Sexuality and the Female World: Part 2

The birth of the Sexual Revolution took to the scenes during a time that was important for the women in the 1960’s, giving birth to the Feminist Art Movement of the 1960s. This Revolution forced society to open their eyes to women’s rights and sparked many controversies in the art world. The Feminist Art Movement provided the avenue necessary for women and men to explore the female form and experiences in explicit and vulnerable manners. With the usage of symbols and metaphoric ideology, feminist art became provocative, innovative and the political message needed to express feelings of the suppressed. Genital imagery, photography, sculpture and performance were among many approaches taken by Feminist artist; creating thought provoking and shocking works that the world had not scene and in many cases were not ready for.
Many artists were successful in creating work that enhanced the feminine role in society. It may have all began with Georgia O’Keeffe flower paintings, which was one of the earliest introductions of the vulva-form. O’Keeffe abstraction of the female organ paved the way for many artist to come and became a symbol in many feminist art works. One of the Feminist artists of the 1960’s who utilized the “floral-vaginal” symbol was Judy Chicago. In her most controversial pieces, The Dinner Party, Chicago depicts many sex specific symbols, paying homage to women before her time; mythological, religious and American and Women Revolutionaries. Along with the use of the female form and female symbols, Feminist artist began using the male phallus in their works. The phallus being a symbol of power, artists begin using it as way to portray suppression and inequality. Anita Steckel did so in her works titled, Legal Gender and in her Skyline series. The male phallic depiction is way of showing the conflict of exploitation women in contrast of the lack of male nudity in art in a male dominated field. This portrayal of the male form was a way in which women gained control of their female form and sexual parts in art and creating a manner in which their sexual depiction is not specifically for the male fantasies. It paved a way for the representation of real female experiences and for later contemporary female artist. Libby Rowe is one artist who benefitted in the Feminist Artist Movement as she explored the female sexual experience through masturbation in her photograph titled, language of love.
           “…, the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, particularity on paper, offered at the same time what seemed like a direct, spontaneous almost unconscious revelation of a distinct concept of ‘true womanhood’…”.[1] Such a statement is true. O’Keeffe’s work was very telling of a women’s experience in its form, color and softness, but nothing holds more accurate than her paintings of flowers. The richness of her ‘blossoms’ portrays an essence of femininity, becoming a symbol of the female organ. It was O’Keeffe’s works that introduced this symbol in such a direct manner. The flower has always been a symbol for fertility, but O’Keeffe depicted it in such a manner that it became an explicit representation of the female genitalia. This use of flower-vagina dual concept changed the face of the art world and the face of the female portrayal in art. It took the literal form that male artist of the time had been exploiting and gave it context, metaphor and ultimately a voice. This iconic symbol became the framework for many artists to follow in O’Keeffe’s footsteps and even the platform for a revolution. 
           Judy Chicago is one of the female artists to follow O’Keeffe in the representation of the Vulva form later to be coined as “cunt” art. Chicago feministic views spurred and gained interest deep in the 1960s during the Sexual Revolution and Feminist Art Movement. Showcasing her work around the world alongside many prominent Feminist artists such as Yoko Ono, Marina Abramavic and VALIE EXPORT, Chicago’s, “The Dinner Party” gained global recognition and controversy. “The Dinner Party” is a triangular table featuring place settings for thirty-nine female figures with the mythological realm, religious and American social and women’s revolution world. Each setting is adorned with a place that features either a painting or sculptural floral cunt image. This piece was controversial in that it depicted strong imagery of the female genitalia. It received mixed views from all parts of the globe and of different political, religious and gender parties. Even in its all-liberating manner, other women including feminist and feminist artist found the work offensive. Women argued many sides about the representation of the work such as, “feminists have disagreed with the main idea of this work because it shows a universal female experience, which many argue does not exist. For example, lesbians and women of ethnicities other than white and European are not well represented in the work.”[2].
           Amongst the plethora of female artist who took the approach of representing the female form in their work such as O’Keeffe and Chicago, many artists opted to do the opposite, in which the male form became a subject of representation. The male body and phallus symbol was used as a means to ridicule, exploit and represent the oppression and suppression of women. Anita Steckel was one of those artists. In her work titled, Legal Gender, Steckel draws a phallic around the American single note bill. This imagery combines the male gender to the money. Steckel says about the work, “women don’t receive an equal amount of pay… By presenting the penis as a unit of currency, the work makes explicit the unfair alignment of monetary value with male privilege.”[3]. By creating a symbol around the male form, women were able to further their ideas of women’s rights through the exploitation of the sexual male body.
       As time drew on, women became more open about their sex and their sexual experiences. The Feminist Art Movement opened the doors for artists such as Libby Rowe in which they were able to openly express their knowledge of women-hood and sexual understandings. In a piece titled, language of love, Rowe photographed women’s hands in various positions. To most male viewers, the hands appear to be letters or words in sign language. This “language of love” is actually various ways in which women pleasure themselves sexually. The idea of using symbols is further defined beyond the typical fertile flower but into the sexual context that is specific to women. Rowe wrote, “Individual pieces in this series are inspired by stories from women and men relating common misconceptions of the physical mechanics of sexually associated body parts…,”[4] The illustration of women and their sexuality has evolved through out the years, and through genitalia and masturbation, women have found avenues in which to express their sexual nature.

