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The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born

An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

The Artists' Branch of the "Movement"
 New York, May-June, 1969

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.

The blacks were not the only faction to make waves during the spring of 1969. The women among us, at first only a few though their numbers were to swell, had begun to dance to a different piper. They were quite defensive at first, as though they assumed we assumed their position was a joke, and they wanted us to know they really were serious. A few of them began to demand greater equality for women as artists and at last for an amendment to our Thirteen Demands to include not only a black wing at the Modern but a women artists' wing as well. Militant feminism was still a year or so away, but these women were quite insistent even then. At first this sub-group was known simply as the Coalition's Ad Hoc Women's Committee, but towards the beginning of summer, some of them began to embrace the melodramatic title of "WAR," or Women Artists in Revolution. To the surprise of many the name stuck.

I immediately took up their cause, partly because I had long regarded myself as an advocate of women's rights partly because I had seen what difficulties Ilene had encountered dealing with galleries, particularly on the continent, simply because she was a woman, but also because I sensed that here was another issue that could grind the Coalition to bits and must be accommodated. I do not want to paint myself in bright heroic colors on this issue, for I had no inkling of the sheer rancor and fury that would soon surround this subject, but I was concerned about this matter and made my concern known from the beginning.

My friend the art critic Gregory Battcock was not so lucky. Already in March Gregory had published an article in the New York Free Press that had these early feminists calling for his head,

"Someone actually said that what's more important than black artists are women artists in general who have never been encouraged to be in art, and are never given an even break, only trodden upon. God, if I hear that line again. If anything women have too much power in the art world and every other world in modern America. And, there are so many Rich American Women Artists that one should make a list starting off with Helen Frankenthaler...and then add women artists like Lee Krasner, Lee Bontacou, Louise Nevelson, Elaine de Kooning, Marisol..."

And he went on listing several other women artists.

As always Gregory deserves praise for shooting straight and saying just what he felt, however his comments may look in retrospect. In point of fact, Gregory was, as I have said elsewhere, one of the most committed spokesmen for what came to be known as Gay Liberation, and I suspect it may well be impossible for these two branches of the liberation movement to be altogether objective about each other, even though the feminists also include representatives of their own gay community. I mention this dispute not merely in passing, but as an example of how the various branches of the movement were to hinder one another instead of providing mutual support, a theme I shall return to when I discuss the reasons why the Sixties slowly wound themselves down.

Another who had doubts about the women's cause at that time was, surprisingly enough, Lucy Lippard, already a well-known art critic. I believe her solidarity with other women was less important to her at that period than her loyalty to the established hierarchy of the arts and her own position as a critic in that hierarchy. She had not at that time chosen to consider an artist's sex as being a factor in the work being produced, though she was later to jump on the feminist bandwagon and claim that there was such a thing as a "feminist" element in art.

In spite of the unity our sessions working on the two published books had created, it was hard to keep the group from flying apart during the week after our demonstration. Good news was on the way, though we did not know it, but even when it came, it could not countervail the factionalism and pettiness which seemed to be the primary concern of our members. It has often occurred to me that in any contest, be it political, institutional, or personal, it is not the better party—in any positive sense of "better"—who ultimately wins but the one that has the fewest internal conflicts going on a group or individual basis. And often this party wins merely by virtue of outlasting the adversary.

On May 10 we held another demonstration at the Modern, and this served to distract some of our artists from their squabbles. But not all our members took part, and it was on the whole a minor though amusing affair. The goal of the demonstration was to play up once again our demand for free admission to the museum. As the Modern was now claiming that anyone could enter without paying if he bothered to approach the downstairs information desk and ask to be admitted, we instructed a number of arts students to do this. and some of them secured admission in this way. It was a Saturday, and there were long lines waiting to get in. We therefore explained this tactic to those waiting to pay their money by means of a prepared leaflet.

But we also warned those standing on line that they might have to wait some time to enter, as we had another little trick to play. At least two dozen of our members were waiting on this line in a group, and when they came to the box office, they started to pay the $1.50 admission fee, but all in pennies, slowly and laboriously, counting out each penny to the total number of one hundred and fifty. The museum guards were furious, another stall was opened for tickets, but several of our members succeeded in reaching it as well. The guards began to push and shove the artists, and there was a good deal of tension, but finally we had all spent our pennies and entered the museum with our hard-earned tickets. There we gathered in the garden and sipped beer for an hour or so, while the massed museum security forces watched our every move in case we were planning any further action.

[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]


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This book excerpt is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
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