GAK Bremen


The Artist’s Studio: Feminist Entries and (Emergency) Exits

Angela Dimitrakaki

1.     Entry: The right to enjoy being the body of the painter in the studio

 The entry to the studio begins with the findings of the first generation of feminist art historians: those who, in the late 1960s and 1970s, started ‘from scratch’, as Linda Nochlin put it, in a politically motivated quest to explain why women were suppressed as producers of culture (and art, in its diversity and particularity) and ask what could be done to change this.[1] This first generation of feminist art historians worked ‘from scratch’ while what we call ‘contemporary art’ was taking shape. Central to this shaping was the widely felt impact of Conceptual art.[2] Did ‘art as idea as idea’ (the title of a late-1960s work by Joseph Kosuth) require the conventional artist’s studio? Did it perhaps require an office? Did it require a combination of the two, or neither? 

For a work such as Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry (1973–75), produced by Kay Hunt, Margaret Harrison and Mary Kelly, what was required was contact with 150 women workers so that the collaborating feminist artists could narrate (and indeed, document) an experienced social injustice. For Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Rinsing a B.M. Diaper, from her Private Performances of Personal Maintenance as Art, 1970, what was required was, besides tools of documentation, an idea: that being ‘divided into two’ as ‘artist’ and ‘mother’ was ‘ridiculous’, for she was ‘one’.[3] This realisation had surely preoccupied other women artists who had felt split into two, in the context of a modernity that separated – with brutal clarity – subjects tasked with social reproduction from those producing art as highly prized culture. The brutal clarity concerned a gender divide articulated as a social hierarchy. However, women artists of earlier periods (or even different geographies) lacked the context of a developing feminist art movement that could help them voice – with an uncompromised radical clarity – that they were ‘one’. Feminist art historians had found out that this split self was a frequent occurrence when it came to women and art as understood in modernity. 

Griselda Pollock, a founding figure of that generation of feminist art historians and arguably the most cutting-edge feminist scholar working on art, referred to the relationship of ‘the two bodies’ that have inhabited a historically specific (modern) fantasy about art. My parenthesis is important, for ‘modern’ does not just refer to art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather, ‘modern’ describes an entire context and apparatus framing the making of art, still recognisable today for anyone teaching in an art school, selling work to a collector, or choosing artists for their exhibition. The ‘two bodies’ Pollock wrote about in 1992 (after, that is, postmodernism had failed to demolish the modern fantasy of art premised on originality and autonomy) are ‘the body of the painter’ and ‘the feminine body’.[4]Pollock opens her essay on this fantasy with a painting by Henri Matisse from 1917 titled The Painter and His Model. The painting ‘represents an artist at work in the privileged space of modern art, the studio’, Pollock notes, and as such, it is typical of the fantasy around modern art. In this and many other paintings of studios, a male artist works on the female form in private, often in the proximity of an anonymous, female (and possibly working-class) model. Pollock’s implicit question asks why, despite being gendered (and possibly classed), the studio space helped provide a fantasy too powerful to be refuted by women artists at the moment when feminism was challenging the staples of modern art. Women artists wanted to be the body making art in the studio. Pollock wrote:


'Women want to make art, they want specifically to paint, a desire which is as much about the right to enjoy being the body of the painter in the studio – the creative self in a private domain – as it is about wanting to express individualistically the none the less collective experiences of women.'[5]


Women wanted to fuse the two bodies into one: to be, in the words of Ukeles, both a woman and an artist. The fact that Ukeles (and other artists) made work that did not always and necessarily require a studio hardly meant that the fantasy of the studio was abandoned. The studio fantasy continued but migrated to a question: What kind of practice? The autonomy of art – a pillar of the modernist fantasy – suggested that an artist could use any practice as a channel of self-expression, including self-expression that was about social critique. Some practices required a studio, others not. But for woman (in the singular and the generic) who, as we know from Virginia Woolf, had been deprived of a room of her own in which she would have the peace to make whatever culture she liked,[6] the fantasy of the studio carried political stakes. The studio, in other words, could also be seen as a political objective of the feminist art movement.

There is nothing simple, then, to be said about the studio from a feminist perspective. Women who in the 1970s, had to make art in their kitchens and family residences, who, later on, had to write as ‘home-based’ workers in living rooms crossed by family members, who (like many colleagues in academia) are being threatened with the loss of office space because capital requires university premises for more important activities than writing books and articles, would have a lot to say about the political investment in the studio and any space that, effectively, is like a studio

