A Short History
A.I.R. Gallery (Artists in Residence, Inc.) was established in 1972 as the first not-for-profit, artist-directed and maintained gallery for women artists in the United States.
In 1972, artists Susan Williams and Barbara Zucker were joined by Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero and selected fourteen more women artists to form twenty co-founders of A.I.R. Gallery. The group of twenty included Rachel bas-Cohain, Judith Bernstein, Blythe Bohnan, Agnes Denes, Daria Dorosh, Loretta Dunkelman, Harmony Hammond, Laurace James, Nancy Kitchell, Louise Kramer, Anne Healy, Rosemarie Mayer, Patsy Norvell and Howardena Pindell. Together they renovated their first gallery space at 97 Wooster Street in New York City, established policy, and incorporated as a 501c3 not-for-profit organization.
At the original meeting to form the gallery on March 17, 1972, artist Howardena Pindell suggested the name ‘EYRE Gallery’ for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The artists decided on ‘A.I.R. Gallery’, with A.I.R. shortened from “Artists in Residence”. In the 1960s artists began to work and live in industrial lofts in Soho previously used only during conventional work days; heat and sometimes even water were turned off at night and on weekends. With artists in residence, the fire department mandated an “A.I.R.” sign on the floors occupied by artist in case of emergency. After much discussion, the founding artists chose the name A.I.R. Gallery, announcing that women artists were now permanent residents in the art world.
The gallery doors opened on September 16, 1972, with ten of the twenty gallery artists. The event was covered by a broad spectrum of publications such as Domus, The New York Times, and Ms. Magazine. From the first year, A.I.R. established an internship for students in art-related majors, hosted community-oriented programs, performances, discussions on topics of art and feminism, and initiated invitational shows for non-member artists.
As the governing body of the organization, the New York artists of A.I.R. determine the direction of the gallery and by majority vote accept new artists when there is an opening. Each artist is in charge of her own exhibition; she curates and installs her work, allowing for experimentation and risk not always possible in commercial venues.
In the Spring of 1976, French critic Aline Dallier was asked to curate a show of contemporary French women artists for A.I.R. Combative Acts, Profiles and Voices, co-ordinated by Nancy Spero, was the first in a series of international shows sponsored by the gallery. Others included:
- Women Artists from Japan (1978, co-ordinated by Kazuko)
- Artists from Israel (1979 co-ordinated by Rachel bas-Cohain)
- Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists in the United States (1980, co-curated by Kazuko and Ana Mendieta)
- Sweden Comes to New York (1981, co-ordinated by Rachel bas-Cohain and Daria Dorosh)
- Choice (1992, over 750 small works on the theme of reproductive rights)
- States of the Art (1993, curated by Lowery Sims, Curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Caught Between Mind and Body (1994, curated by Betti Sue Hertz, of the Bronx Arts Council, on women’s health)
- Imprint (1994, the first large scale digital print workshop and exhibition, co-ordinated by Daria Dorosh)
- Domestic Goods: Women Artists from Central Europe (2005, co-ordinated by Ágnes Berecz)
- A.I.R. Expedition Sweden (2010, group show by seven Swedish women artists, coordinated by Daria Dorosh)
An archive on the history of A.I.R. is available at The Downtown Collection of the Fales Library and Special Collections, housed in the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library at New York University.
The History Show
In 2006, A.I.R. Gallery’s archive was acquired by The Downtown Collection of the Fales Library and Special Collections,housed at the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library at New York University. A.I.R. Gallery: The History Show, Archival Materials from 1972 through Present, curated by former A.I.R. directors Kat Griefen and Dena Muller was on view at the library’s Tracy/Barry Gallery September 16 – December 13, 2008. The show’s timeline of over 600 exhibition announcements mapped the changing artists and styles of A.I.R. Gallery. Posters, photographs, catalogues, administrative materials, articles, letters, and other correspondence illuminated the growth of the gallery in budget, physical size, and scope of activities and showed the various affiliations of its artists with the larger art world. In celebration of the opening of the archives, a short film directed by Meredith Drum, In Residence: A History of A.I.R. Gallery, was screened.
