In the late 1960s and 1970s, women artists in the United States and Britain began to make texts and images of writing central to their visual compositions. This book explores the feminist stakes of that choice. It analyses how Adrian Piper, Nancy Spero, and Mary Kelly worked with the visual dimensions of language to transform how women are perceived. To illuminate the specific ways in which these artists and writers contribute to the production of a feminist imaginary, Part I charts the correspondences between the artwork of Piper and the writings of Davis. It analyses the artwork she created in the late 1960s and 1970s, when she began using text to create artwork that moves between what Piper identifies as 'the singular reality of the "other."' Davis's writing exposes the fictions animating projections that the black female body is perceived to be a malleable ground upon which fears and fantasies can take visual form. Part II focuses on aggression and traces how its repression plays out across Spero's Codex Artaud and Solanas's SCUM Manifesto. It argues that in Post-Partum Document, texts and pieces of writing become fetish objects that Kelly arranges into visual and linguistic 'poems' that forestall a confrontation with loss. Part III demonstrates that the maternal femininity thought to naturally inhere in woman is also restricted and muffled, quite efficiently repressing the possibility that women could address each other across maternal femininity's contested terrain.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book explores the feminist stakes of women artists in the United States and Britain. It analyses how three artists, Adrian Piper, Nancy Spero, and Mary Kelly, worked with the visual dimensions of language to transform how women are perceived. The book focuses on aggression and traces how its repression plays out across Spero's Codex Artaud and Solanas's SCUM Manifesto. It also traces how Solanas deploys language as a weapon capable of 'cutting up' patriarchal authority. The book shows how her history as a feminist lesbian of the 1960s helps evoke a historical milieu that brings the stakes of Codex Artaud into sharp relief. It argues that in Post-Partum Document, texts and pieces of writing become fetish objects that Kelly arranges into visual and linguistic 'poems' that forestall a confrontation with loss.
The artwork of Adrian Piper demands an encounter with language. Many viewers responded to Piper's textual address and produced enough inscriptions to fill seven notebooks. It is an early and significant articulation of the textual address animating art practices by women in the late 1960s and 1970s. Piper draws on Kant's work to explain how racism, sexism, and xenophobia function and then provides alternatives for encountering difference in less defensive ways. Piper's resistance to subjective revelation is evident throughout Concrete Documentation. The most compelling aspect of Concrete Documentation is the movement between Piper's written diary entries and her photographs. This chapter analyses three performances by Piper: Catalysis, Food for the Spirit, and Mythic Being. It traces how they align with the insights of Mama's Baby and underscoring how deeply Piper's artwork contributes to the project of rewriting the conditions in which black women are allowed to appear.
In the documentary Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, Angela Davis recalls learning that the State of California was seeking three counts of the death penalty against her. The visual production of Davis as an imaginary enemy became evident when the FBI put her on their list of the top ten most wanted criminals and composed a 'Wanted' poster to present Davis as a dangerous fugitive. This wanted poster is a form of visual capture that attempted to freeze a black woman's movement. In August 1970, prominent profiles on Davis began to appear in nationally circulated newspapers and magazines. Within the Life magazine feature, Davis's Afro became central to the transmission of her image. This chapter analyses the various genres and modes of writing: autobiography, critical essays, letters, and defence statements, Davis pays scrupulous attention to the images and perceptions that defined her and the history she lived.
Upon first looking at Codex Artaud, it is likely viewers' eyes are drawn to the small figures dispersed throughout the vast empty spaces of the artwork. Nancy Spero painted these figures in gouaches of copper, brown, grey, and gold. This chapter analyses a letter Spero wrote to Lippard that attests to the galvanising power of this recognition and then returns to Codex Artaud, Codex Artaud VIII and IX specifically, which re-present Artaud's aggressive and desperate correspondence with his editor. The tongue is a primary visual refrain in Codex Artaud. Codex Artaud I explores the themes encapsulated by the tongue. Spero's thematisation of protest is clear in Codex Artaud III. An image in Codex Artaud III dramaticises the poles of strength and victimisation that Artaud lived out in his writing. Spero's sculpture Mummified is a portrait of a woman without the language to identify repressive feminine ideals.
This chapter analyses Valerie Solanas's deployment of language as a tool to wield aggression for the feminist imaginary. Solanas's SCUM Manifesto gives women permission to reject the imperative to mirror the value of patriarchal culture and remake dominant images of woman. A castrating text, the SCUM Manifesto systemically undercuts the prestige bestowed upon masculinity. Solanas demonstrates her affinity with Freudian narratives and categories early in the manifesto. It is easy to see the handwritten marks Solanas made on the Olympia Press edition of the SCUM Manifesto as the scribbles of a monster. But they must be set in relationship to the typewriter and the role it plays in Solanas's history. Like Nancy Spero typing out passages from Artaud's work on the Bulletin typewriters she described as 'big old monsters,' Solanas made the typewriter a manifestation of her feminist commitments.
Post-Partum Document (PPD) is an archive of objects that represent the pleasures Mary Kelly's maternal figure takes in caring for her child. PPD engages with the psychoanalytic narrative to rewrite the positioning of maternal femininity. The 'Introduction' to PPD consists of four infant vests made of yellow wool. The first chapter of PPD, 'Documentation I: Analyzed Fecal Stains and Feeding Charts,' creates a more complicated relationship to maternal sentiment. PPD reflects and complicates the attention members of the Women's Movement paid to transforming the conditions of women's work and undoing the gendered division of labour. 'Documentation VI' replicates the form and visual appearance of the Rosetta Stone, the famous Egyptian stele inscribed with hieroglyphs, Demotic, and ancient Greek, to memorialise the loss that the child's acquisition of language represents. 'Documentation II' exemplifies Kelly's attention to the work that goes into the child's language acquisition.
This chapter analyses how Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen use texts and images of writing in Riddles to create a film that transforms pre-Oedipal pleasures into a site for feminist collaboration. Mulvey and Wollen place the title of the film over the first page of Le Mythe de la Femme. Mulvey returns to the image of Garbo's face superimposed upon the Sphinx, and focuses on the Sphinx's forgotten place in the myth of Oedipus, which is significant for the film's rewriting of maternal femininity. At the centre of Riddles is 'Louise's Story Told in 13 Shots,' the sequence in which the primary narrative of the film unfolds. The fragment leads into the first of the film's 360-degree pans, which circles Louise's kitchen. The Sphinx poses a series of questions that bring feminism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis together, creating an inquiry into the material conditions of motherhood in London in the 1970s.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book discusses the visual and textual manifestations of language were significant parts of art practices aligned with feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. It focuses on the work three artists Adrian Piper, Nancy Spero, and Mary Kelly who deployed texts and images of writing to create an address that calls to viewers and asks them to participate in the project of deconstructing the sign woman. The artwork Piper, Spero, and Kelly composed during this period of historical upheaval is rich, complicated, and dense. It creates visual and textual worlds that reflect feminism's wide, disparate, and contested reach as well as the serious interventions demanded by the sign woman and the narrow range of appearances and meanings assigned to it by a dominant visual culture that prioritises masculinity.