Behind the Scenes of Remaking a Feminist Milestone

On April 18, 1971, legendary critic, activist, and curator Lucy R. Lippard’s Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists opened at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Arguably the first feminist exhibition in the United States, Twenty Six was one of the first institutional responses to the women’s movement and the lack of visibility of women artists in museums and galleries, marking the beginning of feminist curatorial practice in this country. Fifty-one years later, 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone celebrates the historic 1971 exhibition by bringing together work by the artists in the original exhibition alongside work by 26 female-identifying and nonbinary artists, born in or after 1980 and based in New York City, who are influenced by the feminist practices pioneered in the 1970s. In presenting a new roster of 26 emerging artists, 52 Artists tracks the evolution of feminist art over half a century, underscoring the legacy of the original show. 

With less than a month until the show’s closing, we sat down to reflect on our five-year journey to readdress Lippard’s original show and the pioneering women artists who were in it.

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Amy Smith-Stewart: The impetus to revisit Twenty Six came from the lack of materials in our archives and beyond on this trailblazing exhibition. Prompted by numerous conversations over many years, with artists, curators, and other art historians, it became clear that many details around the show were unclear, such as where the show had taken place, who exactly was included, and that it was the first feminist exhibition in this country. In 2014, I curated a focused survey exhibition of Jackie Winsor’s work. I borrowed a couple images of the Twenty Six exhibition that she had in her own archive. When Alexandra Schwartz (who I had known when she was at MoMA and I was at PS1) reached out a few years later, we realized then that in order to find out more we would need to engage in an active process of rediscovery, which could only happen by remaking the show. Some of the immediate challenges were identifying and tracking down what was in the original show since there was no complete checklist, the possibilities around recreating works that were temporal or no longer existed and/or sourcing comparable works available from the 1970s period. For instance, Dona Nelson, who contributed a series of ink and crayon on paper works to Twenty Six, informed us that she had destroyed them all. The conversation pivoted to an alternative work from her early career, but with new consideration given to how it would inform the recent piece she would be including as well (we invited all the artists in Lucy’s show to also contribute a work made in the last decade or so). Dona contributed Untitled, a painting from 1968 that closely aligned formally with her works on paper in Twenty Six, and also foreshadowed her later work, like the two-sided painting “Federal Yellow” (2019) in 52 Artists. Dona shared with us that her inclusion in the show was at the urging of another artist on Lucy’s list, Paula Tavins. I would find out later from Dona that she has a work of Paula’s in her personal collection.

Installation view of 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone; left: Dona Nelson, “Untitled” (1968), acrylic on canvas, 95 inches x 29 inches; right: “Federal Yellow” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 81 inches x 36 inches (photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT)

Caitlin Monachino: Through extensive public records research we found Tavins in her Tribeca loft where she had resided for decades, not far from another artist in Twenty Six, Mablen Jones. The first time I spoke with Paula over the phone she was overjoyed with hearing that we were revisiting Lucy’s 1971 exhibition. Within a week of a scheduled visit, Amy received an email from a person close to Tavins that she had sadly passed away. After her passing, we no longer had contact with her estate and had to start the process of locating a work. Through an online search, Amy discovered Sylvia Sleigh’s Collection, which was donated to Rowan University Art Gallery, included a Tavins work from 1973; a slightly different period because the work she included in Twenty Six was made of Latex and no longer existed, though she told us that she did hang on to the molds. While refreshing my memory for this article, I came across a jotted-down note in my files describing Tavins as a “unique, incredible mind” — a comment made by Cecile Abish, another artist in the original exhibition.

