As a new wave of the feminist movement began to crest in the 1960s and ’70s, women artists turned to the then-uncharted field of performance. “One of the things about performance and the area that I went into was that it wasn’t male-dominated,” artist Joan Jonas explained in 2014. “It wasn’t like painting and sculpture.” Adopting a new medium meant greater freedom to experiment, without fear of comparison to the generations of male artists that preceded them.
Performance art can be difficult to define, but it’s easy to point to two big-name women working within the medium: Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono. There were, however, a number of other female artists from the same generation who played instrumental roles in shaping the medium. In its early years, for instance, performance became a central part of California Institute of the Arts’s Feminist Art Program, co-founded by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1971—one of the first feminist art programs in the United States—particularly in its Womanhouse performance and installation space that opened to the public as an experiential artwork the following year.
Public performances were also a way to advocate for the role of women, with artists often embracing a revolutionary style reminiscent of the anti-war protests of the 1960s. And an early adoption of performance made several women artists—such as Martha Rosler and Hannah Wilke—leaders in the similarly novel field of video art, as they experimented with tape recording their works.
At the tender age of 12, Mendieta fled the political turmoil of her native Havana for an orphanage in Dubuque, Iowa, together with her sister and thousands of other unaccompanied Cuban children. Unsurprisingly, her works deal largely with displacement, questioning her national and gender identities. Mendieta’s own body—the constant that anchored her throughout the fluctuations of place, language, and ideology that she experienced as a youth—became her instrument for performance pieces that have been linked to Conceptual Art, Feminist Art, and Land Art.
One of her best-known works, the “Silueta Series” (1973–77), saw Mendieta imprint her body into natural Mexican and Iowan landscapes and fill in the residual outlines with organic materials such as flowers, branches, or moss. “It is a way of reclaiming my roots and becoming one with nature,” Mendieta once said. Today, her artistic legacy is entangled with the story of her untimely death at age 36. In 1985, Mendieta fell out of the 34th-floor window of the apartment she shared with her husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Andre was charged with her murder but ultimately acquitted.
Active during the American Civil Rights movement, Piper’s works explore racial and cultural bias. In one series of public performances—which she advertised in advance in New York’s Village Voice—the artist took to the streets dressed as a mustachioed African-American man with a large Afro and engaging in stereotypical masculine behavior. Titled The Mythic Being (1973–75), the work was documented in video and photographs, with prints later sketched upon with oil crayon. The accompanying newspaper ads, which featured text from her own adolescent journal entries, are a testament to Piper’s wider aim: to interact with audience in ways that are both personal and framed within a larger political context. In addition to her performance pieces, Piper is a self-described “first-generation Conceptual artist and analytic philosopher” and was a professor of philosophy at several American universities, though she has been based in Berlin since 2005.
As a Cuban artist working between Havana and the United States, Bruguera has centered her practice on issues of political power and representation. Early works focused on her own body, paying tribute to fellow Cuban artist Mendieta, but she has since shifted to incorporating audience interaction. Bruguera is perhaps best known for Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version) (2009), performed at the Havana Biennial. The work encompassed a stage on which audience members were granted the opportunity to speak freely for one minute before being escorted offstage by actors in military uniforms. “I think there’s something interesting about Cuban art and perhaps the art in other socialist countries,” Bruguera said in a 2017 interview. “In these settings, art replaces spaces of freedom that cannot be found anywhere else.” Bruguera’s attempts to reenact this performance in Havana led to multiple arrests in 2014 and 2015.
Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT changed her given name—Waltraud Hollinger, née Lehner—in 1967 in order to renounce the patriarchal identity attached to her by her father and her former husband. From that moment onward, she became a brand (akin to the popular cigarettes that allegedly inspired her new last name) identifiable with feminist art.
Her early performance pieces were provocative, involving direct interaction with an audience. In TAP and TOUCH Cinema (1968–71), a piece performed in 10 different European cities, EXPORT attached a model of a curtained movie theater to her naked torso and stood on the street. Passersby were encouraged to reach through the curtains and touch her breasts—thus coming in contact with a real woman rather than the idealized femininity usually found on the silver screen. In another cinema-based performance, Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), EXPORT walked through an experimental film theater wearing crotchless pants, putting the seated audience at eye-level with her exposed vagina.
