Published: April 1, 2006 By

[1] “Who has the guts to deal with cunts?” asked sculptor Hannah Wilke in 1973 (Schwartz). Louise Fishman, a painter, told critic Sarah Whitworth that her thoughts immediately turned to women’s genitals when she decided to examine consciously what part being a woman played in her work (58). Both saw their art as participating in social and political discourses of the day. Wilke sympathized with comedian Lenny Bruce, who had been arrested on obscenity charges for language in his stand-up routine on several occasions between 1961 and 1966, the year she first exhibited her small ceramic “Agreeable Objects” in an erotic art show. Like Bruce, Wilke wanted to shock a complacent society that she perceived was ruled by prejudice and fear and transform its negative attitudes towards sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality (Huestis and Jones). Fishman had marched with other gay rights activists in 1970 on the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and belonged to a consciousness-raising group of lesbian and straight women artists that discussed feminist art and politics (Tyler Galleries). Sexuality, aesthetics, and political expression were inextricably linked in their art production.

[2] Wilke and Fishman considered themselves feminists, but sexuality was the most contentious topic for the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s. In particular, the role lesbians should play in feminist organizations deeply divided East Coast feminists. Between 1970 and 1973, vigorous debates over lesbian separatism equated a woman’s choice of sexual partner with a political statement. At the National Organization for Women-sponsored Congress to Unite Women held in May 1970 in New York, an ad hoc group of radical lesbians disrupted the proceedings to bring their grievances to the attention of their straight sisters (Echols, 214-20). The Radicalesbians issued a position paper, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” in an effort to reunite the polarized factions by establishing common ground—rage—between heterosexual and lesbian feminists. Sexual desire had become an incendiary topic for feminists just at the moment feminist artists began to develop a visual language with which to represent it: vaginal imagery, otherwise known as “central core” or female imagery. This sort of imagery was highly developed and encouraged on the West Coast, at the Feminist Art Program first established by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro at Fresno State College, and in exhibitions of women artists such as “21 Artists: Invisible/Visible,” curated by Dextra Frankel at the Long Beach Museum of Art. While it was less prevalent on the East Coast, Wilke’s and Fishman’s art nevertheless fits the genre. Wilke’s sculpture, made of soft flesh-like latex sheets layered and wrapped around themselves, looked like enormous vulvas. Fishman worked more abstractly, weaving scraps of frayed canvas and other materials into tactile assemblages that alluded to skin or hair. Female imagery at the time and in more recent studies has been presumed to represent heterosexual experience, a further function of lesbian voices marginalized in feminist discourse. My case study seeks to correct that imbalance. Looking closely at Wilke’s and Fishman’s work and its context between 1966 and 1973, I will argue that female body imagery was instrumental to feminist political discourse by serving to relocate the lesbian sexuality that feminist politics strategically repressed.

[3] Female body imagery, including both centrally-organized vaginal imagery like Wilke’s and more abstract references to the female body like Fishman’s, played a crucial role in feminist art criticism beginning in 1971, when the Feminist Art Program students and faculty edited a special issue of the feminist journalEverywoman. The discussion continued in Feminist Art Journal, Ms., Art News, and other publications. Some feminist artists and critics deliberately worked to identify and define what qualities art by women shared, following the late-1960s radical feminist agenda to define women as a “sex class” (Firestone, 11-23). They related female body imagery to concerns that were debated within the contemporary Women’s Liberation Movement: the representation of women’s bodies, the nature of feminine sexuality, and the existence of a universal feminine sensibility. There is a trajectory in these critical perspectives that parallels a move in radical feminist concerns from forthright exploration of women’s sexuality, including lesbianism, to theorization of an inherent and unified feminine sensibility that assumes heterosexuality. I want to argue that female imagery as it was produced and experienced in specific instances exceeded these broad trends in feminist aesthetic and political discourse and in fact was the location to which representation of sexuality was displaced, the price of defusing tensions between straight and lesbian feminists. To the extent that Wilke’s sculptures and Fishman’s paintings were experienced as both erotic and feminist, sexuality was not completely erased from feminist consideration. The radical implications of this erotic charge, traceable in contemporary criticism, become still clearer when we consider the art viewing experience as an act of gender performance.