Kevin Rhodes Thesis Topic

[1] Pollack, Griselda. “Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, space and the archive.” (Routledge, Taylor and Friends Group, 2007), 113.
[2] Jones, Amelia. "The ‘Sexual Politics’ of The Dinner Party: A Critical Context." Reclaiming Female Agency. Eds. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 409-433.
[3] Richard Meyer, “Hard Targets: Male Bodies, Feminist Art and the Force of Censorship in the 1970s” in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark. (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), 365.
[4] “Libby Rowe Art” Artist Statement. Gallery.

Judy Chicago and "CUNT ART" in The Dinner Party
Judy Chicago's, The Dinner Party is a controversial sculptural work that depicts imagery and symbolism from the female form. This term, "cunt art" is a way in which to reclaim ownership of the female form and giving women the power to depict, exhibit and exploit their body parts. The Dinner Party pays homage to Feminist Artist. 

Hannah Wilke
This photograph comes from her S.O.S series... Wilke juxtaposes beauty pin=ups with tribal scarification. 

In the 1960’s, America as well as other parts of the world was undergoing a shift in expression; and sexual expression was at the forefront. Homosexuality was no longer a taboo or hidden topic, sexual intercourse was now a coffee-table subject and women were stepping forward to change the role that the female form had in society. This Sexual Revolution played a huge part in the manifestation of creativity within Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s.

Sexuality and the Female World: Part 1
Kevin Xavier Rhodes

In the 1960’s, America as well as other parts of the world was undergoing a shift in expression; and sexual expression was at the forefront. Homosexuality was no longer a taboo or hidden topic, sexual intercourse was now a coffee-table subject and women were stepping forward to change the role that the female form had in society. This Sexual Revolution played a huge part in the manifestation of creativity within the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s. Female artists used this time as an opportunity to have a voice in America, using their art as platform for communicating the female experience and testing the strain of the subject of sexuality.

The sudden outburst of sexual liberation within the female population allowed for female artist to objectify men and claim ownership over their own representation of the female form and transform it into a subject. The discovery of erotic art and symbols as male centered, the redefinition of lesbian sexuality as positive and life-affirming, and the dismantling of the… transparently male perceptions of the female body were among the products of critique. [1] The Sexual Revolution gave birth to an outlet of explicit and raw portrayals of the woman in America and across the globe. Feminist artists began focusing on the conceptualized symbols that no longer sexualized and exploited women as object but created a subjectivity that art depicted before this time had failed to do. The focus of art turned the tables around and used the male body as mockery and demeaning and the female body became centerpieces in the galleries in performance, video and abstraction. Lesbians opened up about their female experiences as same gender loving and “cunt art” galvanized the art viewers.

Within this new exploration of sexuality, female artists removed the objectivity of the female form and placed the subjective ideology to the front of their work. Art for feminist became conceptual, transforming the female form into abstract symbols, thus eliminating the notion that women expressing their sexuality and exposing their bodies was either forbidden, tasteless or only fit for the male sexual fantasy. Even the Lesbian artists who wanted to portray eroticism or experiences of love were under the watch of male scrutiny or sexual fetishes. To get around the problems of voyeurism and consumption posed by figuration, lesbian artists have employed a range of devices… blurring, overlaying, solarizing…symbolizing. [2] This was true for many Feminist artists during the 1970s and even modern times. This abstraction allowed women artists a liberation of expression in the arts and opened the door to many successful feminist artists. It even led into using the male body in a manner that was once the female platform of depiction.

