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ART & FEMINISM: American Feminist Artists Who Are Trail Blazers

Barbara Kruger (American, born 1945)

Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger is an American Conceptual artist known for her combination of type and image that conveys a direct feminist cultural critique. She is a renowned collage artist associated with The Pictures Generation (an exhibition at The Met in New York, 1974 to 1984). Her artwork is rendered black and white using the Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed font in red, which was inspired by Constructivist Alexander Rodecheno. Kruger uses language to broadcast her ideas in different ways such as on prints, t-shirts, posters, photographers, electronic signs and billboards. Her works often include the pronouns such as “you”, “your”, “I”, “we” and “they”, while addressing cultural constructions of power, identity, consumerism and sexuality. She has often been grouped with feminist postmodern artists such as Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine, Martha Rosler and Cindy Sherman.

She was born on January 26, 1945 in Newark, NJ into a lower middle class family. She attended Syracuse University, but left after one year due to her Father's death. In 1965, she attended Parsons School of Design for one semester. Over the next ten years, Kruger would establish herself within the graphic design industry, working with magazines and freelance picture editing. Her major design job with Conde Nast Publications. Shortly after she was made head designer.

Her earliest works date back to 1969, when she began creating large wall hangings which incorporated materials such as yarn, beads, sequins, feathers and ribbons. These pieces represented the feminist reclamation of crafting during this period. Her work during this period was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, however she took a break as she felt her work was meaningless and mindless. She moved to Berkeley, California where she taught at University of California and became inspired by the writings of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. In 1977, she returned to making art, working with her own photographs and publishing an art book, Picture/Readings, in 1979.

Much of Kruger’s work pairs found photographs with pithy and assertive text that challenges the viewer. Her method includes developing her ideas on a computer, later transferring the results (often billboard-sized) into printed images. Examples of her slogans include, “I shop therefore I am”, “Your body is a battleground”, and “You are not yourself” appearing in her signature white letters against a red background.

At the beginning of her art career, she felt intimidated by entering New York galleries due to the prevailing atmosphere of the art scene, which to her did not welcome “particular independent, non-masochistic women”. Her work is held in collections at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. She is a Distinguished Professor of New Genres at UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles awarded Kruger the MOCA Award to Distinguished Women in the Arts in 2001. In 2005, she was included in The Experience of Art at the Venice Biennale and was the recipient of the Leone d’Oro for lifetime achievement.  

Judy Chicago (American, born 1939)

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago is an American feminist artist, art educator and writer known for her large collaborative art installation pieces about birth and creation images, which examine the role of women in history and culture. Judith Syliva Cohen was born in 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father Arthur was a labor organiser and a Marxist. Arthur’s active participation in the American Communist Party, liberal views towards women and support of workers rights strongly influenced Chicago’s way of thinking and belief. Sadly in 1953, Arthur died from peritonitis. Chicago and her brother were not allowed to attend the funeral and she did not process his death until she was an adult; as a result she was hospitalised for almost a month with a bleeding ulcer attributed to the unresolved grief.

At the age of three, Chicago began to draw and was enrolled into the Art Institute of Chicago to attend classes. By the age of five, Chicago knew that she “never wanted to do anything but make art” and continued attending classes. She studied at UCLA on a scholarship. While at UCLA she became politically active and designed posters for the UCLA NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). In 1961, she married Jerry Gerowitz who died in a car crash three years later. This caused her to have an identity crisis until the early 70s. She received both her Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts from UCLA during this period.

The Dinner Party Judy Chicago Prospect NY

While in graduate school, Chicago created a series of work that was abstract, yet easily identifiable as male and female sex organs. These early works were called Bigamy, and represented the death of her husband. One depicted an abstract penis, which was “stopped in flight” before it could unite with vaginal form. Despite the use of sexual organs in her work, Chicago refrained from using gender politics or identity as themes.

In 1969, the Pasadena Art Museum exhibited a series of Chicago’s spherical acrylic plastic dome sculptures and drawings in an “experimental” gallery. Art In America noted that Chicago’s work was at the forefront of the conceptual art movement, and the Los Angeles Times described the work as showing no signs of “theoretical New York type art”. She would go on to describe her early work as minimalist and her trying to be “one of the boys”. Chicago would use performance art, using fireworks and pyrotechnics to create “atmospheres” which involved flashes of coloured smoke being manipulated outdoors. Through this work she would attempt to “feminize” and “soften” the landscape.

Her name Judy Chicago came after marrying Lloyd Hamrol. Gallery owner Rolf Nelson nicknamed her “Judy Chicago” because of her strong personality and thick Chicago accent. She decided this would be her new name. In legally changing her last name from the ethically changed Gerowitz to the ethically neutral Chicago, she freed herself from a certain social identity. She was appalled that her husband was required to sign off on her new name legally.

In 1970, Chicago decided to teach full-time at Fresno State College, hoping to teach women skills needed to express the female perspective in their work. At Fresno, she planned a class that would consist only of women and she decided to teach off campus to escape “the presence and hence, the expectations of men.” In 1971 it came the Feminist Art Program, a full 15-unit program and the first within the United States. The Feminist Art Program would be reestablished at California Institute of the Arts. 

Elaine Sturtevant (American, 1924 - 2014)

Known professionally as Sturtevant was an American artist. She achieved recognition for her carefully inexact repetitions of other artists' work. She was born in Ohio and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, followed by a masters. In New York, she later studied at the Art Students League.

