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Womanhouse was an art experiment that addressed the experiences of women. Twenty-one art students refurbished an abandoned house in Los Angeles and turned it into a provocative 1972 exhibit. Womanhouse received national media attention and introduced the public to the idea of Feminist Art.
The students came from the new Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). They were led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Paula Harper, an art historian who also taught at CalArts, suggested the idea to create a collaborative art installation in a house.
The purpose was more than just to showcase women's art or art about women. The purpose, according to Linda Nochlin's bok on Miriam Schapiro, to "help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their art making out of their experiences as women."
One inspiration was Judy Chicago's discovery that a woman's building had been part of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The building was designed by a woman architect, and many art works, including one by Mary Cassatt, were featured there.
The abandoned house in the urban Hollywood area was condemned by the city of Los Angeles. The Womanhouse artists were able to postpone the destruction until after their project. The students devoted enormous amounts of their time in late 1971 to refurbishing the house, which had broken windows and no heat. They struggled with repairs, construction, tools, and cleaning out the rooms that would later house their art exhibits.
The Art Exhibits
Womanhouse was opened to the public in January and February of 1972, gaining a national audience. Each area of the house featured a different work of art.
“Bridal Staircase,” by Kathy Huberland, showed a mannequin bride on the stairs. Her long bridal train led to the kitchen and became progressively grayer and dingier along its length.
One of the most famous and memorable exhibits was Judy Chicago's “Menstruation Bathroom.” The display was a white bathroom with a shelf of feminine hygiene products in boxes and a trash can full of used feminine hygiene products, the red blood striking against the white background. Judy Chicago said that however women felt about their own menstruation would be how they felt seeing it depicted in front of them.
There were also performance art pieces at Womanhouse, initially done for an all-female audience and later opened to male audiences as well.
One exploration of men's and women's roles featured actors playing “He” and “She,” who were visually depicted as male and female genitalia.
In “Birth Trilogy,” performers crawled through a “birth canal” tunnel made of the legs of other women. The piece was compared to a Wiccan ceremony.
The Womanhouse Group Dynamic
The Cal-Arts students were guided by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro to use consciousness-raising and self-examination as processes that preceded making the art. Although it was a collaborative space, there were disagreements about power and leadership within the group. Some of the students, who also had to work at their paying jobs before coming to labor at the abandoned house, thought that Womanhouse required too much of their devotion and left them no time for anything else.
Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro themselves disagreed about how closely Womanhouse should be tied to the CalArts program. Judy Chicago said things were good and positive when they were at Womanhouse, but became negative once they were back on the CalArts campus, in the male-dominated art institution.
Filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas made a documentary film called Womanhouse about the feminist art event. The 1974 film includes the performance art pieces as well as reflections by the participants.
The two primary movers behind Womanhouse were Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro.
Judy Chicago, who changed her name to that from Judy Gerowitz in 1970, was one of the major figures in Womanhouse. She was in California to establish a Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College. Her husband, Lloyd Hamrol, was also teaching at Cal Arts.
Miriam Shapiro was in California at that time, having originally moved to California when her husband Paul Brach was appointed dean at Cal Arts. He accepted the appointment only if Shapiro would also become a faculty member. She brought her interest in feminism to the project.
A few of the other women involved included:
- Faith Wilding
- Beth Bachenheimer
- Karen LeCocq
- Robbin Schiff
Edited and updated with content added by Jone Johnson Lewis.