Concurrently, A.I.R. Gallery: The History Show, Work by A.I.R. Artists from 1972 to the Present, curated by Kat Griefen and Carey Lovelace, was presented in A.I.R.’s new Brooklyn location October 2 – November 29, 2008. The historic two-part exhibition brought together artworks by more than 75 of A.I.R.’s family of members.
The History Show offered an overview of individual artistic achievement and the organization’s commitment to artistic diversity and authenticity, regardless of the trends in the contemporary art world. While all the artists participated in the feminist structure of the gallery, this first full overview showed the groundbreaking work the gallery’s individual artists made in a number of pivotal movements, such as environmental or earthworks, new feminist strategies, and innovations in the use of unconventional materials. All media were represented: photography, sculpture, painting, performance, videos, sound work, installations, performance, and drawings. This diversity of approach has been the hallmark of the artists at A.I.R. Gallery from 1972 to the present.
The women who have contributed to A.I.R. Gallery for forty years do not constitute a particular movement or school. Instead, the women are a cohesive, vitally important social force with a commitment to A.I.R. Gallery, and, by extension, a dedication to the social, cultural and political priorities that A.I.R. Gallery represents.
–Catherine J. Morris, Curator, Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum
Aloft in Mid A.I.R.
by Carey Lovelace
It is hard to recreate how epochal it was. Two friends who shared a Centre Street studio in downtown Manhattan decided to form the first all women’s artist-run gallery. Artist-run galleries were “not thought of highly,” remembers Barbara Zucker. “The only thing worse would be a women’s co-op. A double negative. It was thrilling!”1
Then, feminism was in its infancy, it had barely penetrated the New York art world a year earlier, notably in a historic 1970 Whitney Museum protest, launched by the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists, to draw attention to the dismal 5 percent or less of female representation in the museum’s prestigious annual. In one action, saboteurs, famously, cached Tampax and hardboiled eggs in sculptures and alcoves around the museum with the hopeful demand “Fifty Percent” on them. Of course, misogyny is still alive and well, but in those days, it flourished unquestioned. “Dames can’t paint,” as Barnett Newman said. This was a common belief among artists. Dealers deployed the rejection line, “You’ll just get married and pregnant.” Or as gallerist Allan Frumkin was quoted: “I don’t like women. They cry.”2
Given those realities, Zucker and Susan Williams, were unclear about how to find others of their ilk—or if more than a handful even existed. Critic Lucy Lippard directed them to the Ad Hoc Art Registry that she had been collecting. In a year’s time they had gathered slides from some 600 women, most operating (like the two friends) in isolation. For Zucker:
“It was so moving to see that work, to realize how many of us there were–like the first time I’d snorkled. I’d thought the world existed above the water line. Then I looked under the sea and saw the world there was at least as big as the one on top.”3
They meanwhile had joined with two others, Dotty Attie and painter Mary Grigoriadis. The four visited 55 studios. “We took this task very seriously,” recalls Grigoriadis. We spent days driving around New York City, “also trying to be as sensitive as possible.”4 A majority of three was needed for approval, but Grigoriadis recalls, it was usually unanimous. “We knew right away.” However, a handful of the approved declined, nervous about being in an all-female gallery. (And some who joined, Williams recalls, were warned, “What are you doing, it’s a big mistake!”5)
At the first meeting, March 17, 1972, in Williams’s loft, surrounded by her huge hanging transparent “bag” installations, the “approved” showed up, including Maude Boltz and Nancy Spero (who had joined the core founding group), as well as Louise Bourgeois, Howardena Pindell, the late Ree Morton, Harmony Hammond, and Cynthia Carlson. For logistical reasons, several dropped out, and were replaced by others. They ended up with a highly eclectic mix of 20, most in their 30s. Agnes Denes left an uptown gallery to join them.
“The most important thing was that the work be really, really good,” said Attie.6
In those early days of feminism’s high hopes and aspirations toward consensus, group meetings could be anguishing. The name “A.I.R.” arose when Pindell suggested “Jane Eyre.” From that came “air”–then, “A.I.R.,” a reference to the “Artists in Residence” certification (an actual piece of paper) given by the city to artists who had met certain criteria to allow them to live in otherwise illegal commercial spaces. “It was one of the few moments when we all agreed,” says Zucker.7
Over the summer, members renovated the dark, narrow, 70-foot-long storefront at 97 Wooster St., located in Soho in downtown Manhattan, which had peeling plaster and warped floors, rusting pipes and radiators.8 Patsy Norvell and Laurie James knew carpentry,9 teaching others to build walls and do electrical wiring.10 Denes spent the summer refinishing the floors they laid themselves with her husband and son.11 One man said, “I can’t wait for the gallery to open, to come and see how you girls made your walls. Ha, ha, ha.”12 Committees were formed, not-for-profit status applied for, arguments raged. In a trial-by-fire, deep affections and camaraderie were forged.
On September 16, 1972, A.I.R., the first all-women’s gallery,13 held its inaugural exhibit in the former machine shop at Wooster St. For space reasons, it featured half the gallery’s members, the order determined by drawing straws. The range of styles was unusual, though this stylistic diversity soon became commonplace as “pluralism” took hold in the1970s. The Pattern and Decoration style that started in that decade was manifested early in Norvell’s textile pleated wall pieces of white vellum and gaily colored plastic. Spero’s Codex Artaud-based scroll works of diaphanous paper inscribed with typewritten words would become legendary later on, with its prescient emphasis on language and the body. And there was the near-hilarious feminist satire in Judith Bernstein’s huge, frenetic, very phallic-looking charcoal drawing of a “screw” from her Hardware series. Also on view were works by Boltz, Daria Dorosh, Rachel bas-Cohain, Nancy W. Kitchell, Loretta Dunkelman, James, and Rosemary Mayer. (The gallery’s closing show that season featured the other members: Zucker, Williams, Grigoriadis, Attie, Pindell, Denes, Hammond, Blythe Bohnen, Anne Healy, and Louise Kramer.)
Despite fears that the exhibit would be a second-rate showing—a dreaded confirmation that women couldn’t be “real” artists—A.I.R. proved “a rather remarkable and instantaneous success,” as Judy Siegel wrote, considering “it was initiated without ‘stars’ or powerful patronage.”14
In New York Magazine, critic Barbara Rose praised the gallery’s professionalism, calling its subsequent shows “a dignified, impressive display of both guts and intelligence.”15
After the opening (the story goes) one man said grudgingly, “Okay, you did it; you found 20 good women artists. But that’s it.”16
Thus began an unlikely “love affair” between the art world and A.I.R., an institution that was part for-profit gallery, part a radical, progressive, even subversive, not-for-profit organization, which created a home for many women, although it served men’s interests as well. At its founding, the Monday Night Program series was launched, which ran from 1972 to 1981, funded by a grant from The New York State Council on the Arts. The series would be renamed are reformatted as the Current Issues series (1982-1987) also funded by NYSCA and the National Endowment for the Arts. The programs included everything from general-audience panels on criticism, the market, and public art, to “slide raps” on women’s work, to helpful “how-to’s” (“Getting Your Work Out,” “Tax Night,” workshops on pottery, weaving, and “making things”).
