In 1972, a group of female artists put on a show called Womanhouse in an abandoned Hollywood mansion. Considered the first female-centered art installation in the Western world, it consisted of art and performance pieces that focused, radically, on women and their association with the home. This included a kitchen with walls covered in sunny-side up eggs that looked like boobs, and artist Judy Chicago’s installation of a bathroom that was unsettlingly clean, save for some bloody pads and used tampons.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts sees its newest exhibit, Women House, as a kind of sequel to that 1972 installation. This decades-spanning show features work from over 30 artists that focus on women, homes, and housing, some of which come from the original Womanhouse. Visitors can even watch clips of filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas’ documentary on the ’72 show, including some very funny interviews with men about how they interpreted Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” (an example: “The lady had a problem. Or a lot of friends”).
NMWA’s sequel exhibit is divided into eight themed sections. “Desperate Housewives” culls work from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and focuses on the domestic functions expected of women—like Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Still” series. In these, Sherman photographs herself parodying the various wives and girlfriends often found in the movies. In one, she stands in the bathroom in a bobbed wig and towel, lost in her own reflection as the camera captures her from a lower, male-gaze-y angle. In others, she’s a tough, working-class henpecker; or else a bitchy wife who’s about to tell her husband to be nice to her stuffy friends. Sherman may have modeled these on studio publicity photos from the ’50s and ’60s, but her commentary on women and the media is still hilariously relevant.
“Desperate Housewives” also disrupts the notion of women as domestic workers, either for their husbands or another family. One of the strongest pieces is Brazilian artist Letícia Parente’s video, “Tarefa I” (Portuguese for “Task I”), of a black woman ironing her white employer’s dress while it’s still on her body. The footage recalls bell hooks’ critique of The Feminine Mystique, in which she discusses how author Betty Friedan didn’t address who would perform the housework and childcare for white middle-class women if they had the same access to jobs as white men. As hooks put it in her book Feminist Theory: “She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid … than to be a leisure class housewife.”
But Women House doesn’t just portray houses as a source of anxiety and disillusionment. In another of the show’s themes, “A Room of One’s Own,” homes are a place for comfort and creativity. A 1932 photograph, “Self-Portrait (in a cupboard),” shows artist Claude Cahun curled up comfortably on a shelf. Placed next to this photo is sculptor Kirsten Justesen’s homage to Cahun, 80 years later: a photograph of Justesen posing in a cabinet beside her sculptures. And in Zanele Muholi’s photo of a South African lesbian couple kissing in their kitchen, home isn’t something to escape from. Rather, it’s a cozy refuge the couple has established for themselves.
Then there are the pieces in which women actually are houses. A section titled “Femmes-Maisons” (French for “women-houses”) takes its title from an art series by Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois crafted sculptures and paintings in which women’s bodies are collapsed into houses. The strongest among these is a fabric sculpture of a tiny home emerging from a woman’s torso, as though her body were its natural landscape.
Perhaps the most famous femmes-maisons are Niki de Saint Phalle’s giant “Nanas” in Italy. These are much too enormous to be on display in a museum, but Women House includes her drawings of two of her Nana sculptures, as well as a video documenting her construction of one called “Hon” (Swedish for “she”). “Hon” is an enormous, 82-foot-long woman that you can enter like a house. Specifically, you can enter through her vagina, see a film in the movie theater in her arm, get something to drink at the milk bar under her breast, and slide down her knee.
Is this a commentary on how women are expected to give of themselves? Probably. But like the other works in this exhibit, it’s also an incredible piece of art, which Saint Phalle herself once described as a “cathedral.”
At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to May 28. 1250 New York Ave NW. $8-$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org.