Cynthia Carlson, “Untitled Inscape #1” (1970), Oil on canvas, 60 x 42 inches (Photo: Jason Mandella; courtesy of the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London)

While Lucy R. Lippard’s work as a pioneering theorist of art and feminism is renowned, her first outing as a feminist curator has, until recently, been almost entirely absent from history. In 1971, she organized Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists for the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Today it is widely considered to have been the first feminist exhibition in the United States, and it marked the debut of several unknown artists who would later become stars, among them Mary Heilmann, Howardena Pindell, and Adrian Piper.

I first heard of Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists around 2008, when I was simultaneously researching Lippard’s “numbers shows”(1969-74),  including her feminist-conceptual exhibition C. 7,500 (1974), and writing an essay for the book Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, which I also co-edited. In the latter, I was exploring the fact that, during the 1970s, MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] collected almost no work that engaged directly with second-wave feminism, and that the few works by women artists it did collect during this era were almost entirely abstract. I became particularly interested in the artists Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, and Jackie Winsor, all three of whom were personally involved in the feminist movement but whose activism was absent from their works in MoMA’s collection. All three also participated in Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists, and in my interviews with them described the profound experience of participating in the exhibition. I was keen to find out more about this largely forgotten show. 

Audrey Hemenway, “Swamp” (1971) from the 1971 exhibition Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, curated by Lucy R. Lippard. (courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum)

But information on Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists proved elusive. I scoured Lippard’s papers at the Archives of American Art but found nothing on the show. The only written documentation I could locate was the exhibition’s slim catalogue. Designed by the architect Susanna Torre, it included a brief and eloquent essay by Lippard and a single page on each artist, designed by each artist. While some pages took the form of conventional catalogue entries, others were works of art unto themselves. It became clear that these pages were not meant to represent what actually appeared in the show, and the catalogue did not include a checklist. 

After Modern Women was published in 2010, my research on Twenty Six got pushed to the back burner. In 2017, I returned to it and was planning to present a paper at a conference in Paris organized by the Archives of Women Artists, Research, and Exhibitions (AWARE). (I ended up withdrawing from the conference, as I had a baby just weeks before it took place — a feminist dilemma if there ever was one.) In preparation, I visited the Aldrich to consult their exhibition files but found mostly newspaper clippings and reviews, which though intriguing — penned largely by female critics yet overwhelmingly misogynistic — offered little reliable information. There was no meaningful correspondence and again, no checklist. But my visit put me back in touch with Amy Smith-Stewart, the Aldrich’s curator and a former colleague at MoMA PS1, who had also researched Twenty Six without much luck. Over lunch that day we came up with the idea to reconstruct the exhibition, which eventually led to 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone.

Yet even with our curatorial team focusing on Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists for almost five years, much about it remained a mystery. Rather late in the game, we found a handful of photographs of the original installation in the Miriam Schapiro Papers at Rutgers University. These seem to have been shot by Schapiro herself, who visited the exhibition with Lippard, Judy Chicago, and Grace Glueck, the latter of whom reviewed it for the New York Times. Schapiro and Chicago were then still formulating their theories about feminist art and core imagery, which would famously shape their 1971–72 CalArts Feminist Art Program and its final project, Womanhouse. Understanding this timing helped explain the lack of overly feminist work in Twenty Six — it was simply too early. 

Lippard’s own writings and interviews were some of our most useful sources, and she also contributed a new essay to the 52 Artists catalogue. We met with and interviewed the artists whenever possible and learned that many works in the show were no longer extant. Some had been site-specific and were dismantled after the exhibition. Some had deteriorated as many artists in the late 1960s and early ‘70s embraced polystyrene, resin, fiberglass, and other plastic-based materials. Inexpensive and easy to manipulate, these materials were especially attractive to women artists who lacked the money and studio space to use heavy, expensive stone or metal. Some were destroyed by the artists or lost over the years. 

Of course, this exhibition’s scant documentation conforms to the very concept of underrepresentation. In early 1971, second-wave feminism was still in its infancy and women artists were just beginning to organize an (ongoing) push for equal representation. (We must remember that the show took place a full two years before Roe v. Wade.) Lippard’s act of curating the exhibition was an activist gesture, but she understood that change would come slowly and meet with resistance from all corners. In an interview some years later, she reported that she never actually proposed a feminist exhibition to the Aldrich. Rather, the museum invited her to curate a show on any topic of her choosing, and only later did she reveal that she would exclusively feature women artists. The museum’s founder and lead patron, Larry Aldrich, was displeased with Lippard’s decision. He didn’t squelch the exhibition, but one wonders: Did his lack of enthusiasm affect the resources he was willing to invest in it? Would he have hired a photographer to shoot installation images of a show that he liked more? 

What does it mean to reconstruct a historical exhibition, especially one as poorly documented as Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists? To start, history has traditionally favored the powerful, but scholars have a responsibility to excavate its hidden corners, with the goal of forging a more inclusive picture of what happened and what it means. There is also much to be learned from how revolutionary thinkers formulate their ideas, and Lippard has explained that the process of organizing Twenty Six helped her develop what she calls her “feminist consciousness.” As for the artists, this exhibition offered a big break, and they uniformly speak of the critical role Lippard played in their lives and careers. Last but certainly not least, Lippard and her 26 artists supported each other and their work when few others would, proving that change — artistic, social, political — starts from the ground up. 

Alexandra Schwartz is an art historian, curator, and professor. Her other recent exhibitions include Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art at the Museum of Arts and Design; Ed Ruscha: OKLA at the Oklahoma...