Although trained as a sculptor, Jonas is known for her experimental works that combine video, performance, installation, sculpture, drawing, and the internet to produce an idiosyncratic visual language. She explores the experience of spectatorship, often confusing the viewer’s perceptions of real versus imagined images. In Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972), her earliest performance using video, Jonas appeared as her alter ego, Organic Honey, wearing a cheap plastic mask, sequined jacket, and pink feathered headdress. A television monitor projected conventional multicultural images of women—a Bengali goddess, a Japanese woman—while Organic Honey interacted with the video camera taping the performace.
Joining a roster of politically active Latin American artists experimenting with performance art in the 1980s, Marmolejo’s works dealt largely with environmental issues, the role of women, and the concurrent political oppression in her native Colombia. Anónimo 3 (1982), for instance, was conceived as an atonement ritual in which she apologized to the Earth for years of pollution. The 15-minute performance in Valle del Cauca, Colombia, consisted of her covering her face with gauze and her body with surgical tape, then performing a vaginal wash over a toilet bowl in the center of a circular patch of earth. The fluids that fell to the ground were intended to re-fertilize the area. Marmolejo was most active in the ’80s, but recently performed another environmentally centered work in Milan, Extractivismo (2015), as part of a retrospective.
“As women, we find ourselves performing all the time to meet society and the culture’s expectations about what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to look, what we’re supposed to think,” Wilson explained in a 2015 interview. Her work dissects these issues of gender identity and beauty ideals: In video and photographic performance pieces, the chameleonic Wilson transforms herself into a drag queen, traditional housewife, lesbian, and a series of American first ladies. Her most recent installation in that series, Martha meets Michelle halfway (2014), features Wilson impersonating Michelle Obama.
Wilson has been active in New York’s avant-garde art scene since the 1970s and was a founding member of DISBAND, a conceptual punk band of women artists that has included Barbara Kruger and Ilona Granet, among others. She also founded and continues to direct Franklin Furnace, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization that preserves and advocates for avant-garde art.
Carmen Beuchat, Two Not One, 1975. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Trained in her native Chile as a ballet dancer, Beuchat moved to New York City in the 1960s and began fusing dance with photography, video, poetry, and performance art to create a body of transdisciplinary work. As an active member of the downtown performance art scene, she collaborated with artists including Trisha Brown and Juan Downey and often performed at 112 Greene Street, an experimental venue in the city’s SoHo neighborhood cofounded by Gordon Matta-Clark. As an original participant in Brown’s piece Walking on the Wall (1971), performed at the Whitney Museum, Beuchat and six other performers supported by ropes strode horizontally across a gallery wall in a gravity-defying act.
The Chilean artist also cofounded an experimental dance group called the Natural History of the American Dancer in 1971, which was at the forefront of improvisational dance. Beuchat’s performances usually incorporate mobile structures, creating a connection between these visual elements and the choreography of the performers.
For years, the films and artwork of Hershman Leeson (and at least four of her alter egos) were relegated to boxes and closets in her San Francisco home, largely ignored by the art world. That is, until 2014, when the still-active artist was feted with a long-overdue retrospective at German museum ZKM and a subsequent 2016 monograph (both titled “Civic Radar”). Active since the 1960s, Hershman Leeson was an early adopter of new media and has long explored our relationship with technology. In one multi-year performance, The Roberta Breitmore Series (1974–78), the artist performed as an alter ego who lived at the Dante Hotel and was voyeuristically documented in photographs by a paparazzi-for-hire. Twenty years later, Roberta Breitmore became an internet-based project, CybeRoberta (1996)—a robotic version of her earlier self with webcams for eyes.
Art history is dominated by images of nude women, created by men. The works of multidisciplinary artist Schneemann explore whether a nude woman could be both the artist and the image. Although she first practiced as a painter, she transitioned to performance art and multimedia installations in the 1960s. Many of Schneemann’s works centered on her own body, including one of her most famous performances, Interior Scroll (1975). The performance began with the artist undressing in front of a primarily female audience and painting her face and body. Schneemann then slowly removed a paper scroll from her vagina while reading the text on it aloud. “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public,” Schneemann wrote in 1991, “but the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image.” Although her works were often controversial—their brazen sexuality offended feminists and traditionalists alike—they have since entered the feminist art canon.