Mothers of Invention: The Feminist Roots of Contemporary Art – Book Review

Kaena Daeppen 29 April 2024 min Read

The book Mothers of Invention: The Feminist Roots of Contemporary Art comprises an innovative collection of essays by four different authors. Each covers an artistic medium deeply influenced by feminist perspectives, dismantling the false notion regarding the negligible contribution of women in (art) history. Through the themes of performance art, craft, abstract art, and ecofeminism, this publication traces the evolution of feminist ideas through a unique catalog of artworks.

Although the book begins with American female artists, the authors expand their discussion to include non-Western, queer, and male artists from different classes. But before delving into the chapters of this publication, it is important to clarify the authors’ stance on feminism.

We want to go beyond narrow definitions that reduce it [feminism] to fitting women into the patriarchy. I think we are trying to see it more philosophically, as a way of approaching the world and understanding reality. That’s part of ending binaries, breaching boundaries, and going beyond the human.

Eleanor Heartney

Mothers of Invention, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2023, p. 19-20.

Performance Art and Action

Helaine Posner is an author and the Chief Curator Emerita at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY, USA. In the first chapter, she goes back to the 1920s and the Dada and Futurist movements, tracing the development of performance art. Deeply intertwined with the emergence of counterculture and largely driven by revolutionary contexts, much performance art then addressed societal issues. It served as a platform for female artists of  first-wave feminism, notably for denouncing assaults and providing an outlet for public expression.

Defying the boundaries between public and private, between art and daily life, female performance artists often relied on their naked bodies to interpret and portray women’s embodied experiences and to return the ‘personal’ back to art. The contemporary feminist rallying cry “the personal is political“ echoed throughout their work.

Helaine Posner

Mothers of Invention, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2023, p. 25.

The author presents various artworks from the 1960s to the present day. She highlights iconic figures such as Marina Abramović, Orlan, and Cindy Sherman, illustrating how performance has been utilized as a symbolic weapon to deconstruct patriarchal norms surrounding femininity.

Contemporary feminist art: Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975, performance at Women Here and Now, East Hampton, New York City, NY, USA. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2024.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975, performance at Women Here and Now, East Hampton, New York City, NY, USA. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2024.

Handmade: Art, Craft, and Feminism

This chapter is authored by the award-winning writer Nancy Princenthal. She delves into the process of women reclaiming craft and elucidates its backstory.

A focus on the handmade is just as important for clarifying women’s particular contributions, many of them long neglected, to contemporary art.

Nancy Princenthal

Mothers of Invention, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2023, p. 63.

The author explores the historical perception of craft, explaining how women integrated these practices into the art world. She reveals the self-perpetuating cycle of craft being undervalued because it was seen as a feminine hobby, while women were simultaneously confined to the realm of craft. For instance, she cites the Bauhaus Academy, in which female artists were restricted to textiles and ceramics workshops. Also, the craft arts hold significance due to their connection to traditional craftsmanship and non-Western influences. Consequently, it became integral to struggles for the rights of non-Western people. Finally, studying the history of craft raises awareness of the boundary between artwork and functional objects.

Beyond Tragic and Timeless: Women, Abstraction, and Feminism

Sue Scott is an independent curator, writer, and director of the Sue Scott Gallery in New York City, NY, USA. Long intrigued by abstract painting, she chose to expose it in her contributing chapter of the book, as a form of feminism connected with innovation while describing its formal and symbolic qualities.

This chapter is somewhat unique because, as the essence of abstract painting is to lack content, the question arises: How can it be feminist? Moreover, unlike other mediums discussed in this book, painting has long been a male-dominated sphere. Thus, this chapter delves into the struggle of female artists to establish their presence in abstract painting.

This discussion has more to do with how the artist sees herself in relation to the universe and sees her art as a way of making connections, rather than reacting and commenting on social interactions and hierarchies.

Sue Scott

Mothers of Invention, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2023, p. 103.

Among other topics, Scott discusses the significant influence of Hilma af Klint. Since 1906, this Swedish painter began creating abstract compositions, years before the so-called creator of abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky, driven by an impulse to establish a connection between consciousness or materiality and spirituality. However, unlike her male contemporaries, her work went unrecognized by the art world until 1985. The case of af Klint serves as evidence of the inherent misogyny in the art world, refusing to acknowledge her as the pioneer of abstract painting that she truly is. More broadly, abstract painting serves as an example of the systematic erasure of women’s contributions.

Contemporary feminist art: 

Hilma af Klint, The Large Figure Painting, Groupe III, The WU/Rose series, 1907, © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photograph by Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet.

Challenging Dominionism: How Women Rewrote the Role of Humans in Nature

The author and contributing editor, Eleanor Heartney, concludes the book with a chapter dedicated to ecofeminism. Having studied eco-art since the beginning of her career in the 1980s, she then turned her focus to eco-feminist art and the challenges posed by the essentialist notion linking women and nature.

This section differs significantly from the others. It is not centered around a specific artistic medium but rather around an engagement against the belief in human supremacy over the ecosystem. The feminist and environmentalist movements developed somewhat concurrently, around the rise of counterculture in the 1970s. Finding numerous similarities in their revendication, a new branch emerged. Consequently, ecological art was spearheaded by women. Heartney eloquently explains why studying eco-feminist art is important due to its intersectional essence.

It is a narrative that emphasizes exploitation and force and is couched in a language replete with images of domination and mastery, whether over nature, colonized nations or female sex. And in fact, this narrative makes little distinction between these entities, seeing them all as materials ripe for manipulation and conquest.

Eleanor Heartney

Mothers of Invention, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2023, p. 139.

Eco-feminist art offers an alternative approach to envisioning the future. One in which the capitalist system is dismantled. It serves as explicit activist art, advocating for the end of women’s domination as well as the domination of all species on the planet. Drawing upon the works of significant eco-feminist writers such as Carolyn Marchant and Donna Haraway, this chapter elucidates how feminism has nurtured and expanded the ecological movement, actively contributing to the formation of contemporary art.

Finally, this publication is more than an innovative catalog of artworks. It represents a significant step towards a more inclusive and, therefore, objectively more accurate history of art.

Mothers of Invention: The Feminist Roots of Contemporary Art by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott was published in March 2024 by Lund Humphries. 

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