[4] As feminist art historians including Carol Duncan and Griselda Pollock have demonstrated in arguments that extend Laura Mulvey’s influential 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” conventions of artistic representation are gendered and tend to reinforce patriarchal ideology, even in the case of avant-garde art that otherwise challenges a bourgeois status quo. The reception as well as the production of art is a performative act by which the viewer and artist are gendered according to heterosexual norms. Judith Butler articulates the complexity of this phenomenon in Gender Trouble. By her account, the acting subject neither is already gendered nor exists prior to gendering; rather, the subject is always gendered by performing in accordance with a gender ideal. Yet the ideal is unattainable: gender is never perfected but continually in process. Butler is interested in the ways the performance of gender breaks down in repetition to “reveal the temporal and contingent groundlessness” (141) of what appears to be natural, essential, and substantial. The imperfect reiteration of gender performance transforms what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality” into a proliferation of genders that must reconfigure the hegemonic cultural and political systems as they currently exist (Butler, 148-49). Female imagery was produced by artists who self-consciously rejected the conventions which dictate the representation of women’s bodies; these artworks stage the spectator’s performance of gender at variance with cultural norms and so instigate political change. Reading feminist art by way of Butler’s gender theory opens the analysis in two important ways. First, the radical nature of early-1970s female imagery comes into focus. This paper will show that Wilke’s vaginal sculptures and Fishman’s tactile wall-hangings arouse desire in and thereby destabilize the gender identification of the heterosexual female spectator. If only for an instant, the gender she does falls outside heterosexual binary categories and undermines their authority. Second, it will be clear that vaginal imagery does not only represent women’s difference from men but also differences among women. To recognize this challenges any summary dismissal of 1970s feminist art as “essentialist,” that is, assuming a unique, inherent feminine quality common to all women. Before developing these points, Wilke’s and Fishman’s art production must be placed in the context of contemporary discourses on erotic and feminist art.

 Wooden sculptures

Figure 1

[5] When Wilke first began to “deal with cunts” in her sculpture, she participated in a legitimation of erotic art by New York galleries and museums that included the retrospective of Viennese expressionist painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele at the Guggenheim, Pop artist Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude” series, and the Sidney Janis Gallery’s “Erotic Art ’66” (Rose). Concurrent with the Janis exhibition, a group show that included Wilke’s “Agreeable Objects” (1960-63) called “Hetero Is” was hung at the Nycata Gallery, a non-commercial space. Wilke’s ceramic sculptures were small round or boxy forms that appear to be hollow.[T]he erotic is always particular, but its very particularities alter depending upon who views them, when, and how. Recognition of obvious erotic subject matter…can be beside the point. The broader the framework within which the erogenous forms or surfaces occur, the greater its appeal to a greater number of people. …[W]ith few exceptions, the best erotica being made today is abstract to a greater or lesser degree, concentrating on a purity of sensation which in turn engenders a stronger response (“Eros Presumptive,” 91).

They were not exclusively feminine in their anatomical referents: while some had labial or clitoral protuberances, other appendages were distinctly glans-shaped. Several were deliberately ambiguous, with petals surrounding a phallic orb, or a vaginal cavity formed by a free-standing cylinder topped by a flat collar. In her review of the Janis and Nycata shows, art critic Lucy R. Lippard developed a theory of erotic art that favored abstraction over figuration:

She lauded Wilke’s sculpture for its suggestive forms that did not prescribe a particular reaction from the viewer. Abstract erotic art like Wilke’s, Lippard proposed, demanded active interpretation; thus the erotic charge lay in the relationship between object and viewer rather than in conventionally explicit illustrations of sex acts. This relationship, which Lippard characterized as sensual, was established through the viewer’s impulse to touch the object, inspired by its surface or shape more than its hinted-at subject matter:

Visceral shapes do induce a physical identification in most viewers….Isolation of a caressability, the sensuous attraction (or repulsion) of a form from its particular biological function or anatomical placement frees that form from limited meaning. A bag-like or spherical shape can be read as uterus, breast, testicle, or simple non-allusive form responded to on a purely sensorial level (“Eros Presumptive,” 94).

When she wrote this in 1967, radical feminism had barely coalesced and Lippard had not yet positioned herself as a feminist critic. But she did reject the majority of erotic art on view precisely for its voyeuristic appeal through “specifically sexual rather than sensuous and sensual stimuli” which, the allusion to the voyeur suggests, perpetuates an unequal distribution of power between the viewer and his object (“Eros Presumptive,” 99).

[6] The interactive dimension that Lippard identified as essential to the Agreeable Objects’ erotic value was supported by the artist’s intentions. Wilke said she meant these objects to represent a woman’s experience of sexual satisfaction:

If you could get the whole female experience of fulfillment and give it body and solid shape, it would be like these boxes. Why boxes? Because they are gifts. When someone gives you something, fulfillment, you want to say thank you (Roxen).

They catalogued sites of sexual pleasure, not as one set of genitalia penetrating another but instead transforming one into another as dictated by the symmetry of the ceramic form rather than physical anatomy. Wilke’s choice to work abstractly was strategic. If she had highlighted female erogenous zones in a figurative mode, she would only have reiterated the erotic trope of the objectified female body readily available in the mass media as well as in high art forms like Klimt’s or Wesselmann’s paintings. Abstraction enabled Wilke to represent feminine sexual subjectivity as polymorphous and experienced in a transactional relationship between gendered bodies, the heterosexuality of which is implicit. Neither Wilke nor Lippard explored the possibility of the gendered bodies’ relationship being a lesbian one. That scenario was developed in a description of abstract paintings by the lesbian artist Louise Fishman, written for a lesbian audience.

