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!W.A.R.: Fighting the Politics of Exclusion by Documenting a History of Women's Art (and Much More)

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Lynn Hershman Leeson's sweeping new documentary, !Women Art Revolution (!WAR), reaches beyond the boundaries of cinema thanks to its "links" to new technology and new media, as well as its collaborations with educational institutions, artists, scholars, and social media architects. In 83 minutes, the director, who is also the writer and editor, distills 12,428 minutes of footage, which she began shooting 42 years ago with a borrowed camera, and almost 1,000 scanned and archived images.

Revolution in the A.I.R
Overlapping with other seminal, social and cultural developments of the late 1960s, the feminist arts movement drew inspiration from anti-war, free speech, and civil rights actions, but challenged and was in direct contrast to the white, male-dominated trend of minimalism, which saturated the art scene at the time.

The socio-political content that infused the work of these women artists struck a nerve deep within American culture where "the personal became the political," and "the very personal became art."

In the late 60s/early 70s, several women artists and art professors, historians, and curators formed !WAR (Women Artists in Revolution). "Why was it necessary for them to do this in the first place?" asks Hershman Leeson.

Compelling testimony from leading feminists in the art world is provided. The flamboyant and eloquent Rachel Rosenthal -- known for her avant-garde performance art using Self as subject -- remembered, "The books that you read in those days were written in a way that denigrated women artists, if they mentioned them all." While an undergraduate at Harvard, the laid-back, earthy film historian, Dr. Amelia Jones, added, "I don't think there was a single woman artist whose work was ever discussed in any one of my classes."

In a voice over, Hershman Leeson asks the audience? "Can you name three women artists?"

In 2006, she took her camera into the streets of New York City and San Francisco where flabbergasted subjects exiting the Whitney and other world-class museums struggle to name names. A few, tentatively, produce, "Frida Kahlo?"

In the first five minutes, the director builds her case not only for !WAR as a movement, but for her entire film. Is this documentary as subtly crafted as Errol Morris's Fog of War? As lyrical as Heddy Honigmann's Crazy? As intimate as Zana Briski's Born into Brothels? It's not.

Whether by conscious design or unconscious, primary forces, the film reflects a compelling parallel process that is as rough and raw as the revolutionary movement it depicts.

Let the movement begin: Around 1970 in New York City, artist Faith Ringgold, outraged at the exclusion of women in "the museum system," and inspired by the Black Panther movement, realized, "in those days, two people could raise a lot of hell." Under the auspices of W.S.A.B.A.L. (Women Student Artists for Black Artists Liberation, which no one knew included only the artist and her daughter), Ringgold called the powerful, well-known artists Robert Rauschenberg and Carl Andre, and demanded "50% integration of women and artists of color" in their upcoming exhibition or her group would stage a protest. (Anyone who feels feminists don't have a sense of humor and sit around spinning their wheels whining all day hasn't experienced Ringgold or the Whitney's first woman curator, the late Marcia Tucker, who after being fired in December 1976 started The New Museum in January 1977.)

On the west coast, Judy Chicago's student, Faith Wilding, gives a talk in one of the first classes on feminist art at Fresno State when an outraged white man in a suit rushes the stage and slugs her. Wouldn't we love to know where he is today, and what particular nerve was struck that day? (Years later, in 1990, Chicago's massive sculpture installation, "The Dinner Party" would be called "pornographic" by several apoplectic, white male members of the House of Representatives. With only one African-American congressman, Rep. Ron Dellums, speaking to defend it, the piece was banned by the House for exhibition in Washington, DC. The installation is now permanently exhibited in The Brooklyn Museum, but not without years of assault from art critics and government agencies, and constant struggle and legal action from the feminist community.)

Alternative exhibition spaces in New York City, such as the A.I.R. Gallery, are built from scratch and begin sprouting in a fringe neighborhood known as "Soho" in 1972, which brings together Howardena Pindell, Nancy Spero, Harmony Hammond, and other women artists. Later, a political exile and artist from Cuba, Ana Mendieta joins the gallery.

Around the same time, women activists place eggs in several galleries of the Whitney Biennial to protest their exclusion -- Faith Ringgold paints her eggs black with an inscription in red that reads: "50%!"

!W.A.R. is never short on irony from beginning to end. It displays many naïve experiments that the filmmaker herself feels might seem "ludicrous" today and certainly made me cringe more than once. It's also infused with honesty showing both the harmony and deep divisions within the women's art movement, warts and all.

Judy Chicago stops speaking to Miriam Shapiro, who formed the feminist arts program at CAL ARTS in L.A. Tensions continue to boil over when artist Martha Wilson comments that Chicago's students art, which is limited mostly to breast and flower motifs, "looks prescriptive to me." Wilson incurs her wrath, is reduced to tears, and leaves L.A.. Wilson never forgives Chicago, but makes lemonade from lemons by moving to New York and creating Franklin Furnace.

The most poignant and tragic moments in !WAR occur when the personal histories of Howardena Pindell and Ana Mendieta are presented. Pindell recalls being the only African-American in an all-white, kindergarten class in Philadelphia with a teacher who did not believe whites and blacks -- even four- and five-year-olds -- should use the same bathroom. Without bitterness, Pindell relates the tortuous indignities she suffered while tied to her cot during nap time. She uses this and other true stories about herself and her mother in her video, "Free, White and 21," in which she plays all the parts to great effect.

Mendieta meets artist Carl Andre, drops out of A.I.R. after having been an active artist and curator. They marry in 1985 and after eight months, she falls to her death from the 34th floor window of their Village apartment. Her husband is charged with second-degree murder. Although his 911 call differs from subsequent accounts of the tragedy, police procedure is botched, and evidence is thrown out. With the best attorneys Andre's affluent, well-positioned friends can buy, he is acquitted.

!W.A.R. is more than a history of a revolutionary social, cultural, and artistic movement. It's also a curatorial coup with an innovative format that provides a permanent home for women's art -- past, present, and future. Thanks to a collaboration with Stanford University, most of the artists' unedited videotaped interviews can be seen (and full transcripts read) online from the library's Special Collection archives. Future generations of women artists can contribute their personal histories as well as slides of their work to the RAW/WAR project, which is a website that will permanently archive this collection.

Fittingly, !W.A.R. will always be a work in progress (but never forgotten nor excluded from history).

The film will be shown at the IFC Center in New York City from June 1 through June 8. It features introductions on various dates by Howardena Pindell, Carolee Schneemann, Janine Antoni, Martha Wilson, Faith Ringgold, and other artists featured in the film.

UPDATE: !Women Art Revolution has been extended through June 16 at the IFC Center in New York City.