A.I.R. stood at the center of the day’s debates—about criticism, commercialism, and shifting tastes. And, by the mid-1970s, with its feminist upsurge, these issues included the question of women’s relationship–or lack thereof–to art’s power structure. And these debates, in turn, touched on the very mission of the gallery itself. Should A.I.R.’s focus be on the professional art world, on advancing members’ careers, or should its primary contribution be to create successful “role models” for the next generation? Or should it, more altruistically and broadly, have a responsibility to help forge new alternatives to the traditional marketplace? From the beginning, it was agreed the all-woman gallery was not intended to be primarily “nurturing” or “motherly,” or to do consciousness raising. But it did act as a support for women artists. (However, several years in, when one member suggested doing a show with men in it–“Like, okay, we’ve made our little statement”–it caused a furor.) But, should there even be such “separatist” organizations; didn’t this “ghetto-ize” women? Yet, how could feminism’s far-reaching possibilities (anti-hierarchy, total egalitarianism, non-competitiveness) be explored except in radical new types of groupings?
By now, the gallery had artists clamoring to get in. A.I.R.’s only stated criterion for membership was (and is) “quality.” But this is a loaded term, one that many activists have felt has been used to exclude the disenfranchised. Despite the way this might be seen as ambivalence toward the day’s feminist party line, however—the aspiration toward revolutionizing standards—the group soon acknowledged other feminist goals, for example, the importance of building a heritage. It collaborated with Vassar College on a 1976 exhibit of female artists of the 1930s. Then, Attie and Spero, who were aware of the advanced work being done in Europe with little exposure here, invited a guest curator, Aline Dallier, to organize a group show by women from Paris in 1976 (Combative Acts Profiles and Voices). This led to other international invitationals–including Israel, then Japan (organized by Attie, Spero, and Kazuko), Sweden (coordinated by Lasch, Dorosh and bas-Cohain) and most recently an exchange exhibition with the 2B Gallery in Budapest in 2006 (planned by Louise McCagg and A.I.R.’s Director, Dena Muller). In 1980, new member Ana Mendieta and founding member Kazuko staged a group show of Third World women artists titled Dialectics of Isolation –this, in advance of the later importance of “multiculturalism.”
The gallery was on the forefront of many developments. For example, the controversial, but widely influential Goddess Movement, “the political ramifications of the sacred female,” was launched in part within its narrow precincts. Mary Beth Edelson, who joined in 1975, staged performances like her tribute to women accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, Your 7,000 Years Are Up.17 And activist Hammond held a 1977 seminar on the then-new, but fundamentally important topic of women and violence.
Meanwhile, A.I.R. had managed to spearhead a proliferation of co-ops. Womanspace opened in a converted Los Angeles laundromat in January, 1973; Soho 20 opened in New York; and also Artemisia in Chicago, WARM in Minneapolis, Front Range in Colorado, WAIT (Women Artists It’s Time) in Miami, Hera in Wakefield, RI, and Central Hall, in Long Island, to name a few.
A.I.R.’s structure evolved. At first it was entirely artist-run, and each member was required to “gallery sit.” Soon an internship program was initiated, to aid members and provide leadership to young women artists and art professionals. The organization initially opposed out of principle, then experimented with, and finally fully embraced hiring a non-member director, and the gallery became further professionalized. Members left, and were replaced by others. In 1981, the quarters moved a bit outside Soho’s circumference, to Crosby Street—coinciding with 1980s Reagan-era backlash, when issues relating to feminism fell wildly out of favor and Soho started to become a high-priced residential district. In addition, the Affiliate Program, now called the National Members Program, was launched that year to incorporate more regional views and to give women artists outside of NYC an opportunity to show. With its pragmatic, artist-run, committee-based format and some risk-taking, however, an A.I.R. partnership was formed to lease space, and A.I.R. survived. Thanks in part to the gallery’s efforts, the notion of the “great” woman artist18 had become a commonplace. This, in turn, changed conditions for the gallery. As the 1980s progressed, other iconic institutions fell away—the Feminist Studio Workshop with its visionary training program, the Heresies Collective, the Los Angeles Woman’s Building all had shut by the early 1990s. (So had many commercial galleries.)
The scarcity of exhibition opportunities that existed for women seem far away today. When it began, A.I.R. was tossed on the seas of controversy due to its woman-oriented politics. This undercurrent of controversy lingers today. Meanwhile, the gallery’s mission to serve those outside the art-world power structure has evolved—now it comprises multiple geographies, aesthetic approaches, and predilections.
Launched in an exploratory age, this gallery that became a classic is now an established presence. The women who founded A.I.R. were ready to take a leap of faith and explore fully “below the sea”–the undiscovered visual world that amazed them when they first looked through those Ad Hoc slides.
Much time has passed from 1972 to 2008. In this time, A.I.R. Gallery has helped bring a universe up to the air for all to see.
1 Panel, “A.I.R.: The Early Years,” a discussion by original gallery members, moderated by Daria Dorosh, with Barbara Zucker, Mary Grigoriadis, and Dottie Attie, March 19, 1996 at A.I.R., 40 Wooster St, NYC.
2 Carol Haerer
3 A.I.R. 1996 panel.
4 A.I.R. 1996 panel.
5 A.I.R. 1996 panel.
6 A.I.R. video
7 Zucker, Barbara, “Making A.I.R.,” Heresies #7.
8 Ms. 2/73; Corinne Robins, “The A.I.R. Gallery: 1972-78″ Overview 1972-77, An Exhibition in Two Parts, 1978.
9 Zucker, Barbara, “Making A.I.R.,” Heresies #7.
10 Ms. 2/73; Corinne Robins, “The A.I.R. Gallery: 1972-78″ Overview 1972-77, An Exhibition in Two Parts, 1978.
11 Author’s interview, Agnes Denes, August 27, 1998.
12 A.I.R. panel.
13 Actually another woman’s gallery, Gallery 15, founded in 1958, operated briefly at 59 W. 54th St, NYC.
14 In Woman Artists News, 1975, cited in Siegel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream, NY: Midmarch Art Press, 1992.
15 Nov. 6, 1972, p. 91.
16 Robins, “A.I.R. Gallery.”
17 Siegel, Mutiny, xvi.
18 As in “Why Are There No Great Women Artists,” Linda Nochlin’s influential 1971 essay.
A.I.R. Gallery: A Spacetime Continuum
by Dena Muller
Most people know A.I.R. Gallery for the flare it sent out over the art world in the early seventies. By combining the structure of an artists’ cooperative with feminism to create an alternative gallery for women artists in the epicenter of New York’s increasingly market-driven art scene, the gallery garnered early critical and public attention.
While everyone loves a good founding story and feminism rightfully demands an accurate telling of credit where credit is due, what is most remarkable about A.I.R., these many years later, is that it is open today and largely unchanged in its core mission: to support individual artists through feminism’s collaborative approach. What are we to make of that? That women artists still don’t experience unfettered professional equality? (Unfortunately, yes, especially when you examine commercial trends.) That artists are still drawn to a peer-group, collective-management model that protects the voice of the artist in the din of the market? (Interestingly, yes.) That A.I.R.’s founding mission and structure had a certain simplicity and directness that guaranteed its longevity? (Unexpectedly, 36 years later, yes.)
In the spring of 1965, several years before A.I.R. opened, newly elected President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Endowment for the Arts into legislation declaring:
We fully recognize that no government can call artistic excellence into existence. It must flow from the quality of the society and the good fortune of the Nation. Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his calling in his own way. Freedom is an essential condition for the artist, and in proportion as freedom is diminished so is the prospect of artistic achievement.1
In the years that followed, the visual arts in America flourished in unexpected ways through a freedom of expression in tandem with the social justice movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. A.I.R.’s first decade cut a feminist swath through this era of experimentation as the gallery served as a site for exhibitions and public programs that caught the attention of the critics, while captivating and challenging its audience. Johnson’s statement underlines the complexities facing the gallery artists as they endeavored to exercise the freedom that the President described as the “essential condition” for artists, in a world that unconsciously applied the male pronoun to all references to artists and their work. Then, as the 1980s culminated in the heated exchanges of a “culture war” in the political and popular discourse – fueled by feminism, the AIDS crisis, and a rising American conservatism – the unrestricted freedom of the artist to create was challenged openly through a plot to diminish and dismantle the NEA.
