DIALOGUE: Catherine Morris

The Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s “A Year of Yes,” 10-year anniversary celebration becomes an intervention.

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“276 (On Color Blue),” 1993, Joseph Kosuth,
“276 (On Color Blue),” 1993, Joseph Kosuth, Neon tubing, transformer, and electrical wires, 30″ x 162″ ©2016 Joseph Kosuth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

In October 2016, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art kicked off “A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum” with a show dedicated to a retrospective of Land Artist Beverly Buchanan’s work, “Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals.” The Sackler Center inaugurated “A Year of Yes” to celebrate a decade of fulfilling its mission to introduce Feminist Art, theory, and activism to a general audience beyond the art world. When it opened in March 2007, it was the first public space in an encyclopedic museum dedicated to a feminist program. At the center of the space, almost as controversial now as it was when first shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1979, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, which had languished in storage, went on permanent display, forming an axis around which rotating shows have come and gone. These have featured artists as varied as Eva Hesse and Wangechi Mutu, as well as group shows about global Feminism and women Pop artists. Over the last 10 years, the Sackler Center has also built a growing database of women artists cataloging their careers and artworks, to ensure their reputations for posterity.

In presenting its theme last fall, the Sackler Center had this to say about A Year of Yes: “A Year of Yes presents a multiplicity of voices from the history of Feminism and Feminist Art while also showcasing contemporary artistic practices and new thought leadership. The project recognizes Feminism as a driving force for progressive change and takes the transformative contributions of Feminist Art during the last half-century as its starting point. A Year of Yes then reimagines the next steps, expanding feminist thinking from its roots in the struggle for gender parity to embrace broader social-justice issues of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity.”

In the context of the presidential election, the timing for the above-stated purpose of A Year of Yes could not have seemed more in tune with the times. After all, wasn’t America about to elect its first female president? But considering America’s subsequent hard right turn, that statement of purpose now reads more like a plan of resistance. In one of history’s ironies, A Year of Yes has gone from a celebration to something more like an intervention.

“Georgia O’Keeffe, Prospect Mountain, Lake George, 1927” Alfred Stieglitz
“Georgia O’Keeffe, Prospect Mountain, Lake George, 1927”
Alfred Stieglitz, Gelatin-silver print, 4 5⁄8″ x 3 11⁄16″

Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Alfred Stieglitz Collection
©Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Besides the Beverly Buchanan retrospective, other shows under the “Year of Yes” umbrella also include “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty,” the artist’s first retrospective, featuring her notorious pornographic paintings that caused such a stir in feminist circles during the ’90s, her subsequent food paintings (which in some ways are even more disturbing), and her more recent videos, digital prints, and paintings of heavily made-up models executed in gorgeously precise enamel paint. There was also a Jeremy Deller social practice project featuring Iggy Pop as a life-drawing model. Concurrently, the Brooklyn Museum is leveraging its collection of Egyptian art in “A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt,” while also staging an institutional critique titled “Infinite Blue.” A gambit by feminist conceptual artists to examine traditional hierarchies separating “craft” and “art,” the exhibition assembled a slew of objects from a gamut of eras and cultures, all colored various hues of blue. March will see the opening of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” a show that puts the renowned New Mexico painter’s wardrobe and artwork into dialogue. The concept is not so much about fashion as about O’Keeffe’s genius in creating her own image as a public figure, a process she had been aware of and directing before she met Stieglitz, giving the lie to the widely-held notion that her identity as an artist was somehow his creation.

Just a few days before the presidential inauguration, art ltd. met with Catherine Morris, the Sackler Center curator, to pursue a wide-ranging discussion about A Year of Yes, the Center, and its future. Dubbed by Artsy’s editorial board one of “The Most Influential Curators of 2016,” Morris provided numerous insights, readily discussing the center’s exhibitions and philosophy. The meeting had come during an eventful week, and she was preparing to head down to Washington, DC for the Women’s March that weekend.

“Old Colored School,” 2010, Beverly Buchanan
“Old Colored School,” 2010, Beverly Buchanan
Wood and paint, 20 1⁄4″ x 14 3⁄4″ x 18 1⁄2″

©Estate of Beverly Buchanan, courtesy of Jane Bridges
Photo: Adam Reich, courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

For Morris, the Sackler’s future includes an even greater focus on the idea of intersectionality, where race, class, ethnicity, religion, and other contingencies of birth and upbringing give added dimensions to the issues around gender. Given the number of communities the Brooklyn Museum serves, Morris explained, emphasizing intersectionality only made sense, especially as it had already been part of the conversation around second-wave Feminism in the ’60s and ’70s. This focus would serve as a much-needed correction to the Brooklyn Museum’s history, as “monolithic, very Western, very white, and essentially Judeo-Christian.” To clarify, she noted, “Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, as an example, is all about that idea of who gets written and who gets written out of history.” That process of effectively reconfiguring history by rescuing from obscurity artists and artworks that defy easy labeling remains a core concern for the center.

As an example, Morris cited the Beverly Buchanan show, whose work falls outside of both typical Land Art practice, and, in some ways, Feminism. In a separate interview, Jennifer Burris, co-curator of the Buchanan show with the artist Park McArthur, discussed how, in identifying herself as a black woman from the South, “at no point did Beverly frame herself as a Feminist. She never used that terminology which has typically been devoid of personal content, tied as it usually is to Modernism’s formalist endgame, Minimalism. History has shown that movement to be a dead-end that, Morris explained. “It was almost over before it started. The Lucy Lippard show that we mounted, ‘Materializing ‘Six Years’’ was exactly about that,” she continued. “Buchanan’s art intersects with Land Art in terms of ruin, and decay, but it also addresses monuments… Buchanan wanted to mark a personal space but also mark history—histories that can’t be seen or disappear over time.” In its re-assessment of Land Art practice, Morris called the Buchanan show “a classical example of historical revisionism.”

“The Dinner Party,” 1974-79, Judy Chicago
“The Dinner Party,” 1974-79, Judy Chicago
Ceramic, porcelain, textile, 576″ x 576″

©Judy Chicago
Photo: Donald Woodman
Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum

In Morris’ discussion about the upcoming shows for A Year of Yes, historical revisionism as a tool for reconsidering and reframing the canon came up again and again: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985,” “The Roots of the Dinner Party”—a deep dive into Chicago’s research and collaborative efforts to get her project off the ground—and lastly, “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985,” a look at the rise of women Latin American artists during a period of widespread political change. A bedrock tenet of Feminism, historical revisionism—challenging social, personal, and political norms—was always a key part of the Sackler’s mission, but has now become its mandate. Morris put it this way: the question originally animating her thinking, pre-election, around “A Year of Yes” was, “Is a center for Feminist Art something on-going or is it finite—or will a center for Feminist Art even be necessary?” In answering herself, Morris laughed and said, “In light of the recent election, I am no longer interested in that question. I think the answer is clear: we do need a center for Feminist Art now more than ever, and we will need it into the infinite future.”

—HOVEY BROCK