Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970-1992
by Sabra Moore, New Village Press, 2016
While she was planning Views by Women Artists, a massive collaborative exhibition in 1982during the annual College Art Association conference, Sabra Moore’s own show, Pieced Work, was installed in the lobby of 26 Federal Plaza, the site of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. Moore recalls that “the sculpture was set diagonally across the entrance to the building; you had to walk around it at an odd angle to enter the lobby.” An artist and a writer using memoir to document activist history, Sabra Moore offers many visual metaphors for her work in the women’s movement. In this case, she writes, “after the fifth time circling this low steel wall while carrying artwork, I was ready with the office workers to remove the impediment.”
I don’t know if feminists of my generation have just done a bad job learning the lessons of the feminist movements of the late twentieth century or if we’ve forgotten what our predecessors learned. Or maybe that’s it: we can’t remember what someone else has learned. We have to learn it ourselves, a painful and too often isolating process. When we feel isolated, contemporary feminists can now turn to Moore’s book, Openings, which provides a personal history of the feminist movements in the 1970s and ‘80s. Moore draws from her journals, her dreams, her quilt-inspired artwork, and her relationships with other women artists and activists to trace a network of women who fought for power–against MoMA, against CAA, against misogynist critics, against their own landlords trying to poison their vegetable gardens. It’s my ardent hope that, in the future, we will have more books like Moore’s to guide us, written by the other women who participated in consciousness-raising, protesting, and the many meetings that formed the women’s movements.
We have so much to learn from how the collectives of this era (A.I.R., Heresies, WAC, WAR, WCA, and many others*) galvanized their causes through political action and political artwork. As Moore recounts, the women’s movements became a base from which to act on other issues: violence in Latin America, South African apartheid. These women weren’t just lobbying for women artists: they were lobbying for the marginalized. Unlike most histories of white feminism, Openings details the efforts—sometimes clumsy, sometimes discriminatory, sometimes failed—to stay conscious of and to resist the many forms of violence and erasure that exist in white heteropatriarchy. I appreciate Moore’s attention to the limitations of the women’s movement, as embodied by the WCA: “If you do not start as an integrated group from the beginning, it is very hard to diversify later.” A lesson for us today: start from diversity; start with inclusivity and reaching out beyond your own immediate social or demographic groups.
We women always had food at our meetings, and we would spend time afterwards looking at the host’s artwork in her studio.
Moore and her fellow activists accomplished their work with slides and Xerox machines, wielding X-acto knives and rubber cement as they laid out the pages of their magazines, catalogues, posters, and protest signs. They met at one another’s homes and studios, and lifelong friendships emerged from their efforts to make themselves visible. Moore writes, “we women always had food at our meetings, and we would spend time afterwards looking at the host’s artwork in her studio.” Our tools may be different, but Moore has convinced me that above all, we should have more meetings. With snacks. Who’s with me?
*A.I.R.: Artists In Residence, the first all-female gallery in the US. airgallery.org.
HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, published by the Heresies Collective from 1977-1992. See the full PDF archive of the journal at heresiesfilmproject.org/archive.
WAC: Women’s Art Coalition, an organization for direct action on behalf of women’s rights founded in 1992.
WAR: Women Artists in Revolution, a New York City group that split from the male-dominated Art Worker’s Coalition in 1969.
WCA: Women’s Caucus for Art, a national conference founded in 1972 in connection with the College Art Association.