[7] Sarah Whitworth described Fishman’s early work, which she had seen on a visit to Fishman’s studio sometime in 1970, in Amazon Quarterly, a journal of art and culture published by and for lesbians:

Tacked and hung about the studio were several small wall-hanging sculptures made of canvas strips which related directly and self-consciously to female genital organs (58).

The layers of material—including rubber, paper, and cut-up painted canvas—and the laborious process of weaving, binding, and collaging them equally contributed to their visual interest. These pieces were never shown publicly; they seem to have been transitional work, produced when Fishman abandoned hard-edged acrylic painting in pursuit of freer expression in the year after the 1969 Stonewall riot that launched the campaign for gay rights.

[8] Fishman’s constructions did not make reference to bodies in any obvious way, as Wilke’s works did; there were no vaginal forms in evidence. One of the untitled works illustrating the Amazon Quarterlyarticle is horizontal, a stack of canvas strips bound together at each end with whip-stitching at the edges coming undone.

 Wooden art

Figure 2

 Metal sculpture

Figure 3

Another has canvas strips lashed together with string at the top with the lower ends hanging free. The textured surface of the sculptural examples she saw inspired Whitworth to make the connection to women’s bodies:

Loose threads frayed wildly at the edges like unshaven hair, unrefined and uncensored. Layers of material overlapped one another echoing at once memories of the vulva and a shifting mesh of emotion and thought (58).

The artist confirmed Whitworth’s interpretation:

When I started thinking of … using three-dimensional ideas, the immediate thing I thought of was women’s genitals. I was trying to consciously change the audience for my art so that women … would be able to respond to it (58).

It must be acknowledged that Whitworth’s effusive reaction to a select few of this series is the only contemporary critical account that exists; Fishman, it seems, never gauged the way women responded to them in public.

[9] Other, more two-dimensional works from the same series were not illustrated in Amazon Quarterly. Michael Brenson wrote about them in the Tyler Galleries catalogue for a 1992 Fishman retrospective, saying that they “have a loose, even playful informality, but they also seem tight, constricted…” and they “communicate both freedom and bondage.” Art critic John Yau described examples that were flatter and much more restrained than those in Whitworth’s account. They reminded him of a Sol LeWitt-inspired grid by way of Eva Hesse, with the grid lines made of string and the flat surface revealing the medium, rubber or rough canvas. The edges of the fabric pieces were unhemmed and unraveled slightly.

Fishman had seen Hesse’s posthumous retrospective, and was inspired by what she perceived as Hesse’s freedom to use unconventional materials and her idiosyncratic way of combining elements. She seemed to have been unsatisfied with her own experiments with built-up forms, however, and returned to painting in 1972 (Tyler Galleries).

 Ribbon art

Figure 4

 Art made from tarps

Figure 5

[10] But in 1973, Whitworth wanted to offer her lesbian reader an overview of Fishman’s entire oeuvre, to which these works, transitional only in retrospect, were entirely germane. Whitworth was struck by an urge to touch the sculptural works, and mused that only a woman could understand them, that Fishman represented the way it feels to have a female body. For women viewers, an erotic response was integral to the viewing experience even though the constructions “precluded any sort of male pornographic reaction” (58). Instead:

Here was a literal translation of being in touch with oneself. If the mirror of self-examination was too forbidding, Louise was offering a bridge. At least these works could be cupped in one’s hands without fear of social redress. And if one’s mirror was an open gate, the memories and fantasies of being a woman (or loving a woman) might be enriched and enlightened by these sculptures… (58).

The mirror that Whitworth mentioned referred to the gynecological examinations women learned to perform on themselves or other women as part of the consciousness-raising process. Literature such asOur Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective offered detailed instruction for these self-exams which were supposed to persuade women that their genitals were not ugly, mysterious, or deformed; acceptance of one’s body, it was expected, would lead to empowerment in other areas of a woman’s life. Whitworth suggests that looking, or being caught looking, at a woman’s vagina might be troubling to some women—why? What the Boston collective deferred through the use of neutral, clinical language was another aspect of the gaze, the sexually possessive implications inherent in looking. Feminists after all were used to thinking about the way images of women often turned them into sexual objects, and were sensitive to accusations that a feminist was the same as a “dyke.” Looking at another woman’s vagina raised the issue of lesbianism. Fishman’s small woven wall-hangings offered to a female viewer a way to discover her body and to imagine touching another woman without the fear of censure that constrained her actual caressing of female genitals. Whitworth’s analysis describes an intra- and inter-subjective experience—exploring the sculpture, a woman also explores her own or an identical feminine body—that is fundamentally erotic (Marks, 339).

[11] Whitworth constructed her definition of the erotic in Fishman’s mixed-media pieces along the same lines as Lippard did in her earlier survey of erotic art: touching is more important than looking. The mutuality that implies, where touching and being touched necessarily go together in a way that looking and being looked at do not, produces a sensual interaction that is both seductive and receptive. The context for Whitworth’s discussion shaped it: the author wrote for a lesbian audience which allowed her to assume that the viewer/artwork relationship is lesbian. Writing in 1973 for a California-based publication, she could also assume, where in 1967 Lippard could not, that there was a tangible feminine sensibility in art by women. The nature of such a sensibility had begun to be discussed in the Feminist Art Program in 1970. Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” published in the mainstream art magazine Art News in 1971, touched upon the question of whether women’s art had unique qualities. Lippard became intrigued by the idea of a distinct women’s art, and elaborated on it a 1973 essay, “Why Separate Women’s Art?,” though she never settled upon an exclusive set of criteria. Fishman also touched upon this notion when she explained to Whitworth that her work had changed in 1971 because she “wanted to examine what part of it really had to do with being a woman…” (58). It seemed likely that there was a feminine sensibility that lesbians shared with straight women that transcended sexual preference. In the inaugural issue ofAmazon Quarterly, the editors established one of the periodical’s goals as to explain “just what might be the female sensibility in the arts.” Lesbians, they proposed, were precisely the women who could make such an inquiry effectively, since they were not “male-identified” and so were free from the patriarchal biases that obstructed the understanding of woman-made art ([Roberson] and [Holliday Akers]). Where Whitworth, Fishman, and the Amazon Quarterly editors differed from Nochlin, Lippard, and others was in their acceptance of sexuality as a component of sensibility. Sexual desire was crucial to defining lesbian identity, the key to lesbians’ difference from straight women. The lingering erotics in Wilke’s latex sculpture of 1970-1972 aligned her more with lesbian than straight feminist criticism.

 Leather art

Figure 6

 Plastic art

Figure 7

[12] Wilke began to produce wall-mounted sculptures of latex and fabric in 1970. Like her “Agreeable Objects,” they evoked genital forms, but this time exclusively women’s. The term used at the time to describe this category of images was “vaginal,” although examples such as Wilke’s variously resemble labia or vulvas more than vaginas; in the interest of historical specificity over anatomical correctness, I have adopted this vocabulary. The small latex and fabric Barbara Rose (1970) was made of irregularly-shaped rubbery petals in rosy hues folded haphazardly into a floral form; the title names a prominent art critic who had written about the erotic art trend in 1965 in Artforum.

Teasel Cushion was larger, almost three feet tall, made of pinkish translucent and opaque latex leaves snapped together into an elongated form that resembles a vulva. The snaps suggested a flexibility to the vaginal form and more importantly the potential for interaction: as Douglas Crimp observed in his 1972 review, the viewer might imagine the work having come unfixed from the wall, undone, unsnapped in wanton abandon. They give Teasel Cushion an edge, contrasting cold, shiny metal with pliable latex, and invoking the open-ended pleasure and pain of sado-masochistic scenarios: the tug that would undo the sculpture, the pinch required to rejoin two panels.

[13] Wilke’s sculptures are much more explicit in their anatomical references than Fishman’s smaller and quieter abstractions which rely entirely on tactile surfaces, layering, and weaving to bring to mind the body and how it might be touched. One can only imagine what Whitworth might have said about Wilke’s work in terms of the permission it gave a female and presumed lesbian audience to pleasurably investigate a vagina. (Wilke was never reviewed in the lesbian feminist press.) Besides the female body, both artists incorporated other influences, especially other artists who foregrounded process, chance, and medium in their work. Wilke made the leaves for her sculptures by pouring liquid latex onto a plaster surface; the way the material was poured helped determine the final shape of the latex leaf. Sculptor Lynda Benglis had also poured latex to produce her vividly-colored floor works beginning in 1969; chance determined the final form and arrangement of colors. Eva Hesse’s use of non-traditional, soft materials and multiple components aligns with Wilke’s practice, too. As noted above, Fishman was thinking of Hesse when she began her experiments in three-dimensional construction, and the influence is evident in her use of rubber and string. Art historian Anne M. Wagner has made the case that Hesse incorporates gender difference into her sculptures and cancels it; by contrast, Wilke and Fishman both meant to incorporate gender difference and to emphasize it.

[14] A photograph taken in 1970, by Wilke’s then-boyfriend, the sculptor Claes Oldenburg, established an erotic context for Wilke’s wall sculptures; it was used for publicity by the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1972. As in her sexually self-confident performances from the mid-1970s, Wilke purposefully used her own body here to challenge what she regarded as puritanical, censorious views of sexuality pervasive in American society. The artist was photographed from behind, dressed in a hip-length jacket, sheer dark pantyhose, and close-fitting high-heeled boots.

 Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Inc. Hannah Wilke

Figure 8

She bent over her drawing table with one leg propped impractically on a chair, seeming to be completely absorbed in her work and oblivious to her observer. The choice of wardrobe and the deliberate pose showed Wilke presenting her own sexualized self-image and manipulating existing social codes that rendered the female body an object of the desiring male gaze; the gaze is invited, but on terms set by its object. Wilke ran the risk that this publicity shot would only reinforce the hegemonic social codes she meant to challenge, but in art historian Amelia Jones’s analysis, Wilke “unhinges” those codes to reveal their “insufficiency” (152-3). The male gaze, Jones argues, does not exist independently but is invoked by the object presented to be gazed upon: “the ‘gaze’ does not simply reside in the person who appears to look (take pictures) but also (always already) in the body/self that is looked at (that poses)” (311, note 115). I would extend Jones’s claim to Wilke’s vaginal sculpture, which similarly elicits a desiring gaze from the viewer.

[15] At the same time as the photograph secured Wilke’s sculpture’s erotic content by association, it reinforced the sculpture’s equivalence to the artist’s body in the photo, the object of the gaze. Yet neither the sculpture nor the photograph performed these codes flawlessly. The tactility of the sculpture augments its visual impact, and also provides an alternative way of imaginatively experiencing the work by touching and caressing or more aggressively disturbing and undoing it. Wilke’s self-absorbed satisfaction relayed by the way she focused on her task at the drawing-board, her face bent towards the table and obscured by her arm, translated to the as-yet-untheorized pleasure of the objectified position, of exhibitionism.

[16] Vaginal imagery like Wilke’s sculpture represented sexual difference as well as sexual self-consciousness: the imagery derived from women’s bodies’ difference from men’s. Wilke’s 1972 series of latex sculptures were featured in her first solo exhibition at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. They were much larger than the earlier works at about six feet tall. All were abstracted vaginal forms and differed from each other as though cataloguing the variety of feminine morphologies. Venus Basin was formed of latex leaves snapped into a rough cylinder at the base, surrounded by more leaves hanging in folds and curling in on themselves.

 Plastic art

Figure 9

 Plastic art

plastic art

Figure 10

Agreeable Object was made of a dense accumulation of pink and orange latex sheets snapped together into a more open arrangement than Venus Basin. The large scale of these and the other works on view likeVenus Cushion and Of Radishes and Flowers enhanced their tactility. The viewer might imagine full body contact, leaning into the springy, yielding rubbery shapes. Wilke’s allusions to female genitals in the form of her sculpture and its content embodied a feminine understanding of sexuality, the artist believed and critics agreed. In a 1973 interview with Lil Picard looking over her career to date, Wilke called herself a “female chauvinist” and explained that her works are “gifts for men.” Her sentiments justify art historians’ conclusion that feminist art of Wilke’s era was essentialist—exclusively concerned with articulating masculine/feminine difference—and promoted as normative the experiences of straight, white, middle-class women.

[17] When it was seen in 1972, however, Wilke’s vaginal imagery was interpreted as far from singular in meaning. Art critics writing in Art News, Artforum, and other mainstream art journals noted the erotic charge of Wilke’s sculptures, commented on their feminine qualities, and located the work in relation to feminist politics, sometimes all at once. It was unusual that these qualities should have been found to overlap. Erotic art, as has been discussed, was a distinct category of images that was intended to provoke sexual arousal; it was generally figurative, depicting two or more people having intercourse or a single figure, often a woman, displayed to suggest her availability for intercourse. Lucy Lippard represented the minority view that abstract erotica was a viable option. Feminine qualities in art were elements that coincided with stereotypes about women’s unique character or their domestic roles; in the history of art, art by women was often criticized for such weaknesses as delicacy or frivolity and a limited subject matter, such as Mary Cassatt’s woman and child pairs (Chadwick, 25-8). Feminist content, by contrast with feminine aspects, referred to representations of women’s experiences, perhaps of her body and frequently based in autobiography, and a polemical charge or argument for validation of these experiences (Broude and Garrard).

[18] Dwelling on the feminine qualities of Wilke’s vaginal imagery,Artforum reviewer April Kingsley described the sculptures’ “submissive sagging…natural lip-like ruffling … [unavoidable] vulvic connotations…[and] vulnerability.” For Barbara Schwartz, writing inCrafts Horizon, their colors and forms inspired traditional feminine associations, such as nature (shells and flowers) and domesticity (cake decorations and babies’ rubber pants). As mentioned above, Douglas Crimp, in Art News, found them erotic for their “hot sexual” colors and the snaps that make the work susceptible to coming “undone” or being “violated.” Critics disagreed over whether the eroticism precluded feminist content, an ambivalence imported from radical feminist political thought. In her “New York Letter” for Art International, Marjorie Wellish insisted that while the sensual pleasure of looking at the work was liberating, it was not “Women’s Lib.” But Schwartz had cited Germaine Greer to establish Wilke’s feminist credentials. Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch that “female sexuality has been masked. Vaginas have been obliterated from the imagery of femininity” (5). Wilke, Schwartz noted favorably, contradicted Greer’s observation as early as 1966, with her “Agreeable Objects,” and continued to do so. From these accounts, it is clear that Wilke’s latex sculptures represented eroticism and femininity to their audience, but that whether eroticism and feminism could coexist was uncertain.