Up until this point in time, the female form was often depicted by nude, sexual icons, stereotypical beauty forms and more often than not, by the male counterpart. The revolution of sex allowed for Feminist artists to reclaim ownership over their bodies and how the female form should be depicted. Having this newfound freedom and courage, women began to rotate the exploitation of the female body and thrust it strongly onto the male form. Often used in an explicit and satirical manner, the male form became a popular object and phalluses were displayed everywhere. Artist such as Louise Bourgeois, Anita Steckel and Linda Nochlin were among many feminist artists who took this approach in representing the male form. In preparation for the popular WACK! Exhibition of 2007 at the MoCA, Los Angeles, Richard Meyer said this about the phallic, “…to reclaim a largely overlooked and erotically audacious chapter in feminist art history… to consider the various forms of censorship to which these women were subjected.” [3] This male symbol became an important tool of satire and for others, a “subject of tenderness.” [4]

While exploring the male body and its symbolism, the Feminist artist began using their own bodies and parts in their work know as ‘cunt art’. The vagina, clitoris and sexual reproductive organs were depicted as symbols of the woman and the experiences that women undergo through those body parts. Women before the sexual revolution used abstracted symbols to represent the female body such as Georgia O’Keeffe, but during the 1970s, women were not always as subtle or quiet about the representation of the sex organs. It extended beyond the common portrayal of breasts and motherhood and surface pubic areas but delved deeply into the layers and folds that is the female vagina. Judy Chicago’s, “The Dinner Party,” forcefully targeted the female organ and presented it in a place that ever human being can relate to—the dining room table. It took the very familiar family oriented setting and openly introduced the taboo. This installation of “vulviform images,” [5] created shock, controversy and popularity as did most of the Feminist art of the time.

            With new technological advances and the introduction of performance art, feminist artists began using their physical bodies to further explore the female form. Using photography, video and live gallery performances, it took the abstract and symbolized representation to the real life aspect of art. Women often performed nude, exposing ever bit of personal and intimacy that once was either non-existent or deeply hidden. These performances collected the abstraction, symbol and even “cunt” aspect of the feminist art movement and laid it out for their viewers. For the first time many women produced work with their own naked bodies as subject, exploring them from their personal points of views. [6] By doing so, the female artists are able to become vulnerable, shocking, controversial, and completely involved in their work.

            The birth of the Sexual Revolution had perfect timing, lining itself with the Feminist Art Movement and other women liberating movements. This burst of creativity opened the door to many artists, gave confirmation to those who had made a mark in the art world and is still an avenue that women and men are exploring in art during these modern times. The symbols and “metaphors as landscapes, fruit, flower, shell, nest, and cocoon images, which were understood to refer to female genitalia and the female body, [7] to the provocative performance body art has created an new venture of the female form and for the feminist and non-feminist women, it has opened a door for amazing subjective art.

[1] Rayna Rapp and Ellen Ross, “Sex and Society: A Research Note from Social History and Anthropology,” in The Gender Sexuality Reader, ed. Roger N. Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo. (Great Britain: Routledge, 1997), 153.
[2] Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History,” (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2000), 88.
[3] Richard Meyer, “Hard Targets: Male Bodies, Feminist Art and the Force of Censorship in the 1970s” in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark. (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), 363.
[4] ibid., 363
[5] Amelia Jones, “The ‘Sexual Politics’ of the Dinner Party,” in Reclaiming Female Agency, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. (London: University of California Press, Ltd., 2005), 414.
[6] Edward Lucie-Smith, “Race, Sex and Gender in Contemporary Art,” (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 147.
[7] Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History,” (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2000), 25.

Within the titled section, Sexuality of Feminist of the Burning Bras: Feminist Art Movement of the 1970’s blog, I will introduce the convergence of sexuality and the female artist and how this impacted the sexual ideology of the female character. Within this exploration, the political and social aspect of sexuality will unfold as feminist artists such as Margeret Harrison, Hannah Wilke and others change, challenge, explore, and exploit the sexual views that society had about women at this time. 


  1. This is a very interesting topic. Will you be exploring this topic by country, picking artists from various countries, or focusing primarily on America? I'm looking forward to your articles!

    1. I will be exploring it primarily from an American viewpoint but may lead into international views. The Artists may vary in nationality but their expressions on sexuality will definitely vary. I plan to cover sexuality in terms of gender roles, homosexuality, the body and even sexual experiences. Thank you for your interest.

  2. This is really interesting. I had never heard of most of this stuff. It makes sense that the way female artists and the Sexual Revolution rebelled against the past was to take their bodies back and explore through their work until they found a new identity that didn't revolve around their image relative to men. It makes sense that they turned the tables and objectified the male body instead; how was that received?

    It actually reminds me of a movement that's happening in American comics right now. Female fans, particularly, are becoming vocal in their objection to the way that women are objectified in comics, and one of those ways is by drawing male superheroes in the same poses and costumes that the female superheroes are drawn. It shows just how sexual and submissive and ridiculous some of the poses are.

  3. Very interesting look at the feminist art revolution. I never really noticed, but you do not see many work that depicts male nudity, especially when your compare that to how many women nudes exist. I think this was a powerful way for women to gin their power back from the male artist, and to objectify them for a change. The shoe is now on the other foot male artists! It was a nice contrast to see that argument, since usually everyone only talks about how women used the female genitalia to gain back power. I am glad you covered it.