While arguments focused on the “blasphemy” of Andres Serrano’s images and the “obscenity” of Robert Mapplethorpe’s, 2 the world spent a lot of time looking at both men’s work. A.I.R.’s exhibition schedule, laced through with occasional blasphemy and obscenity (when it suited the artist’s vision), and characterized, as always, by a broad range of styles and media, continued to thrive. While A.I.R. did lose the New York State Council on the Arts funding it was founded on and sustained by in its first fifteen years, the gallery diversified and expanded to adapt to the changing art world and the changing needs of women artists.
With the creation of the National Artists Program in the mid-80s as the gallery moved from rented space on Wooster Street to purchased space on Crosby Street, A.I.R. expanded its base to include work by women artists outside New York. In the early 90s, as the effort to add property ownership to its list of cooperative activities failed, A.I.R. relocated back to Wooster Street and the Fellowship Program was established. In 1993, led by gallery member, Stephanie Bernheim, the artists agreed to seek support to sponsor emerging artists who expressed an interest in the gallery but were daunted by the dues structure and service on the Board of Directors. The Fellowship Program, in its earliest years provided sponsorship on a case-by-case basis as funds were available. As the program grew and A.I.R. expanded into a larger space in Chelsea, it solidified into a program that runs parallel to the ongoing Membership Program. Through grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Cultural Arts Fund, the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as private individual’s and member’s donations, the program has served nearly thirty artists in fifteen years. The Fellowship Program has also introduced the use of an outside review panel of critics, curators and artists, to select recipients for the one-year program culminating in a solo show opportunity in the gallery space.
It is also in this most recent era of growth, since the move back to Wooster Street in the early 1990s, that A.I.R. staff and member artists began to recognize the critical need to document and archive the history and continuation of the gallery. Beginning in 1994, then director Alissa Schoenfeld, with the support of archivist Phyllis Barr, began a process of organizing materials stored in the gallery and submitted by the more than 80 artists who had been members since 1972 into an archive of the gallery’s founding, ongoing administration, exhibitions, programs, and member artists. The archive, while it was stored at A.I.R., was often used by students, writers, members, and staff. Today, through a growing interest in the alternative, New York art scene of the second half of the 20th century and in particular the impact of feminism on the movements, organizations, and artists of that time, the A.I.R. archive has found a public home in the Downtown Collection of New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections.
At the beginning of the 21st century, as mid-20th century social justice movements begin to face the possibility that they may have eaten their young by often unintentionally overlooking – and on occasion actively disempowering – emerging leadership, A.I.R. again demonstrates its resiliency. Facing the challenge of remaining pertinent amidst a changing art world and relevant to the differing generational perspectives of women newly entering the field as professional artists, A.I.R. has adapted programmatically to continue to be inclusive. Through maintaining its Membership Program and schedule of members’ solo exhibitions, as well as providing support to emerging and under-represented artists through its Fellowship Program, A.I.R. remains an art world fixture.
A.I.R. – an acronym for Artists in Residence – is able, with just a sparse stroke of letters and punctuation, to refer simultaneously to the role “residency” in a supportive environment plays in the development of an artist, the role artists play in the development of a community, and the role feminism plays in making the art world habitable for all under-represented artists.
For many artists, A.I.R. Gallery has a provided an opportunity for exploration and innovation impossible in other settings. Daria Dorosh, a multi-media artist who has maintained her membership in A.I.R. since she helped to found the gallery, explains the impact of A.I.R. on her career and her work: “I believe that A.I.R. remains vital today because it is a ‘do-it–yourself’ model . Women had to be included in the emergence of the digital age, in which DIY continues to be prominent. A.I.R. relies on a team process and has always focused on quality and diversity of artwork by women instead of a feminism with a particular aesthetic or political point of view. It has been a viable context for my own work, which explores what it means to be an artist across the decades that were a transition from the analog way of life to the digital.”3
A.I.R.’s earliest activities fully considered the role of gender in artistic practice but never definitively sided with Feminist Art’s exploration of a feminine aesthetic or with Modernism’s last hold on the universality of the creative impulse. The early inclusion of artists working in diverse traditions, media, and practices allowed for a continuation of that inclusion today, making it easy for the gallery to replicate itself as different artists rotate through its programs. In its early years, the gallery worked outwardly to radicalize the art world and struggled inwardly to maintain a collective of radically divergent viewpoints. A.I.R.’s pliancy has made it stalwart.
1. Lyndon B. Johnson, Statement by the President on the Proposed National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, March 10, 1965, The American Presidency Project (John Woolley and Gerhard Peters) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=26803# (August 2008).
2. Margaret Quigley, Political Research Associates, The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy: A Chronology of Events, The 1989-1991 Battles, http://www.publiceye.org/theocrat/Mapplethorpe_Chrono.html (August 2008).
3. Panel, “DIY Feminisms: from Pioneer to Punk to Post Digital.” Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, NYC, March 19, 2008. Moderators: Judith K. Brodsky, Kat Griefen. Panelists: Daria Dorosh, Raphaele Shirley.
by Lucy Lippard
The A.I.R. Gallery was founded because, despite gains made by the early women artists’ movement, the majority of the emergent women had no place to show their art. The commercial galleries were filled up with men and, even if more good will existed than it does, it would take forever for women to sift through the extant openings. Other co-ops also tended to be run by men and to lack the cohesion that a political alliance, no matter how feeble, provides an all-woman gallery. Precedents existed on the West Coast (notably Woman-space, later to be absorbed into the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles) and A.I.R. itself has since been followed by other women’s galleries—ARC and Artemesia in Chicago, 707 and the two Grand-view Galleries in L.A., Hera in Wakefield, R.I., SoHo 20 in New York, WARM in Minneapolis, and so forth.
For the most part, A.I.R. has resisted the temptation to focus inwards on its own artists rather than looking outwards towards all women artists. It holds yearly invitational shows, and recently had its first international exhibition—a group of women from Paris, none of whom was previously known in New York A.I.R.’s non-profit status allows foundation support of parallel projects like the Monday night programs of film, panels, readings, discussions; the sponsoring of outside exhibitions, such as that of women artists from the 1930’s recently at Vassar; a possible periodical—and this portfolio, which offers a sampler of the gallery’s art for prices more accessible to other artists and to the growing feminist public which breaks art world (though not class) boundaries. It is only a pity that the space is too small to house the Women’s Art Registry of slides, from which the bulk of A.I.R.’s artists were initially selected.
Because not only styles but politics (opinions) vary so strongly, A.I.R.’s internal history has been a tempestuous one. At the beginning, there was a certain dissension among the 20 members as to how much the political aspect should be stressed. While all felt that the art came first, some felt that this meant “questions of exposure for women” came second, while others felt the two were synonymous (“I want everyone to know that it’s a women’s group. I want people to deal with the fact, not just have it be incidental”). There were initial fears of being “ghettoized”, i.e. ostracized by the “professional” art world. Some members feared that others saw the co-op as a “stepping stone” to a “regular gallery”. One of the founders may have spoken for many when she said she was constantly wrestling “with the idealism on which A.I.R. is founded and my avariciousness for my own success”. Some even felt that men might eventually be allowed to join. There were hopes and surprises. One woman felt that “this gallery could perhaps reduce some of the alienation from the art world that I felt and shared with the other women artists and would free us from male domination.” Still another found that “friendships with women in the gallery has done more for me than the opportunity to show . . . If I had my way, a co-op wouldn’t be at all integrated with the art world . . . I’d like to have a little different audience than I see in the art world. Something a little less manic” (Arts, Dec. 1972).
Now, at the beginning of its fifth season, six of the original members are no longer with the gallery and four are “adjuncts” (or showing elsewhere, though still participants) and there is no doubt that A.I.R. is and will remain a women’s gallery. However, that initial conflict—along the lines of the now famous distinction between a conflict—along the lines of the now famous distinction between a “liberated woman” (who wants to make it as a more or less gender-less equal in the man’s world) and a feminist (who is concerned with the needs of all women and is more likely to hold out for the hope of an alternative culture to make it equally a woman’s world) has, so far as I know, never been fully resolved. For me personally, the real importance of A.I.R. transcends its contribution of role models for women artists and art students, and its demonstration that a successful gallery can be built from scratch to provide a respected place for women’s art; it lies in the still tentative move towards a confident independence from the current competition and commodity-orientation, towards the recognition of women as a powerful creative force—powerful enough to change more than the look of the art world.
The brochure for A.I.R.’s opening show in September 1972 stated an intention to a “change attitudes about art by women. Because women artists have always met with such difficulty in showing their work there has been a strong pressure on women artists to produce work which conforms to already long-accepted norms, if women want their work to be shown at all. Thus the work of women artists is made to seem less innovative than that of male artists, as only the more conservative work is ever made public.” The implication was that women’s emergent “closed art” had something special, something specifically female, to offer. At the same time, in esthetic echoes of the political reservations mentioned above, there was a definite uneasiness about the dangers of positing a female esthetic, most frequently expressed as “art has no gender,” or as one artist put it, “first good art, second women”. Another felt “it’s a mistake to try to define what women’s art is, can be . . . [but] Our traditions as women are certainly different from men’s and our art education hasn’t done much to clarify the situation.” Someone else raised the question of men who also worked in fabrics and so-called feminine materials; and someone else felt there was a female sensibility but it must not be confused with feminist art, and “it is not based on a specific style or certain materials, but rather on something more intangible. One’s emotions. Women’s art is personal art . . . To be feminine gives a certain freedom in materials and ways of working” (Arts, Dec. 1972).
Still intangible is the critic’s challenge and I have been unsuccessfully trying to uncover or trace the network of that sensibility for years now. I find it extremely interesting that there have been very few one-woman shows at A.I.R. that I haven’t liked, on some level. I’d be the first to admit that I am prejudiced. I found on becoming a feminist (and before, though I didn’t admit it then) that the things I was temperamentally drawn to were shared by many other women—a certain “clutter”, fragmentation, layering, emotion, disjunction. I love looking at women’s work and mediocre art by women interests and moves me far more than mediocre art by men. What is under the surface, what is trying to escape, what has not yet found its proper form, or is disguised in a more socially acceptable form—these underlying currents I can identify, and identify with. Whether the style is representational, abstract, expressionist, conceptual, minimal, lyrical (or minimal-lyrical, which is a common genre at A.I.R.) makes little difference.
The attraction of women artists (and writers) to layering, transparencies’ overlays, levels, interstices between or around or inside forms within wildly varied stylistic matrices interests me because they seem so magnificently familiar—in the sense of recognition, not recapitulation. This attraction, this familiarity, is not surprising, given the new consciousness of the multiple structure of society and language as well as that of our daily lives inherent in the feminist movement. Many of these prints are visual counterparts of consciousness-raising—literally a raising from the depths of hidden, disturbing elements hitherto ignored, which has become so much a part of our new lives. Our (perhaps imposed) aptitude for positive fragmentation, for making connections between outwardly disparate parts—a product of the multiple roles played each day by most women—and the consciousness of our differences from men as advantages rather than as marks of inferiority quite naturally encourages the use of imagery based on our experiences as women. While it is too early to predict the results, these factors are already affecting men as well, men who envy the kind of contact women are coming to have with themselves and with each other, the kind of contact made concrete by enterprises like A.I.R.