[19] Vaginal iconography as seen in Wilke’s sculptures of 1970 and 1972 extended and reflected the arguments radical feminists made in the early 1970s: that women, defined by their biological sex, constituted a political class, and that a woman’s body was the primary location for feminist political interventions. Feminists at the time assumed that women were identified as “women” by their bodies, and that women’s oppression was enacted there (Firestone and Koedt, 117). Women artists who called themselves feminist were motivated to devise new ways to represent the female body so as to figure a personal sense of a sexualized self and to raise the consciousness of their female audience: this partially describes Wilke’s project. Where Wilke differed from female imagery produced for example in the Feminist Art Program was her association with and roots in erotic art that predated the feminist movement. Her version of vaginal imagery retained this aspect.

[20] Sexuality had become a divisive issue in radical feminism on the East Coast as lesbian feminists loudly objected to homophobia and heterosexism among radical feminists. This conflict was provisionally resolved in two very different ways: some lesbians de-emphasized their sexual preference by adopting the label “women-identified women,” while others established separatist lesbian feminist organizations. The profound political division that developed between lesbians and radical feminists called into question the linkage between gender, sexuality, and the body that had been assumed by most straight feminists to be self-evident. What did it mean for feminism that different sexualities were located in identical bodies? To address the erotic content of vaginal imagery would raise disruptive questions about the nature of that content for the female viewer.

[21] The scale and surface of Wilke’s and Fishman’s artworks elicited a sensual response in the viewer: this was especially clear in Lippard’s and Whitworth’s discussions in which an interactivity and an urge to touch the objects are posited as part of the viewer’s experience. They engage a haptic visuality, as film theorist Laura U. Marks describes it, that draws upon senses other than sight to involve the whole body in the act of looking, and as such offers an alternative to established dynamics of the gaze. A relationship of bodies between the viewer and the object is constructed; further, she writes, “the act of viewing…is one in which both I [the subject] and the object of my vision constitute each other” (339). The relationship is erotic because it is between bodies, inter-subjective and sensual as the viewer’s attention is drawn insistently to the surface of Wilke’s rubbery forms and the way Fishman’s canvas strips are woven, touching themselves (Marks, 341). David Freedberg, writing about the power of images to incite and arouse the viewer, elaborates on representations and the “intentionality of desire” they invoke (322). There is a link, he suggests, between looking closely at and not turning away from the image, and possession of and arousal by it; arousal comes from careful, intense scrutiny through which the image is perceived as a body and responded to as such (325). The interaction he describes coincides with the detailed look Marks posits, attending to the surface of the image, and again Whitworth’s desire to hold Fishman’s sculptures in her hands and Lippard’s somewhat vaguer attribution of sensuality to erotic abstractions.

[22] Wilke’s point of departure may have been her private experience of her sexual body, and Fishman’s her musing on what it meant to be a woman making art. However, the abstraction of those intentions through the artwork’s medium and surface allowed viewers to address their work through their own bodily experiences. While heterosexual difference was embodied in vaginal imagery, Wilke’s and Fishman’s sculptures also positioned the female viewer as a lesbian by eliciting an erotic response to a feminine object. Butler’s theory of gender as performative explains the mechanism by which this occurs. It is crucial that we understand the viewing subject as “female” inasmuch as she performs herself according to a feminine ideal; she reiterates her femininity as one pole of binary heterosexuality. Looking at one of Wilke’s or Fishman’s sculptures, the object of her gaze is feminine in its iconography as vaginal form or bodily surface (the body has feminine associations as the mind or spirit is masculine by contrast). The viewing subject’s desire is elicited by the object as just described; this is not a performative act that reiterates the subject’s gender as unproblematically female but rather disrupts heterosexual gendering. The positioning of the female viewer as a lesbian, albeit provisionally, went unremarked at the time because of a politically strategic resistance to broaching the subject of sexuality among radical feminists.

[23] While the erotic qualities of Wilke’s work were recognized in mainstream art magazines, and Fishman’s in Amazon Quarterly, in feminist art criticism outside of lesbian publications sexuality was downplayed in favor of an asexual feminine sensibility. This parallels the Radicalesbians collective substituting the “rage of all women” for sexual desire in their 1971 essay, “The Woman-Identified Woman.” In fact, the work that was the occasion for the Amazon Quarterly article, Fishman’s “Angry Paintings” (1973), lacked the intimate scale and seductive surfaces that lent her abstractions their sensual charge.

