Leslie Labowitz: Evolution of a Feminist Art

Posted by: Joan Braderman

The following written by Leslie Labowitz appeared in “HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics,” Issue # 6, “On Women and Violence.”  It is featured here courtesy of Joan Braderman, a founding member of HERESIES.

 It was through Menstruation-Wait, my first performance coming out of a female consciousness, that I became a feminist. Prior to this performance my work had been consistent with the concerns of the sixties, an involvement with formal art problems rather than content. Early in my career I began to see that to evolve fully as an artist I had to free myself from the effects societal taboos and conditioning had on my life. This process of self-realization began with Menstruation-Wait. The first Wait took place in Los Angeles in 1971, the second in the entrance hall of the art academy in Dusseldorf, West Germany in 1972.

The audience in Germany was anyone who walked by me, mostly art students, teachers and artists. I confronted the audience directly through my physical presence. In so doing I attempted to break down myths about menstruation as well as myths about women artists. Primarily, I wanted to reach women art students with the intention of creating a dialogue about their situation in the academy. The audience reaction during both the L.A. and Germany performances taught me that the expression of women’s experience was not acceptable even in art. The L.A. audience was shocked. The German audience was rude at times (hanging painted red rags on my backdrop), but stimulating to the further evolution of my emerging politics. All the women consciously ignored me, except for two, who were later to organize one of the first women’s art groups in Germany. The men were openly responsive. Though they avoided the direct feminist content, they questioned me as to how menstruation fit into a political class analysis.

These questions were important as they began my personal exploration of feminism and the role of economics and art in a capitalist society. The five years I spent in Germany from 1972-77 provided exceptional opportunities for an introduction to Marxism and “political thinking,” unlike anything comparable in the U.S.

Living in the intense political climate of Europe, particularly in the educational institutions (including art institutions) resulted in a radical change in my life as well as my work.

I discovered political art and found it to be an integral part of European art history and tradition. Kollwitz, Heartfield, Brecht, Grosz, Beckmann, Beuys and Staeck were just a few of the artists available for the study of important and effective political art activity. Their imprint on me was especially great because I saw that this kind of work could only be fully comprehended by living in the political and social environment out of which these artists came. Because of my own personal interest in performance art as an expression of women’s experience it was the Russian Constructivists’ who most influenced my vision of how performance could be a political art form. Their concern with the social role of art and the artist’s connection to a political struggle seemed appropriately close to feminist ideology and the art coming out of the movement. The large-scale monumental street works, often collaborative, and the innovative direction of performance in the public sphere (streets, factories, schools) symbolized the kind of synthesis between art and politics I wanted to move toward.

There was no visible feminist art in Germany in 1972, but the seeds were being planted within a well-organized network of radical feminist groups throughout the country. Like myself, these women were influenced by the artists I have mentioned.  Within the already politically conscious feminist groups the ties to working class women and housewives were deep rooted. The art that was beginning to come out reflected those ties. The direction of the development of women’s culture was very different from that in the U.S. although these women were certainly influenced by the “personal” approachthat began the movement here.

After Menstruation-Wait I consciously moved out of the art world and began teaching art at a German Gymnasium. My first actual connection with a women’s community began there with a class of young women. While I initially saw teaching as an alternative activity to art, it was here that I found the basis for the art form characteristic of the direction my work would take in the future. I guided the class through collaborative performances based on a critical analysis of fashion and makeup. We made costumes, masks, collages, as performance props. These pieces were private but were filmed and shown, publicly.

Recognizing the potential for performance to politicize its participants as well as its audience, I started thinking about a model for its use as a public political art form. This model was based on the premise that the interaction of art and politics could facilitate the collective expression of large groups of people, activating them toward social change. The performance would work on the level of public ritual, uniting participants and a mass audience in a spiritual bond that creates community by politicizing its members.

I saw the model as having five components: collaboration with a political organization; use of the skilled artist as director/organizer; a focus on issues of current concern; use of the language of the audience addressed and economic accessibility of materials.

Paragraph 218 became the actualization of this model. I had joined a feminist organization in Bonn working on the legalization of abortion in Germany. I was asked to participate with an art action at a rally. I seemed appropriate to focus on a public performance about abortion because that topic was heavily covered by German media; we would have an opportunity to present a feminist perspective on the issue. Seven women participated with me in the actualization of the piece. I directed and performed.

218 was my first attempt in an art framework to use a language that could be understood by a general audience. The use of clear, direct images was to avoid misinterpretation. The use of work images as backdrops and signs woven throughout aided the making of direct political statements because of their informational quality. Their contrast with strong visual images compressed information and heightened the activity, shortening the length of the piece, which was about 10 minutes long.

This is much the same technique used in current mass media, particularly in advertising, but the content of 218 was not slick, simplistic or manipulative. Advertising tries to sell on highly sophisticated subliminal levels while as an artist, conscious of the power of images, I wanted to communicate a totally different kind of information on a much deeper level. The performance was therefore to be experienced differently than the way the usual bombardment of visual information in daily media is experienced.

The audience was mostly women. It was very emotional, many women crying silently. After it was over, there was a period of silence where our spiritual connection could be felt throughout the group.

The use of materials that were accessible economically, easy to locate and recyclable made it possible to produce the piece for about $25.00. The materials for the props were black and red paper, red, white and gold paint, white gauze and plaster. They gave it a raw quality that I hoped would reflect events that grow out of a community’s immediate need to express itself.

Coming to L.A. in 1977, I was intent on continuing the public work on women’s issues. In Europe I had let my defenses down and felt almost no fear about walking through the streets at night. I knew that coming back meant I would have to begin building those defenses back up-rape being the highest rising crime in the U.S. I am angry and resentful of this situation, particularly in L.A. where it is said one out of three women will be raped in their lifetime. My meeting with Suzanne, the strong feminist community and the Woman’s Building have given met the support needed to expand into the scale of the current work presented.

Image credits:
Sproutime LA, “Mary, Mary, How Does Your Garden Grow” performance in Venice, 1980, Leslie Labowitz-Starus. Courtesy of Leslie-Labowitz-Starus

Leslie Labowitz-Starus performing “Menstruation Wait” at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, 1972

“In Mourning and In Rage” media performance at Los Angeles City Hall, December 13, 1977, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus. Gelatin silver prints documenting the event by Susan Mogul. 7 15/16 x 10 3/16 in. The Getty Research Institute, Lawrence Alloway Papers, 2003.M.46. Photo courtesy of Susan Mogul

MooreWomenArtists welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy