Styles of Radical Will

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s BY Nancy Princenthal. New York: Thames & Hudson. 304 pages. $35.

The cover of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

In April 1973, the twenty-four-year-old Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta invited her fellow University of Iowa MFA students to her apartment. They arrived to find the door ajar. Stepping inside, they encountered a grisly tableau, a performance later known as Untitled (Rape Scene). Tied to a table and bent at the waist, Mendieta wore a plaid shirt loosely over her torso while her lower half remained exposed: underwear around her ankles, backside and legs smeared with blood, all harshly spot-lit. The artist later recalled that her classmates immediately “all sat down, and started talking about it. I didn’t move. I stayed in position about an hour. It really jolted them.”

That jolt, the shock of seeing a forthright, feminist representation of intimate violation, electrifies Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, a gripping history that places this work in a larger narrative of political upheaval. In the ’60s and ’70s, she argues, there was virtually no language to talk about sexual assault and domestic violence from a survivor’s perspective in the public realm, let alone in art. The process of inventing that language was novel in more than one respect. As Princenthal writes, “Along with contributing to the birth of an art form called performance, female artists addressing sexual violence introduced a tactic that joined art and activism.” Princenthal follows the development of this new aesthetic strategy through artists—Mendieta, Suzanne Lacy, VALIE EXPORT, and Yoko Ono, among others—who stood at the forefront of the struggle to recognize such crimes.

Princenthal organizes the book thematically rather than chronologically, making connections between artists who, on the surface, seem quite different. For example, the second chapter, “Looking for Trouble,” details body art that exposed the performers to physical danger, drawing on artists including Marina Abramović, EXPORT, and Ono. Princenthal reframes works by these women, placing them in the lineage of public performance and social practice. She underscores how radical these artists were by showing, time and again, just how misunderstood—and maligned—their work was at the time. A 1968 article in British lad mag TAB promoted Ono’s Cut Piece (1964)—where audiences snipped away her clothes as she sat passively—as “the hippiest artistic happening”: “Guys who used to sit back and yell ‘Take it off!’ now have the golden opportunity to take it off for her.”

Leslie Labowitz, Myths of Rape, 1977. Performance view, Los Angeles City Mall, Los Angeles, May 19, 1977. Leslie Labowitz and Signe Dowse. From Suzanne Lacy's Three Weeks in May, 1977. Suzanne Lacy
Leslie Labowitz, Myths of Rape, 1977. Performance view, Los Angeles City Mall, Los Angeles, May 19, 1977. Leslie Labowitz and Signe Dowse. From Suzanne Lacy's Three Weeks in May, 1977. Suzanne Lacy

In the following four chapters, Princenthal traces how artists foregrounded and advanced the representation of sexual violence over the course of a decade. In the chapter titled “Testifying,” she situates Mendieta’s Rape Scene alongside works such as the 1972 performance Ablutions by Lacy, Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani. In “Taking Action,” Princenthal narrates how feminist art movements were launched in direct response to the rampant sexism women experienced in leftist political groups, and covers public programs such as the collective Ariadne’s Making It Safe (1979), an eight-month series of events about rape, incest, domestic violence, and child abuse. “Identity Crises” focuses on durational mid-’70s role-playing performances by Adrian Piper and Lynn Hershman Leeson. While not always explicitly about sexual violation (though Leeson’s alter ego had a history of childhood trauma), the works in this chapter, in Princenthal’s telling, are about bodily autonomy and risk: “Assuming a role is not just trying it on like clothing; it is being displaced by it—shoved aside by an entity not altogether under the impersonator’s control. . . . The same can be said, perhaps, of all overwhelming experiences, not excluding rape.” “Graphic Content” wraps up the ’70s narrative by surveying artists who depict rape pictorially or textually rather than through performance. “If the performances of the early and mid-seventies constituted a rupture in art’s historical continuum, graphic content permitted reentry into a current of imagery that runs deep,” Princenthal writes.