Her earliest known paintings were made in new New York in the late 1950s. In these artworks, she sliced tubes of paint open, flattened them and attached them to canvas. Most of these works contain fragments from tubes of several colours of paint, some have additional pencil scribbles and daubs of paint. In 1964, she began to manually reproduce paintings and objects created by her contemporaries with results that can immediately be identified with an original, it turned the concept of originality on its head. She initially focused on works by American artists such as Roy Litchenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Warhol gave her one of his silkscreens so she could produce her own versions of his Flowers paintings. When asked about his technique, Warhol once said, “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.” In the early 1970s, Sturtevant stopped exhibiting art for more than 10 years. There was a major push back on her conceptual practice. Art critic Eleanor Heartney wrote, “... [her exhibition] was met with a deafening silence from the art world, precipitating her withdrawal.”

In the early 1980s, her reemergence saw her focus on the next generation of artists, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Gober and Paul McCarthy (Los Angeles based artist, nothing to do with The Beatles). She mastered painting, sculpture, photography and film in order to produce a full range of copies of the works of her chosen artist. In most cases, her decision to start copying an artist happened before those artists achieved broader recognition. This has given rise to discussions among art critics on how it had been possible for Sturtevant to identify those artists at such an early age.

Her later works mainly focus on the reproductions in the digital age. She commented on her work at her 2012 retrospective ‘Sturtevant: Image over Image’ at the Moderna Museet: “What is currently compelling is our pervasive cybernetic mode, which plucks copyright into mythology, makes origins a romantic notion, and pushes creativity outside the self. Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine - that’s the way to go.”

As a feminist artist, Strutevant recieved multiple awards including the Francis J Greenburger Award, the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 54th Venice Biennale and Kurt Schwitters Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the Sprengel Museum. Her artworks have reached millions at Christie’s New York auction house. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis and Musee d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, among others.

Marilyn Minter (American, born 1948)

Minter is an American visual artist who is best known for her sensual paintings and photographs done in the photorealism style that blur the line between commercial and fine art. Born in Louisiana, she was raised in Florida. In 1970, Minter obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida in Gainesville. In 1972, she received a Master of Fine Art in painting from Syracuse University. She currently teaches in the MFA department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Minter’s career began while she was a student at the University of Florida, where she created a series of photographic studies including her drug addicted mother. Minter later moved to New York City and began collaborating with the German expressionist painter Christof Kohlhofer. Through the 1980s, she explored pop-derived pictures often incorporating sexuality, setting the tone for her future work. After failing to gain commercial success with her exhibition at the Gracie Mansion gallery, Kohlhofer and Minter parted ways. Minter then began to incorporate imagery borrowed from advertising and the porn industry into her art.

Her photographs and works often include sexuality and erotic imagery. Minter’s process begins by staging photoshoots with film. She eschews digital manipulation, instead favouring conventional darkroom processes for developing stills. She does not crop or digitally manipulate her photographs. Her paintings, on the other hand, are made by combining negatives in photoshop to make a whole new image. This new image is then turned into paintings created through the layering of enamel paint on aluminium. Minter and her assistants work directly from this newly created digital image. The last layer is applied with fingertips to create a modelling or softening of the paintbrush lines.

In 1989, Minter created a series of works based on images from hardcore pornography, based on her belief that nobody has politically correct fantasies. Her goal was to create sexual imagery for women to enjoy. She reclaimed images from male-dominated and often abusive industry, asking audiences whether the meaning was changed when the image was used by a woman. Throughout the 1990s, she began to refine her works. While still having pornographic undertones, they began to exude a sense of glamour and high-fashion. In 1998, Minter received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for Fine Arts. In 2014, Minter published a 500 limited edition book called ‘PLUSH’ which is a compilation of 70 photographs of female pubic hair.

Mickalene Thomas (American, born 1971)

She is a contemporary African-American visual artist, best known as a painter of complex works using rhinestones, acrylic and enamel. Thomas’s collage work is inspired from popular art histories and movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and the Harlem Renaissance. Her work draws from Western art history, pop art and visual culture to examine ideas around femininity, beauty, race, sexuality and gender.

During her early career, she found herself immersed in the growing culture of DIY artists and musicians, leading her to start her own body of work. When she started creating art, fashion was always in the back of her mind. Her sources of inspiration were Jacob Lawrence, William H Johnson and Romare Bearden. The most influential to her was the work of Carrie Mae Weems. Thomas describes the encounter in this way: “It was the first time I saw work by an African-American female artist that reflected myself and called upon a familiarity of family dynamics and sex and gender.” Weems' work played a role in Thomas’s decision to switch studies and apply to Pratt Institute in New York and use her experience and turn it into art.

Her depictions of African-American women explore notions of celebrity and identity while engaging with the representation of black femininity and black power. Thomas has created multi-media installations that centre around black women in the narrative-arcs of their own stories. According to art critic Rikki Byrd, “Positioning black women - artists, actresses, characters and her own family - as mentors and muses, and as heroic figures in a lineage of their own, Thomas overrides oppressive narratives.” She has drawn inspiration from multiple artistic periods and cultural influences throughout Western art history, particularly the early modernists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet and Romare Bearden. Thomas’s subjects are virtually always women of colour; a means to portray and empower the women and celebrate their culture and beauty - sometimes by incorporating them into iconic Western paintings.


There are some other feminist artists that I haven't mentioned in this blog but have mentioned before, you can read those here: