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Top right: Wangechi Mutu, Hide n’ Seek, Kill or Speak, 2004
Paint, ink collage, mixed media on mylar.SIkkema Jenkins & Co

Ida Applebroog, Rose, 2005
Unique work on Gampi paper with mixed media
Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Photo: Dennis Cowley




“[Feminism] is like the word ‘liberal.’ Some people think it’s tainted. But what does feminism mean in 2006?”
- Thomas Sokolowski, Director, The Andy Warhol Museum
















“Art can’t change the world, but ideas can.”
- Elizabeth Thomas, Independent Curator






The F Word

The Andy Warhol Museum’s latest exhibition examines the ideas, intentions, and politics behind art made by women, and dares to bring up the “F” word—feminism.

“I am woman hear me roar in numbers
too big to ignore.”
If you’re female and of a certain age, chances are you remember every single word to that 1970s’ anthem. “And I know too much to go back and pretend, ’cause I’ve heard it all before and I’ve been down there on the floor.” Even today, if you happen to be listening to the radio when this ode to feminism hits the airways, you probably sing along.

“ I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.”

Or do you? Maybe Helen Reddy’s proclamation suddenly sounds woefully outdated or tragically unfulfilled.

Feminism, feminine, female—what do these “F” words mean in the context of history books, in today’s vernacular, and in tomorrow’s world? Not surprisingly, the answers depend on whom you’re talking to.

In its exhibition titled The “F” Word, which runs through September 3, The Andy Warhol Museum is letting a dozen contemporary female artists do all the talking. Among them, Ida Applebroog, Martha Colburn, Deborah Grant, Wynne Greenwood and K8 Hardy, Sharon Hayes, Wangechi Mutu, Yoko Ono, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Laura Schnitger, Allison Smith, Valerie Tevere, and Amy Wilson.

So far, the buzz has been extremely positive. “It’s a very directed, strong, topical show,” says John Smith, The Warhol’s assistant director for collections and research. “People are asking why New York hasn’t done this.”

The answer: because The Warhol, which is known the world over for the tough issues it tackles through its exhibitions—issues like lynching, torture, and AIDS—is in Pittsburgh, and that’s where independent curator Elizabeth Thomas has been setting the stage for the exhibition. And together, The Warhol Director Thomas Sokolowski along with Smith and Thomas have been setting the tone.

Feminism: A Dirty Word?
As Sokolowski recalls, the idea for the show started with Pittsburgh Roars, the regional initiative that was designed to encourage people to get out and experience all the sights, sounds, and happenings that make Pittsburgh a place to shout about. In asking themselves how The Warhol might bring a compelling, distinctive—and some might say, Warholian— voice to the Roars project, Sokolowski and company decided to pursue roaring of a different sort.

Enter Helen Reddy and her infamous song. Although her signature line was the genesis for the exhibition, Thomas explains, somehow the word “feminist” was never uttered during those preliminary meetings. It seemed no one actually wanted to say the “F” word out loud.

“ The idea of feminism is a difficult topic to talk about,” Thomas says. “It’s a loaded term. There are some artists who embrace it while others don’t want their work reduced to that label.”

“ It’s like the word ‘liberal,’” Sokolowski says. “Some people think it’s tainted. But what does feminism mean in 2006? Would you call yourself a feminist? And if you do, does feminism today mean the same thing as it did to your sisters 30 years ago?”

With the “F” word finally out on the table, The Warhol seemed like an even more ideal location for the exhibition. After all, Smith says, “Warhol opened the doors to discussions about sexuality and identity.”

Those doors are still open, but ironically, as Thomas began sounding out women artists to measure their level of interest, she admits that the premise of excluding men was a bit unsettling at first.

“ As a curator, I don’t think I ever would have decided to do an all-woman show,” Thomas says. “The kind of separatism it implies is a loaded issue. But I accepted that challenge, that complication. It’s an important exercise to complicate things. The world is complicated.”

And so was finding the right mix of artists. Thomas wanted a balance of generations and disciplines. But even when several women who led the first charge of feminist art in the 1960s and ‘70s—women like Applebroog, Ono, Rosler, and Schneemann —signed on, the exhibition was never conceived as a nostalgic trip back to the good old days of bra burnings and protest marches.

Amy Wilson, Honey to Ashes (Divine), 2005, Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Amy Wilson and Bellwether

The Politics of Art
“ I wanted to be respectful to previous generations of feminists,” Thomas notes, “but I also didn’t want to freeze them in a feminist moment because they’re still out there today making art.”

That art, as well as the art of their younger counterparts who have agreed to participate, embodies a variety of mediums—painting, collage, photography, video, performance—to achieve a variety of effects. In Thomas’s view, some of the work is cerebral or strident and aggressive, while other work is undeniably gorgeous, seductive, erotic, satiric, and, believe it or not, funny.

“ It’s important to question, to express dissent, to upend things, to unsettle them, and, often times, to work out personal relationships to larger issues,” Thomas asserts. “To be political, art can attack the status quo, but it can also be deeply personal and build new ways of engaging the world.”

Will visitors experience The “F” Word on a personal level? “I can’t predict what people will see,” Thomas says. “But I hope it’s a show that will speak to everyone and counter preconceptions about artwork that deals with political issues.”

Political issues are something the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, which is providing financial support for The “F” Word, can speak to. Recently, the organization’s Allegheny Girls as Grantmakers gained national notoriety by staging a girlcott of some of Abercrombie & Fitch’s T-shirts. The retailer clearly got the message. A sample “before” T-shirt read: “I had a nightmare I was a brunette.” After the girlcott: “Brunettes have brains.”

According to the Women and Girls Foundation’s Executive Director Heather Arnet, providing financial support to The “F” Word is perfectly consistent with the group’s mission to achieve equity and amplify women’s voices.

“ This is our first time sponsoring an exhibition,” Arnet says. “But art, like any other sector, is important. We want young women to know they can grow up to be artists.”

Guerrilla Tactics, Or Not?
Right now, however, women may find the odds are against them. “The art world is still dominated by males,” says Thomas.

So, it seems that even with all the time that has passed since the feminist movement first got its start, there hasn’t been a dramatic social, cultural, or economic shift—at least in the art world. “Years ago,” Smith says, “the Guerrilla Girls pointed out the lack of female artists and the lack of value placed on them. In a way, those things haven’t changed.”

Founded in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls was a group of women artists who assumed the names of dead women artists and worked anonymously—wearing gorilla masks in public—to produce posters, billboards, public actions, books, and other projects to make feminism funny and fashionable.

Contrary to the modern-day Guerrilla Girls who continue to travel the world as “feminist masked avengers,” Sokolowski wonders if subtlety rather than stridency is the message of the 21st century. “The issues aren’t so different,” he says, “but perhaps it’s the modes of expression that need to change.”

Whatever the tactics, Arnet says, “I hope the exhibition will attract women and men of all ages and inspire young people to use their voices, their palettes, and their computers. Equality and human rights are very relevant, especially as their world becomes more global through the Internet and our economy.”

The universe may be expanding, but art remains a universal language. “Art has the capacity to be a place where people can work out ideas,” Thomas says. “Art can’t change the world, but ideas can.”

Support for The “F” Word comes from the Pittsburgh Roars project and The Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania.

Support for The "F" Word exhibition 'Zine Project is provided by Barbara and Gerald Chait.

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