AS: Cecile Abish, who knew Tavins through the landmark Tribeca Clocktower gallery, founded and run by Alanna Heiss, was also a deep admirer and friend of Tavins and was saddened when I informed her of her passing. Interestingly, during my conversations and subsequent studio visit with Cecile, I also learned that she was the oldest artist in the show and her birth year had been misprinted all this time. Abish had contributed two works to Twenty Six; one was presented outdoors, a 75-foot-long sculpture made from brown paper cut to travel with the wind, which slowly deteriorated over the course of the exhibition. The other, “Fields” (1970), was an indoor floor sculpture, built with vinyl, galvanized wire cloth, and urethane foam, and also no longer exists. So the conversation immediately shifted to other works from that early era. One of the works we determined to be the best fit was an earthwork from 1973, titled “4 Into 3,” which was also illustrated in Lippard’s book From the Center, published in 1976. “4 Into 3” is a geometric excavation of the earth and required four square cuts into the ground; the dirt we removed was placed in three piles beside each excision. The challenge we faced was the inability to locate the instructions during the pandemic as we were unable to visit her studio again before the show opened. However, a profile on her practice published in Artforum in 1974 included a description of the work and listed dimensions under the image caption; this gave us enough information to go on. We wrote up an agreement and Cecile granted us her permission to remake it in our sculpture garden — the first time it has been seen since 1974.

Installation view of Cecile Abish, “4 Into 3” (1973/2022), Earth, 4 feet x 37 feet and 6 inches overall, in 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone (photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT)

CM: Speaking of recreating artworks, another challenge that we headed off was how to present an artwork that no longer existed and could not be recreated because the artist was deceased and no instructions were left behind. Such was the case of Audrey Hemenway, which took some creative sleuthing to locate a surviving family member or relative to assist us. In Twenty Six, Hemenway exhibited “Swamp” (1971), which consisted of a large fiberglass box containing earth, bog plants, and water. Unable to recreate it, we decided to display archival photographs of other related works in the series presented at different sites during the early 1970s. 

Installation view of Audrey Hemenway, “Swamp” (1971), transport fiberglass, earth, water, and bog plans, 88 inches x 63 inches, in Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, April 18 to June 13, 1971 (courtesy Lucy Lippard Women’s Art Registry, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries)

AS: With regard to curatorial choices that had to be made around display, Mablen Jones also passed away unexpectedly while working on the show. Before her passing, we did make it to her studio and were able to see the works she included in Twenty Six. Still in her possession was a series of small terracotta objects that evoke land, rip tides, and rock formations. But how to show them was an open discussion. It was during the installation process (I determined the exhibition’s layout) that I noticed on the back of one of the pieces a bracket. So instead of showing them on a table or plinth, as originally planned, I decided to hang them in a single line on one long wall at eye level, which turned out to be a wonderful way to encounter the work.

CM: Like Jones, several other artists from the original show have works in 52 Artists that haven’t been on view to the public since the early 1970s, such as Cynthia Carlson’s “Untitled Inscape #1” (1970), Mary Miss’s “Room Fence” (1970), Susan Hall’s “The Ornithologist” (1970), and Laurace James’s variable tabletop sculptures from the 1970s. James originally exhibited a room-scaled installation of ropes, pulleys, and barrels, “Homage to Krazy Kat,” which was site-specific and temporal. Without the ability to recreate the work, she proposed to show three small sculptures intended to be interactive, but due to conservation concerns they weren’t able to be handled. 

Installation view of Alice Aycock, “Untitled Cyclone” (2017), Aluminum, 8 feet and 9 inches x 9 feet and 9 inches x 10 feet and 3 inches, in 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone (photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT)

AS: One work that was in the original show and we were also able to remake was Alice Aycock’s “Clay #2” (1971). The instructions for this piece exist and are in fact in the collection of the Frac Lorraine, so we borrowed them. When it was originally made, it was created in her studio, and at Lucy’s request was removed by crane through a window in order to travel to The Aldrich. When the show closed in 1971, the work was disposed of in the rear sculpture garden. For 52 Artists, we made the work on-site with Aycock’s studio assistant. It involved 1,500 pounds of clay mixed with water poured into a large plywood grid of nine four-by-four-foot boxes. We had to tent the site within the gallery in order to prevent debris and dust from traveling through the entire museum. The piece dried and cracked over many months resulting in deep fissures that mimicked the fractured earth Aycock observed during a trip to Death Valley in 1969. When 52 Artists is deinstalled in January, the work will once again return to the museum’s grounds, meeting its “mother.” Aycock mentioned to me how interesting it was to see her 50-year career distilled through two significant works that bookend her practice: one of her earliest mature works, and a relatively recent outdoor work, “Untitled Cyclone” (2017).

