This dissertation looks at the artistic practice of Ree Morton (1936–1977) between 1968 and 1977 as a case study to investigate the historical significance of women making installation art in North America. Since the 1980s, academic and institutional discourse has largely foregrounded the legacies of male artists in historical narratives of interdisciplinary and immersive spatial art practices of the second half of the twentieth century i.e. what has become broadly known as ‘installation art’. In reproducing these gender-biased histories (particularly in surveys and exhibitions attempting to detail or trace the development of installation art since the 1960s) many women installation artists and related socio-political histories related to gendered identity have been overlooked.
To address the marginalization of women artists in installation art histories, I look closely at the interdisciplinary artwork and career of Ree Morton across the art historical categories she partially inhabits including conceptual art, post-minimalist sculpture, feminist art, and the trajectory of installation art in the 1970s. I suggest that the emergent tradition of large-scale sculptural structures, immersive environments as well as indoor and outdoor architectural installations by artists like Ree Morton, Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, and others co-emerged in conversation with (and in reaction to) second wave feminism, feminist art and socio-political theories of private and public space (particularly domestic space), and the broader gendered reconfiguration of artistic labor. It is through engagement with these histories and discourses that I draw out how these artists and their artworks enact an alternative history of early installation art.
Crucially, the artists and the installation works discussed here do not represent a cohesive aesthetic strategy or a particular feminist ideology. Instead, when grouped together, these artists survey a range of critical positions that challenge the intersecting parameters of current installation and feminist art canons where their work has yet to be adequately addressed. I utilize recent theories of feminist materialism that renders labor and the body as codetermined sites of analysis to explore how these artworks (in particular those of Ree Morton) critique and reconfigure concepts such as: domestic work and its spaces; “feminine aesthetics”; and the gendered professionalization of artists in the 1970s. I particularly explore women artists’ spaces such (domestic) studios and notebooks as sites of practice and process, and consider how the representation of intersecting labors (artistic, domestic, maternal and intellectual) manifest in women’s installation artworks as physical and figurative acts of home-making.
Chapter One examines why Feminist Installation Art is necessarily a proposition within art history because of its hitherto absent status in both feminist art and installation art histories. As such, both histories are critically reviewed. I consider how the Femme Maison artworks by Louise Bourgeois operate in dialogue with recent materialist feminist theories of the body and labor articulate a historical and theoretical paradigm of the relationship between the female body and the built environment of the home from which to examine the intersections of gender, labour and domesticity in feminist installation art practices of the 1970s. Chapter Two considers the context of conceptual art to examine certain configurations of (gendered) labor as it relates to ‘working’ in the studio and in notebooks. This chapter draws heavily on the notebooks of Ree Morton and theoretically examines the link between labor, autobiographical writing, drawing and installation art. Chapter Three presents archive research on Ree Morton, Alice Aycock and Mary Miss and other feminist artists and avant-garde architects and theories of space and domesticity in New York in the mid-1970s. I consider the discursive implications of women artists physically building domestic installation art spaces as a critique of gendered labor. Chapter Four considers how to contextualize feminist installation art within feminist art history. I examine the ways that most of the artists discussed in this study professed a range of attitudes to 1970s feminisms, feminist art and gendered aesthetics of craft and decorative arts. Often wishing to refrain from “women-artist” labels while maintaining a distinct interest in the gendered body and gendered space, I consider how the desires and resistance to gendered self-identification have affected historicization. Chapter Five concludes with observations about the two most famous feminist installation artworks – The Dinner Party (1979) and Womanhouse (1972) – to argue that the way these works have been historicized has often obscured the politics of gendered labor and space at stake in feminist art and installation art. I examine Ree Morton’s Souvenir Piece (1974) as a key example of feminist installation artwork that foregrounds labor, gender, space and domesticity in alternative ways.
It is the overarching argument of this study that investigating feminist installation art – and its myriad aesthetic and strategic positions – allows for the work of women and feminist installation artists in the 1970s (particularly that of Ree Morton) to emerge as critical interventions across the registers of 1970s art histories.