A New Book, ‘Art Monsters,’ Shows the Impact of Feminist Art on Formal Innovation

A New Book, ‘Art Monsters,’ Shows the Impact of Feminist Art on Formal Innovation

IN 1964 CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN SHOT A FILM in which she and a man fornicate under the watchful gaze of a curious feline named Kitch. The celluloid is discolored—awash in hazy blues and purples—and scratched, a result of Schneemann’s letting Kitch tinker in post-production. The cat’s tilting head on-screen can take you out of the moment, and her claw marks serve as a membrane that emphasizes the distance between viewers of the film and its content: a sex scene that is explicit yet at times eclipsed, leaving something to the imagination.

When Schneemann made the film, she was making a bet that viewers would be so distracted by its content—the “genital heterosexuality”—that they would miss the artistry of it all: the form, the structure, the musicality. And that is just like what has happened to the history of feminist art: for so long, writers have fixated so wholly on the content of such work that, along the way, feminism’s many monumental formal innovations fell to the side.

That is the point of Schneemann’s film Fuses. A woman starring in her own artwork can have a hard time getting others to see more than her body: to move viewers beyond their animalistic impulses and perceive all the thought, the decisions, the commentary, the craft. Hannah Wilke once quipped that “people would rather look at women than … at art,” and Schneemann wanted her audience to reflect on that tendency.

A book cover that shows a grascale photo of a woman in tight pants crouching over a desk, one leg hiked up onto a chair.
Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2023; 368 pages.

Schneemann is one of the namesake subjects in Lauren Elkin’s new book, Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art, which focuses on feminist artists such as Wilke, Ana Mendieta, Kara Walker, and Eva Hesse as well as writers like Kathy Acker and Virginia Woolf. The title comes from Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, in which she writes, “my plan was to never get married. I was going to become an art monster instead.” Elkin also quotes Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning: “A woman had to be a monster to be an artist.”

By “monster,” they meant that women artists have long been considered in some way deviant, since, as women, they are expected to spend their time tending to other matters, like domestic and reproductive labor. Wilke offered one clever workaround in the ’70s when she created sculptures of vulvas out of lint that she sourced while doing laundry for her boyfriend, Claes Oldenburg. (As for me, I have dinner marinating as I type.)

Elkin’s aim involves “bringing touch and feeling back into our encounters with art, centering the body and its viscerality.” Think of those weighty knots Hesse tied, or the oozy pools of latex Lynda Benglis poured. Notice, however, that these works do not offer feminist narratives or depict women’s experiences, at least not in any direct way. The kind of feminist art Elkin advocates is “not always polemical but often provisional.” She champions art as “a way of exploring and not arguing … [since] epiphanies shift and change like the body itself.” To wonder what such work is about, she writes, is “like asking what the body means.”

ART MONSTERS shows the significant impact feminist art had on formal innovation, even as its burn was slow, wonky, and uneven. Many of the book’s key protagonists were active in the 1970s, but Elkin brings in plenty of other visionaries who, throughout history, offered ways of making that bring us back to the body, its enduring weirdness and vulnerabilities. Hesse’s materials, for example, decayed and discolored with time. Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron emphatically printed the fingerprints and stray hairs that found their way onto her negatives; as in Schneemann’s film, fleshy reality and the ocular image comingle.

Elkin briefly but importantly distinguishes such corporeal work from “textual and/or technological” feminist art that had its heyday in the 1980s, wherein content superseded form. Artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger turned to bold words to make their urgent messages unmistakable. Think of Holzer’s iconic Times Square billboard that read abuse of power comes as no surprise, which makes the rounds on Instagram any time the art world witnesses another #MeToo scandal.These artists had urgent messages and were contending both with an increasingly saturated media landscape and rising Republican politics. They needed to speak loudly, clearly.

But while such clarity and urgency made for galvanizing rallying cries, art is unique for its capacity to engage contradictions and complexities that can’t be captured in words. Elkin writes about how good art helps us get past those binaries in which language gets trapped. She makes a case for the kind offeminist art that refused to cleave form from politics and saw them, instead, as bound together—art that refused the tidiness of an ’80s-style one-liner.

Four fleshy droopy rectangles hang vertically on the wall. On a plinth on the floor in front of them, a stack of folded yellowing material cascades left to right.
Eva Hesse: Aught (on wall) and Augment (on floor), both 1968, on view in “Revolution in the Making, Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016,” 2016, at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Los Angeles.