CM: Another piece from the original exhibition that was recreated for 52 Artists was Adrian Piper’s performance Whistleblower Catalysis (1971), which until our recreation at the opening reception hadn’t been performed since Twenty Six’s opening in April of 1971. Due to the lack of information in our archive and the original catalogue, we were not sure which works by Piper were included in Twenty Six. We only had archival press clippings and mentions in other catalogues about the work to go by, one of which incorrectly referred to the whistles as harmonicas. We had to confirm with the Adrian Piper Foundation in Berlin that this work was in fact in the original exhibition and discuss the parameters around recreating it. In order to do so, we first had to get Piper’s permission. This was followed by obtaining the instructions, hiring the performers, having all of their outfits pre-approved, determining the date, duration, site, and spatial constraints of the event, as well as rehearsing the performance with the Piper Foundation over Zoom. Due to the performance’s guerrilla intent, no one other than the people involved with the performance itself could know what was happening. At the end of the performance, which lasted the duration of the event, we released a press release detailing what the audience had just experienced.

Installation view of Barbara Zucker, “Mix, Stir, Pour” (1972), poured plaster, dimensions variable, in 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone (photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT)

AS: We also worked closely with Barbara Zucker to install “Mix, Stir, Pour” (1972) which hadn’t been exhibited since being shown at A.I.R Gallery the same year it was made. The work she had included in the original show was made with rubber latex and is no longer around. After a site visit, we settled on the work’s placement in front of a second-floor window with a view of the garden and treeline. “Mix, Stir, Pour” is a floor sculpture composed of dozens and dozens of small plaster objects, which the artist refers to fondly as “puddles.” It’s a piece that requires careful handling due to its extreme fragility. It is also impossible to predetermine its arrangement, so the artist planned to be on-site to install it herself, a process that is best described as intuitive. Only a few photos exist of the piece installed and these are of it in her studio. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbara was unable to be present for the installation and so a preparator and I had to work with her over many hours over Zoom, using photos taped to the wall as a guide. On our knees, working one at a time, each piece eventually found its place. It took time to learn the work’s natural rhythm. After a couple days, we came to an instinctive endpoint, and shared images with Barbara, which she approved over Zoom. This was a career first for me. Technology prevailed and we were able to present a work that may have otherwise been impossible to accomplish under different circumstances.

CM: On the note of fragility, some of the works from the original exhibition that still existed after 50 years had to be conserved before the show opened. For example, Grace Bakst Wapner’s “17 lbs. 8 oz.” (1971) a scored, burnished, and painted sculpture made from low-density urethane that mimics a large rock formation, was newly conserved by the artist for the exhibition. The sculpture was not in the original exhibition, but belonged to the same series from the 1971 show. Its title references the weight of the piece, hinting at the work’s deceptive nature.

Installation view of Grace Bakst Wapner, “17 lbs. 8 oz.” (1968), urethane and outdoor paint, 40 inches x 35 inches x 17 inches, in 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone (photo by Jason Mandella, courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT)

AS: A nod to the work’s origins in the natural world, Grace asked us to create a garden for it inside the museum. So we purchased dozens of bags of turkey grit and built an elliptical trough for the sculpture to be centered in. Interestingly, Grace had lent several of her sculptures from this same series to a Zen-inspired garden in Woodstock. I placed the work inside the museum’s atrium with a view of the grassy grounds behind it so it could feel both of and about the earth. 

We live in a time where every moment is documented, recorded, and circulated en masse. It is hard for us to imagine a time before the internet, as everything today is so accessible and seems impossible to lose forever. But while working on 52 Artists, as much as we were able to recover, there were two artists in the original show that we could never find: Sue Ann Childress and Louise Parks. We had hoped with the show’s announcement and the press that followed, that the word would reach someone out there who could help us, but so far we have come up short. That is why this exhibition, and its accompanying book, were so urgent to create a better archive, and one that will outlive us all.

52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone continues at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Connecticut) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition was organized by The Aldrich’s chief curator Amy Smith-Stewart and independent curator Alexandra Schwartz with The Aldrich’s curatorial and publications manager Caitlin Monachino.


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