 Angry Harmony Mural

Figure 11

In these colorful paintings on paper, a woman’s first name was modified by the adjective “angry,” all written in capital letters surrounded by calligraphic slashes of paint: “Angry Harmony,” “Angry Ti-Grace,” “Angry Jill.” Sculptor Harmony Hammond and Jill Johnston, Village Voice columnist and author of Lesbian Nation(1973), were out lesbians whom Fishman knew, while radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson had reversed her initial hostility to lesbian feminists to declare “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice” in 1972. In other paintings, the name belonged to someone not necessarily a lesbian: “Angry Lucy [Lippard],” “Angry Marilyn [Monroe].” She also named historical figures, lesbian authors Djuna Barnes and Radclyffe Hall: “Angry Djuna,” “Angry Radclyffe Hall the Lesbian Angry Lesbian Well of Loneliness Lesbian Fury.” All the subjects of these paintings were lesbians, “women-identified women,” or women with whom Fishman empathized, the distinctions among them erased by the attribution of a common, empowering anger. Neither Whitworth nor Fishman mentioned the Radicalesbians’ manifesto, but Whitworth notably found that both the 1970-71 three-dimensional works and the 1973 Angry Paintings spoke for and to all women. The earlier constructions encouraged a woman to explore what made her “biologically female,” while “the angry paintings speak out to our joint emotions as women” (Whitworth, 59).

[24] Feminine sensibility was linked by feminist artists to vaginal imagery as a substitute for sexuality (straight or lesbian) or incendiary emotions as early as 1971. Feminist critics abolished desire in favor of heterosexual difference. In a special issue of the feminist journalEverywoman, Faith Wilding, a student at the Feminist Art Program, explained that having a vagina is the fundamental difference between men and women in terms of their artistic perceptions, and her teacher, Judy Chicago, observed that many of the students produced vaginal imagery as they underwent a process of self-discovery. In 1973, Chicago and painter Miriam Schapiro collaborated on an essay forWomanspace Journal in which they defined as twin concepts feminine sensibility and female imagery; theirs is the association that has stuck with vaginal imagery. Chicago had already found evidence in the Feminist Art Program classrooms and the studios she visited while helping to organize a show of women artists called “Invisible/Visible” that supported her belief in a feminine sensibility: women make art that refers to their bodies or is otherwise “feminine” because it embodies attributes commonly associated with women. In their article, Chicago and Schapiro appealed to art history to prove this contention was universally applicable. Their claims were grounded in biology: women have vaginas and translate their awareness of their anatomy into visual imagery. Having a vagina had psychological repercussions, too, according to the authors. A woman’s “central core” led her to think of herself as vulnerable to penetration, receptive, and generally the opposite of men who were externally-oriented penetrators. This confluence of biological and social factors, Chicago and Schapiro asserted, produced the feminine sensibility they detected in art by Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson, Barbara Hepworth, Lee Bontecou, and themselves. Their chronological survey of these artists revealed a progression towards feminist consciousness. Their own recent work depicted a deliberate exploration and development of a feminine visual lexicon, a heightened version of the feminine sensibility with which they believed their art was imbued.

[25] In all of the propounding and disputing of feminine sensibility and female imagery among feminist artists and critics between 1970 and 1973, there was scant discussion of sexuality. Yet it is clear that this lacuna is a matter of omission, not of absence: sexuality was evident in the eroticism already discussed in female imagery. Vaginal imagery was the location to which sexuality was displaced from feminist politics and art criticism. The ramifications of this are significant: although the sexuality implicit in female imagery was not necessarily lesbian (as in Wilke’s case), the act of viewing it positioned the female viewer as a lesbian.

[26] In conclusion, I want to evaluate briefly the potential for subversion of gender roles that female imagery offers, and how that in turn undermines the essentialism that is associated with that imagery. The critical response to Wilke and Fishman’s references to bodily forms and textures suggests that the concealment of feminine sexuality in female body imagery was incomplete: although feminist critics chose to focus on feminine sensibility, others responded to the suggestive sensuality of their media and surfaces. The tactile, frayed canvas of Fishman’s 1970-71 assemblages made them “approachable” and erotic, as reported in theAmazon Quarterlyreview. The same quality was present in Wilke’s 1970 and 1972 latex constructions, described by critics as “suggestive” (Smith), “sexual,” and “erotic” (Schwartz). Wilke and Fishman took for granted the female body as the signifier of sexual difference that was in fact heterosexual, women distinct from men. The real transgressiveness of female body imagery emerges once we acknowledge its erotic value, for example examining its haptic qualities or the ways it elicits desire. Female body imagery destabilized heterosexual gender identification in the female spectator even as it undeniably and intentionally represented heterosexual difference. This destabilization of gender identity was what made it difficult for contemporary feminist art critics to address female body imagery as other than revealing of a “feminine sensibility” in art: to recognize female body imagery as sexually-charged invoked lesbianism on the part of the female viewer, and the lesbian was a figure that needed to be repressed to promote feminist solidarity.