IT’S EASY TO SAY WAHT FEMIMINST ART IS AGAINST—patriarchy, machismo, abuse—but harder to say what it is for. Critiquing misogyny does not free us from it, Elkin argues, but only binds us to it differently, in an antagonistic, rather than submissive relationship. Wanting to free feminist art from this trap of negation, which risks reinforcing the dominance of the patriarchal status quo, Elkin asks us to attend to art that doesn’t simply refute the male gaze but ignores it altogether. She privileges art that inhabits some separate sphere with feminism, not patriarchy, as its foundation. She describes the worlds that women artists have built more than the ones they have unbuilt, and the enduring impact of this constructive work.

The problem is, patriarchal values are so deeply instilled in all facets of society that ignoring them proves rather difficult.WhenWilkeset out to make liberated images of her own body—to try and see herself free from internalized misogyny—the task proved impossible: feminists Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman-Lewisfamously wrote that Wilke “ended up reinforcing what she intended to subvert,” and Lucy Lippard worried that the artist “hardly ever had the last laugh.” Later, Lippard recanted, and some 50 years on, critics and admirers are still grappling with the complexity of Wilke’s project.

Elkin’s writing on Wilke helped me see how, in the nudes the artist made in her youth, her attractive, white, nondisabled body was taken to signify “woman,” so other women weighed in as to whether she was depicting us fairly. Time and again, these pictures were not read to depict the fleshy existence of an individual, but as a symbol. Later, when Wilke documented her experience with lymphoma in photographs, audiences automatically saw her body as specific, as belonging uniquely to her. The only thing that changed, really, was how she looked. When she was a beautiful young woman, viewers felt a kind of ownership. When she was sick and old, they distanced themselves.

“IF HANNAH WILKE’S WORK IS THE PROBLEM this book poses,” Elkin writes, referring to attempts to liberate feminist narratives about the body from all their attendant baggage, “then Hesse’s is the answer.” Here, the author seems to suggest that clever Hesse found a way to make work that is nonrepresentational—coils, knots, tubes—but whose fleshy colors and vulnerable forms still evoke the body. The work doesn’t convey a legible feminist narrative, nor does it aim for something universal. Hesse’s sculptures are not polemical, but they are born of a specific point of view.

Or at least, I suspect this is what Elkin means. That problem-and-answer line, though evocative, begs for elaboration, especially as it stands alone in its own paragraph. In any case, Elkin does herself a disservice by so neatly dividing her monsters into problems and answers. Hesse’s work is certainly moving but seems no more resolved than Wilke’s, which is so successful because it captures complexities that continue to puzzle.

I sense that Elkin meant to privilege more intuitive encounters than intellectualized ones, but abstraction feels like too easy a solution. In fact, I’m skeptical of setting answers as a goal.

In Art Monsters, Elkin tries to evade the trap of the Kruger-esque one-liner or the art historical grand narrative by experimenting, like her subjects, with form. In her prose, she favors use of the slash, devoting the first chapter to the way it “creates a space of simultaneity, a zone of ambiguity.” Then, she endeavors to make an argument/leave space for unresolvable tension. The result is a book born from both body and mind: the author movingly describes how it evolved alongside her pregnancy, and how her own changing body impacted its final form.

But in experimenting with form, the book falls into a new trap altogether. Here again, it’s clearer what the book’s form is against than what it is for, and as a result, intriguing lines of argument get dropped before they are fleshed out. Where the book meanders instead of building momentum, it seems intentional: Elkin memorably quotes Kathy Acker who, writing on Goya, once said that “the only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense.” But overly neat narratives still creep in, and it is not clear that the method she advocates in Art Monsters is as useful for the genre of nonfiction, or art criticism, as it might be for artists or poets.

The book does fill an essential gap by providing an outlet to continue processing feminist rage and trauma. But it avoids presenting yet another inspiring or retraumatizing feminist narrative, which is probably the last thing we need from art or art criticism. Though versions of such stories have made their way into popular music and onto the big screen, they have not eliminated unequal pay or rampant sexual harassment. We’ve heard so many by now that their repetition can be downright demoralizing.

Art Monsterssucceeds inbringing up important issues without beating readers over the head with what they already know, in part by insisting that the “art monster” is not a “rhetorical flourish, or figurehead” but, rather, “a (once) living, breathing person.” Elkin embraces artists whose stories are too specific and complex to be affixed to feminist formulas—a lesson, I think, in the art that lives and lasts.  

This article appears under the title “Magnificent Monstrosity” in the Winter 2023 issue, pp. 48–52.