While many works of modern art can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around, modern art inspired by the feminist movement can prove even more of a challenge to understand. It isn’t unlikely that a woman could be president or vice president, so it is hard for young people to fully grasp challenges faced by women in the past. But the message transcends to both young women and men alike in P.S.1’s “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” a stirring collection of over 400 works of 120 artists from around the world, covering the period of 1965 to 1980, a pivotal time period when feminist activism and artwork were occurring simultaneously.

P.S.1 – a contemporary Long Island City offshoot of its cousin the MoMA in Manhattan – is a delight to explore, due to its public school architecture.

Mimi Smith’s “Stairs” (1974) and “Closed Door” (1975) installments are made of knotted thread, nuts and bolts, wooden tape measures, and eyelets mounted on the wall. It is a stunning introduction to the “WACK!” collection. Using the effects of linear perspective, it is an interesting use of tactile materials that have deep symbolic value. These pieces demonstrate that housewives, in their role of homemakers, were creating their own prisons.

Further into the museum, Mary Beth Edelson’s “Some Living American Women Artists” is definitely some clever collage work. The 1972 piece is a twist on DaVinci’s “The Last Supper,” with Georgia O’Keefe’s face taking the place of Jesus’s. Albeit a brazen (and to some, sacrilegious work of artistic commentary), it features a plethora of female artists (Helen Frankenthaler, Alma Thomas, Louise Nevelson, and Yoko Ono, to name a few). On the subject of her work and the theme of her collages, Edelson said in the P.S.1 publication, “I was interested in the collective unconscious. I asked 22 people in my community to come to the studio, discuss my work, and then suggest a piece they would like to see me do. One of the suggestions was for me to think about organized religion and do an art piece that pointed out the negative aspects, making the social/political aspects obvious in the piece. The way organized religion treats women is really the most negative to me. So I thought, ‘I am going to cut out the male heads and put in women’s heads.'”

While Edelson cut out men’s heads, artist Martha Rosler cut off women’s heads completely. In her series “Beauty Knows No Pain,” Rosler made collages from Playboy magazine. Of the series, “Centerfold, or Miss February” (1966-72) is the most blatant portrayal of the objectification of women. The provocative image of the centerfold Miss February has her head completely cropped out of the picture. For many women, it is a resounding reminder of the challenges they face with the media and body image, and the social construct of what a “real” and “desirable” woman is.
Audrey Plack’s painting “Marilyn (Vanitas)” also dealt with body image, but featured a more-recognizable iconic figure. The painting featured a story of a young Norma Jean, who one day ran away from her orphanage. After being brought back, Norma Jean expected to be reprimanded by the headmistress Mrs. Dewey. Instead, Mrs. Dewey told Norma Jean she was pretty, and powdered her nose and chin.

“In 1950,” reads the pages of a book in the painting, “Marilyn told the story of the powder puff to Sonia Wolfson, a publicity woman at 20th Century-Fox and then confided, ‘This was the first time in my life I felt loved – no one had ever noticed
my face or hair or me before.'”

It depicts the tragic delusion of Monroe’s first memory of feeling loved. Instead of being loved for her inner strength or character, she first felt loved because of her physical traits – and that delusion didn’t end in the orphanage. With Marilyn’s early memory of her childhood and her subsequent career, the painting’s message becomes clear amongst pearls, fruit, make-up and candles; symbols of wealth, beauty, and lusciousness: “One could paint oneself into an instrument of one’s will.”
“WACK! – Art and the Feminist Revolution” will be on view at P.S.1 now through May 12.

P.S.1 22-25 Jackson Ave at the intersection of 46th Ave. E/V train to 23rd St/Ely Ave.