Feminism and Art

Second wave feminism completely changed the art world. Not only were women artists overtly dealing with issues of gender in their work, but art historians were also using feminist theory to rethink the art historical canon and question how we make history. Judy Chicago (b.1939) and VALIE EXPORT (b.1940) even changed their names to combat patriarchy. Some of their most iconic work explores the position of women in the art world and public space.

Brooklyn Museum: Judy Chicago



Merging feminist ideas with the emerging notions of deconstruction and the instability of language from the broad cultural concept of Postmodernism, later artists in the late 1970s and 1980s made feminist works that appropriated images from mass culture in order to critique their latent misogyny. One of the most iconic of these artists is Cindy Sherman (b.1954), who steps in front of the camera and takes on stereotypical roles in her photographic series.

NPR: American Icons: “Untitled Film Stills” (listen to the podcast)

How are these artists challenging the norms of the art world? What specific inequalities are they calling attention to and how do they use themselves and their own bodies in completely radical ways? How do the strategies of these artists of different generations compare?

Appropriation is a frequent strategy by artists from Postmodernism as well as the most recent moment, which we call Contemporary. Taking a cue from Marcel Duchamp, these artists use objects and images that already exist in the culture (like our collective cinematic memory appropriated in Sherman’s work above) but re-present them in a way that calls attention to power imbalances inherent within the culture or questions some of art history’s grand narratives. Kehinde Wiley (b.1977) makes monumental paintings that argue for the visibility of black lives by calling attention to their absence within the art historical cannon.

Smarthistory: Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps

Using everyday objects (like candies or lightbulbs) or images of daily life, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) made works that despite their simple forms poignantly depicted loss and grief in the midst of the AIDS crisis, which was devastating to the art world.

Smarthistory: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (billboard of an empty bed)

Contemporary Art

As we close this semester of art history, the narrative we have been charting from the late middle ages to today begins to open up and expand. Contemporary art, a moment we are still experiencing, is marked by its inability to exist within stable stylistic or even conceptual boundaries. As the world becomes more interconnected via forces of globalization and the internet, artists and art historians explore this new world of everything and everywhere all at once in different ways.

For a look at the wide variety of mediums, concepts, and issues contemporary artists explore today, browse some of the following resources.

Google Cultural Institute: What Is Contemporary Art?

PBS: Art21