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Movie Review

!Women Art Revolution

Feminist art movement that still refuses to be quiet

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 15, 2011

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This revelatory and in some ways troubling film about the history of feminist art includes a telling montage near the beginning. Museumgoers outside the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York were recently asked to name three women artists. They struggle to get beyond Frida Kahlo.

The film — a series of talking heads, glimpses of little-known art works, and archival footage — has a lumpy feel. But it’s affecting, and the tone, which is polemical, is also rueful and realistic.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, who wrote and directed it, has been on the case, she tells us, 40 years. She was radicalized in her youth both by the wider political upheavals of the 1960s and by personal trauma: She, like the art historian Arlene Raven, who is one of the women she interviews, was raped.

Through her involvement in feminist politics, Leeson got to know many of the important figures in feminist art. She recorded interviews with them over several decades.

So we see the likes of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro talking about the feminist art education programs they established in the ’60s and ’70s. And we hear, too, about their falling out. We see artists such as Martha Rosler (who featured prominently in “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists’’ at the Tufts University Art Gallery recently), as well as Hannah Wilke, Suzanne Lacy, and the Guerrilla Girls discussing their work and politics. And we see art historians and curators such as Raven, Amelia Jones, and Marcia Tucker discussing the politics of art institutions.

If some of these women were angry, there’s no way you could blame them. They were systematically excluded, patronized, humiliated. Raven, in a level voice, puts it most plainly: “Women aspiring to success in a male-dominated art world . . . must work much harder at it and will be defined as second-rate, for the most part.’’

There’s an interesting shift as the film moves from the 1970s into the ’80s and ’90s. The controlled anger and doggedness of Raven and Chicago give way to a sense of purposeful mischief, personified by the Guerrilla Girls, who donned gorilla masks and produced hilariously pointed agitprop. They highlighted with unarguable statistics the sexism inherent in galleries and museums and they named names. Humor, as Tucker puts it, “is the single most important weapon we have.’’

Too much that is obviously complex is glided over: The death of artist Ana Mendieta, for instance, which threatened to become as crystallizing for the feminist art movement as the murder of Emmett Till was for the civil rights movement, was in fact profoundly splintering. Mendieta’s husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was accused of pushing her out of their apartment window, but eventually acquitted. The film does nothing to shed light on the issue.

“This film,’’ Leeson tells us in voice-over, “is the remains of an insistent history that refuses to wait any longer to be told.’’ The result could be far more subtle, but overall I liked its spirit. It’s as if Leeson has anticipated various objections and then said, “To hell with it! This story needs to be told.’’ I’m with her on that.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

!WOMEN ART REVOLUTION

Written and directed by: Lynn Hershman Leeson

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 83 minutes

Unrated

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