, Black Women Artists Inc., and the South London Art Group, publications such as Heresies and Chrysalis, along with writers and curators including Lucy R. Lippard and Arlene Raven.
Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.