Discover the trailblazing women who made waves in the art world
In its most basic sense, feminist art is the art made by artists created consciously in light of developments in feminist art theory in the early 1970s.
Sparked by art historian Linda Nochlin’s essay titled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in 1971, she investigated the social and economic factors that had prevented talented women from achieving the same status as their male counterparts. In reaction to this, many women artists began to create work that dealt with the female experience and increasingly looked towards challenging the systems in place through activism.
Here we explore some of the key artists during that time and beyond, as well as the artists whose work acted as a precursor to the movement.
Judy Chicago is an American artist who was a key figure in the feminist art movement. Chicago’s work often incorporates stereotypical women’s artistic skills such as needlework, counterbalanced with stereotypical male skills such as welding and pyrotechnics.
She created one of the most iconic works of this period. Titled The Dinner Party (1979), the installation saw 39 place settings arranged along a triangular table for various mythical and historical women. The piece functioned as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization.
Cindy Sherman is an American photographer and film director and she’s become best known for her conceptual portraits. Throughout her career she has explored identity and the nature of representation using movies, TV, magazines and art history as inspiration. Sherman often works as her own model and has captured herself in a range of guises and personas which are at once amusing and disturbing, distateful and impactful.
Working since the 1970s, the photographer often toys with female stereotypes but Sherman has never outrightly said she’s a feminist artist, rather she wants the work to speak for itself. She once said: “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work… But I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”
Barbara Krugeris an American conceptual artists and collagist. Most of her work consists of black and white photographs, overlaid with punchy graphics and catchy slogans that convey her ideas on power, identity and sexuality. This bold aesthetic was inspired by her time working as a graphic designer at Conde Nast. An important feature of Kruger’s work is her use of pronouns such as “you”, “your”, “I”, “we” and “they”, which often implicated the viewer and forces them to address their own opinions.
Kiki Smith is a West German-born American artist whose work has addressed themes of sex, birth and regeneration. Smith was part of the second wave of feminist art (along with Kruger and Sherman) and found new ways to explore the social, cultural and political roles of women in her work.
Smith's later work has become centered on the human body and she creates uncomfortable artworks that focus on the body or parts of it in great detail inspired by women from mythology and folklore as well as referencing her Catholic upbringing. Smith was one of the first artists to distinguish figurative work within the art world after years of Abstraction and Minimalism had dominated the scene.
While Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was working at a time before the term ‘feminist art’ existed, her paintings, using a naive folk art style, explored questions of identity, gender, class, race and post-colonialism in Mexican society.
Kahlo is mostly known for her deeply personal self-portraits, and she often translated her own life experiences onto the canvas. Her work is retrospectively seen as feminist because the artist made it legitimate for women to outwardly display their pains, frustrations and passions, and therefore made steps towards making sense of and understanding them. Her conviction and raw talent, has meant she’s become a role model for many.
Born in 1960, Lorna Simpson is an African-American photographer and multimedia artist who found success in the 1980s and 90s. Though the artist has changed the execution of her ideas over the decades, themes surrounding sex, identity, race, culture, history and memory are continually explored within her work.
Simpson is best known for her photo-text installations and photo collages which often unpick the perception of African-American women within American culture. The pieces combined portrait images of the female figure with typed words or small sentences to create a powerful dialogue to challenge the viewer.
Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist and was best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers and New Mexico landscapes. Often recognized as the “Mother of American Modernism”, O’Keeffe worked throughout the 1920s all the way to the 1960s. She was celebrated for her independent spirit and her innovative works that were the first to really introduce sensual, feminist imagery into her works of art.
So groundbreaking was her work that Judy Chicago gave the artist a prominent place in her The Dinner Party artwork. While she was praised by her contemporaries, O’Keeffe refused to join the feminist art movement or co-operate with any “all-women” projects. She disliked being called a “woman artist” and instead wanted to be considered an “artist”.
The Guerilla Girls
The Guerilla Girls formed in 1985 in New York City, and the anonymous group creates work that’s become known for fighting against sexism and racism in the art world. The group’s work often takes the form of posters, books, billboards and they also make public appearances to expose discrimination and corruption.
The Guerilla Girls remain anonymous and to conceal themselves members wear gorilla masks and use pseudonyms that refer to deceased female artists. One of the reasons behind this is that the group believes the issues they are fighting against are bigger than their individual identities.
British artist Sarah Lucas is part of the generation of Young British Artists who emerged during the 1990s. Her works frequently employ visual puns and bawdy humor, and she uses photography, collage and found objects to execute her ideas.
Lucas is concerned with the casual misogyny of everyday life. For instance in her piece Two Fried Eggs and A Kebab (1992), the artist reflects the way British men sexualize the female body in vulgar slang. The misogynistic terms are represented literally – fried eggs represent breasts and the kebab meat evokes a vagina. The work implicates the viewers and once they acknowledge that two fried eggs and a kebab resemble a women, they are forced to recognize this derogatory perception of women.
Florida-born, London-based artist Susan Hiller’s art practice includes installation, video, photography, performance and writing. Hiller belonged to the first wave of feminist artists and was initially told it would ruin her career. “I had a profile as an interesting conceptual artist,” she told The Observer in 2011. “And then after feminism, my position upset a lot of opinion makers.”
Hiller’s work is informed by the visual language of Minimalism and Conceptual art and now cites Minimalism, Fluxus, Surrealism and her study of anthropology as major influences on her work. Though her work doesn’t explicitly deal with themes of gender or sex, her experience as a woman and her feminist ideals have shaped her approach towards her career as an artist.
French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is best known for her large-scale sculptures and installation works. Themes explored in Bourgeois’ work include domesticity and the family, sexuality and the body, as well as death and the subconscious.
Though the artist was an active feminist, she rejected the idea that her own art was feminist. She often depicted the feminine body and during the 1960s her imagery become more sexual as she explored the relationship between men and women. In the 1970s, the artist used to hold gatherings at her home where she invited young artists and students to share their work and she often encouraged them to create art that was feminist in nature.
African-American painter and printmaker Kara Walker’s work explores gender, sexuality and identity. As a feminist artist she has taken the conversation further with her art by also tackling subjects such as race and violence.
Walker is best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes against a white wall, which address the history of American slavery and racism through violent and unsettling imagery. Part of the later waves of feminist art, Walker aims to rewrite history in order to “recognize herself” within it.