Unspeakable Acts ranges far beyond the ’70s, covering a long historical trajectory. Princenthal reaches back to Renaissance-era “heroic” depictions of rape and forward to third- and fourth-wave feminist approaches to sexuality that celebrate erotic freedom, as well as to contemporary discussions about rape culture. Throughout, she traces how the language around sexual violence in art cycled from the biographical (“I”) to the structural (“we”)—and back again. During the ’70s, she argues, it was important to present these practices as expressions of sexual aggression in the culture at large, rather than as personal confessions—a crucial step in getting critics to accept them as art. “First-person work about such violence appeared belatedly, aroused more discomfort than support, and departed quickly, although not without leaving an indelible mark,” Princenthal writes.

All the work was risky, revolutionary, and often met with mute incomprehension. As Lacy recounts, Ablutions stunned the audience. During this performance, organized in a fellow artist’s studio, recordings of women detailing their rapes played (including one testimony by the feminist art historian Arlene Raven, three days after her attack) while artists engaged in ritualistic actions. One woman had her feet bound; other performers bathed in tubs filled with eggs, beef blood, then clay, and were finally wrapped tightly in sheets. Lacy and artist Jan Lester nailed beef kidneys to the wall. This imagery was closely related to the gory theatrics of such groups as the Viennese Actionists, a mid-century body-art movement, though the focus on intimate violence was novel.

As the decade progressed, Lacy’s work moved from the studio to the street. Princenthal writes about two protest-art events that Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus orchestrated in 1977: Three Weeks in May and In Mourning and in Rage. In contrast to the earlier, smaller-scale work about sexual assault, these pieces were ambitious public actions. Three Weeks in May was a citywide undertaking supported by the LAPD, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), and the American Civil Liberties Union, among other organizations. The tone of the events ranged from the poetic to the pragmatic. For Three Weeks in May, Lacy directed She Who Would Fly, which featured a flayed lamb carcass, a wall of rape survivors’ testimonies, and four nude women slathered in red paint, perched like guardians on a ledge; the series also included a ritual in which the artists would stamp the word RAPE on a map of Los Angeles, indicating locations where women had been assaulted the night before. The duo came together six months later for In Mourning and in Rage, a work responding to the murders of ten women by the Hillside Strangler. Staged for TV news cameras, the piece cast ten women in costumes with coffin-like headpieces that would not be out of place in The Handmaid’s Tale. Dozens more women stood behind them like a “Greek chorus,” as the artist described.

When Unspeakable Acts ventures into the present, the tone shifts—becoming both breezy and skeptical—as if current artwork about rape is somehow suspect. Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), 2014–15, in which the artist lugged a dorm-room mattress around campus in protest of the school’s lack of prosecutorial action against her alleged rapist, is discussed in terms of the attention it garnered, both positive and negative. Here, the negative side—including a quote from Camille Paglia calling it a “parody of the worst aspects of . . . grievance-oriented feminism”—gets more emphasis. Princenthal does not discuss the formal aspects of the work itself. Mainly, Sulkowicz is mentioned so the author can point out that “privileged, young, and attractive women who have the wherewithal to state their cases” get a disproportionate amount of attention in the art world. While it’s a fair point, the reader can also sense a generational divide in these passages. Although Princenthal never criticizes younger artists directly, there are hints of deeper discontent. At the beginning of the book, Princenthal warns that recent uprisings such as #MeToo suggest that “we’re all equally victims,” writing that the hashtag is “unfortunately childish.”

Early in the book, Princenthal calls Mendieta’s rape pieces “exceedingly raw,” “appallingly literal,” and “a kind of self-sacrifice of dignity and of artfulness” in comparison to the symbolism in a work like Ablutions. She finds the rural version of the staged assault, in which Mendieta’s nude body seems to almost fade into the meadow, more successful—as opposed to the bloody apartment work—because there is “ambiguity, near-invisibility, and ultimately disappearance.” But, when considering aesthetic questions with political weight, perhaps we should not be so enamored with “ambiguity.” Three chapters after Princenthal praises this quality in Mendieta’s work, she discusses how the artist died: plummeting in 1985 from a thirty-fourth-story window of the apartment she shared with her husband, the artist Carl Andre. (Andre was charged with her murder but acquitted.) Since the 1990s, protests have been held at Andre’s openings so that the art world will not forget what happened. Movements like #MeToo continue this tradition of protest, questioning who ambiguity actually serves and presenting us with the difficult work of parsing the consequences.

Wendy Vogel is a Brooklyn-based writer and curator.