Image of Adrian Piper Catalysis IV 1971

Field review: Performance art by women artists in the United States, 1965 – 1980

‘This is a critical moment for feminism
and women’s place in the art world…
We will need all our wit and courage
to make sure that women’s voices are
heard, their work seen and written about.
That is our task for the future.’

~ Linda Nochlin, 2015 [1]

Recently, I had to provide a field review – also called a literature review, which is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic – for my MA studies in Art History. It took a while to find the right ‘field’ to immerse myself in because I have many interests. Not everything I came up with turned out to be an appropriate field, sometimes it was more a research question for a thesis or too philosophical. Eventually, I landed at a defined period and a medium. As an artist, a curator and an art lover in general, I have always been interested in performance art, and I want to deepen that interest.

Furthermore, my mission as an upcoming art historian is to immerse myself as much as possible in women and/or queer art – preferably diverse and inclusive. The reason is quite simple: the white and male-dominated art-historical canon needs to be challenged. Not only when it comes to the generally accepted ‘isms’ but also the history of art history itself. Additionally, I like to delve into what women write about art. I believe in these other voices and other perspectives. This statement already pretty much defines my field.

So, my most recent field review focuses on performance art by women artists in the United States in the period from 1965 to 1980. In the introduction, I examine the term and medium of performance art, mentioning several defining characters that are important in the field, such as the (art) historical context, the use of the body as a tool, and the documentation.

Besides, the period of this field review is synchronous with the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United States, especially the west coast/New York City. It is inevitable to research books and other literature related to this movement – hence, feminism/feminist art. It is also often these sources that pay attention to women artists.

Although I don’t prefer the use of the word ‘woman’ before ‘artist’, it was applied in this situation, as it indicates the parameters of this review. In this respect, ‘art has no gender, but artists do’ is stipulated by Lucy Lippard. ‘To deny one’s sex is to deny a large part of where art comes from.’ In 1975 she wrote that a strong sense of source and self are crucial for creating and displaying art.[2]

The women artists that form the primary starting point for this field review include (in alphabetic order) Laurie Anderson, Joan Jonas, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke. Without going into too much detail about their biographies and specific developments, the emphasis lies on these six artists who were essential to the history of performance art. This selection also helped to frame the review, especially in the search for relevant information.

I have enjoyed reading books, (academic) articles, independent magazines, etc. by RoseLee Goldberg, Amelia Jones, Lucy R. Lippard, Linda Nochlin, Peggy Phelan, Maura Reilly, Moira Roth, and Catherine Wood. A great list of women theorists, art historians, curators and writers! Altogether it was an inspiring and enriching research process.

  [1] Reilly, Maura. Interview with Linda Nochlin. ‘Linda Nochlin on Feminism Then and Now.’ ARTnews. June 2015. Also appeared in Reilly, Maura. 2020. Women artists: the Linda Nochlin reader. London: Thames & Hudson.

[2] Lippard, Lucy R. 1976. From the center: feminist essays on women’s art. New York: Dutton.

Image: Adrian Piper, Catalysis IV, 1971. Documentation of the performance.