[27] The relationship established between the female viewer and a given example of female body imagery is a lesbian one. The haptic visuality of Wilke’s and Fishman’s early-1970s work adds a dynamic dimension to the viewing experience that is erotic. To be sure, a male viewer may appreciate the works’ sensual effect, but neither Wilke’s nor Fishman’s abstractions participate in perpetuating art historical traditions for representing the sexualized female body which catered to a masculine spectator. The female viewer looking at vaginal imagery enacts a lesbian gaze. She does not look as a “woman-identified woman,” because the inter-subjective relationship engendered by the viewing experience recuperates the sexuality—what Freedberg called the “intentionality of desire”—that the euphemism erased.

[28] Looking as a lesbian, the female viewer inhabits the position of a “gender outlaw,” a threat to patriarchy and categorically feminist, according to Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love’s 1972 introduction to lesbian feminism, Sappho Was a Right-on Woman (60-1). In terms of Butler’s 1990s queer theory, she is an outlaw because she pushes the boundaries of binary gender categories. Looking as a lesbian does not make the female viewer a lesbian, any more than dressing in drag transforms one’s gender absolutely. Neither is it deliberate, as performing gender is not the result of conscious decision-making (Butler, 14, 25). But when the female viewer is heterosexually-identified, the erotic response she experiences looking at female imagery destabilizes that identification; even if the response is immediately repressed, the repression must be recognized as a defense mechanism to protect normative heterosexuality. If the viewer is already lesbian-identified, her arousal reinforces that identification which is already counter-hegemonic.

[29] The connections between the female body and feminine identity and sexuality articulated by 1970s feminists and feminist artists alike in the United States has produced the often negative categorization of this period in American feminist art and politics as “essentialist.” An essentialist theory of gender presents it as identical with anatomy and located in the difference between female and male bodies, and erases the social influences that make a woman for which feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler have argued. But if the explanation of gender by 1970s feminists is to some degree essentialist, accounting for the place of sexuality in feminist art and politics of the early 1970s challenges the essentialist label by introducing another axis of difference, along which heterosexuality and lesbianism may be charted.

[30] Female body imagery was based on an assumption of gender difference. Its proponents, including Wilke and Fishman, were certainly essentialist in assuming that gender, revealed in women’s artistic production as a set of identifiably feminine qualities, naturally followed biological sex. This essentialism is complicated by a reconstruction of viewers’ experiences which allows for the possibility that female body imagery produces a third term, the lesbian, which challenges the naturalized gender categories that female body imagery seems to reify. In retrospect, the label “essentialist” which has tarred the 1970s generation of feminist art and politics comes nowhere near describing the many competing voices that constitute feminist discourse, nor the subversive value of female imagery.


Many thanks to Ann Kibbey and the anonymous readers at Gendersfor their constructive and encouraging comments. Thanks especially to Laura Muggeo at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, and Chris Burnside at Cheim and Read Gallery, New York, for help with images.

Works Cited

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  • Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
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  • Photo Credits
  • Figure 1 Hannah Wilke. Seven Untitled Vaginal-Phallic and Excremental Sculptures. 1960-1963. Ceramic. Various dimensions. (Copyright 2005 Donald Goddard. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc. Photo: D. James Dee.)
  • Figure 2 Louise Fishman. Untitled. C. 1971. Illustration from Amazon Quarterly (October 1973): 58. (Copyright 2005 Louise Fishman. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.)
  • Figure 3 Louise Fishman. Untitled. C. 1971. Illustration from Amazon Quarterly (October 1973): 58. (Copyright 2005 Louise Fishman. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.)
  • Figure 4 Louise Fishman. Untitled. 1971. Acrylic, glue, grommets, thread, canvas. 42.5 x 25.6 cm. (Copyright 2005 Louise Fishman. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.)
  • Figure 5 Louise Fishman. Untitled. 1971. Rubber, tracing paper, pencil, thread. 35.6 x 1.3 cm. (Copyright 2005 Louise Fishman. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.)
  • Figure 6 Hannah Wilke. Barbara Rose. 1970. Latex and cloth. 25 x 17.5 cm. (No longer extant. Copyright 2005 Donald Goddard and Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc.)
  • Figure 7 Hannah Wilke. Teasel Cushion. 1970. Latex and metal snaps. 50 x 85 cm. (No longer extant. Copyright 2005 Donald Goddard and Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc.)
  • Figure 8 Portrait of the Artist in her Studio, Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles, August 1970 in Avalanche. Advertisement for Hannah Wilke at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc., 1972. (Copyright 2005 Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon, and Andrew Scharlatt. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.)
  • Figure 9 Hannah Wilke. Venus Basin. 1972. Latex and metal snaps. 180 x 110 cm. (No longer extant. Copyright 2005 Donald Goddard and Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc.)
  • Figure 10 Hannah Wilke. Agreeable Object. 1972. Latex and metal snaps. 180 x 110 cm. (No longer extant. Copyright 2005 Donald Goddard and Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc.)
  • Figure 11 Louise Fishman. Angry Harmony. 1973. Acrylic, pastel, pencil, charcoal on paper. 65 x 100 cm. (Copyright 2005 Louise Fishman. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.)