These women would say that access to any such space is – today, more than ever, a class issue: the ‘room of one’s own’ that Woolf discussed and the artist’s studio as such a room betray that the modern fantasy of the artist was also a social class fantasy. The ‘two bodies’ that Griselda Pollock discussed in 1992 – that of a woman and that of the artist – reflected an understanding of art as, in the last instance, a private occupation and preoccupation completely at odds with how proletarian families lived in the nineteenth century. The overcrowded slums that Friedrich Engels later described as a characteristic of proletarian life in the capitalist city were not limited to the century that saw the emergence of modern art proper.[7] In 2005, Mike Davis discussed ‘the planet of slums’ as a reality of global capitalism(not even connected to the prospect of industrialisation and capitalism’s emphasis on ‘growth’ and ‘development’).[8]The requirement of a ‘room of one’s own’ might be seen as an insult to the human masses that, today, find themselves displaced by war, poverty or climate destruction and that are facing the necropolitical management of border control that ushers them – survivors of migrant crossings – to ‘detention’ camps. The requirement may also be construed as an insult to the millions transported from Africa as slaves on boats where hundreds were piled up like cargo in conditions fit only for inanimate objects. To talk then about the artist’s studio in exclusively gendered terms does not reveal the social reality of billions excluded from this fantasy by the material conditions of their historically specific lives – unless, of course, we opt to think of these masses as ‘feminised’. I believe such a thought would be misguided. Rather, the fantasy of the artist’s studio as one of upward social (class) mobility, as a signification of status, is of high relevance to feminist politics. As put by Woolf, one needs not only ‘a room of one’s own’ but also ‘money’ to write – and one wonders if this distinction is necessary or if, indeed, money and the right to creative privacy constitute one and the same condition. 

The artist’s studio, claimed for women by feminism, was thus a complex political objective precisely because the aspiring creative subject is not just gendered and racialised but is constantly scripted into the classed reality of modern society. I hesitate to speak of this subject as ‘intersectional’ because the orders of oppression and exploitation involved do not all operate at the level of identity. One’s class position is not an ‘identity’ that one may embrace or disidentify from – except indeed in fantasy – but an outcome of how one is made to fit in organised production and reproduction. The contribution of feminism to the discourse of the artist’s studio today cannot ignore this, and such contribution lies precisely in bringing the significance of reproduction into the picture. In 2017, Lara Perry’s feminist analysis of the households of (mostly) London artists in the nineteenth century made an important start to extending social reproduction theory beyond the framework of contemporary art.[9] The first generation of feminist art historians was able to see through the studio’s connection to bourgeois subjectivity, coded as male and white, but this was the beginning rather than the last word of an ongoing critique. 



2.     Exit: Even in ‘a room of one’s own,’ one cannot escape the forces of social control that get passed on.

In his 2012 article ‘Studio Crisis!’, Jan Tumlir traces the term ‘Post-Studio Art’ to California in 1970.[10] Feminism is hardly absent from this account, and as Tumlir puts it, ‘the impact of feminism on Post-Studio Art cannot be overestimated’.[11] In fact, the part of his article that discusses this impact also holds the author’s most insightful observations – among which we find the following:


'[...] it is the consciousness that even in “a room of one’s own,” one cannot escape the forces of social control that gets passed on. Whatever gets made there is questionable inasmuch as it answers to an abusive, paternal authority, but this is not to suggest that it simply delivers the expected goods. Rather […] the response is always conflicted, at once good and bad, right and wrong, and thereby also inherently critical of any such standards of measure.'[12]


This protection was an illusion to the extent that the studio connected differently to the capitalist lifeworld by offering the fantasy of a protected space-time freedom for the secluded art maker. However, the pressures of capitalist life would creep in. The studio was the illusion of rejecting the pressures of capitalist life and production and of securing the most coveted dream: individual access to non-alienated labour – labour very much unlike that practised by the worker in a factory or, in what passed at one time as a privilege, an office. In the early 1970s, this illusion was already apparently porous and fading, at least in the core of the capitalist West. In short, there was no good reason why the artist, and especially the radicalised feminist artist, would not leave the studio. 

Tumlir’s example of such an exodus was Suzanne Lacy and her project Maps (1973), ‘a “treasure hunt” that took its participants on a tour of L.A.’s labouring outlands, passing through a facility for the mentally disabled to an old slaughterhouse.’[13] Participants, however, were given a gruesome task: ‘Lacy provided butcher-wrapped meat organs to fellow students who were asked to accurately reconstruct the lamb’s interior by nailing each organ into the outline of a lamb on the wall’ at their final destination.[14] Catherine Taft connected this so-called Post-Studio Art project to Lacy’s broader enquiry into ‘social contracts’ that ‘we—and all living beings—enter into simply by virtue of existing’.[15] But this is no accurate understanding of the task, for the meat industry is a historically specific expression of capitalist enterprise. What Lacy was initiating through her exit from the artist’s studio was a tour to capitalist spaces of work as the proverbial ‘hidden abode of production’ (as put by Marx). This was something to which the artist’s studio did not offer a view. Finding an emergency exit was imperative for artists practising social critique. 

In effect, Lacy’s motive was the same as that which led Hunt, Harrison and Kelly to a factory to interview workers (see Section 1: Entry, above). This was an exodus into the domain of everyday life that extended the project of the Situationist International (1957–72) as a critique of everyday life in capitalism and which, this time, could have women artists as leaders of the adventure. Was the dream of non-alienated labour perhaps to be realised through this exodus? Not so. Tumlir was right to observe that ‘Lacy’s tour was structured rhetorically to make a point about the already subverted nature of the world outside, and the always compromised and constrained position of the artist within it’.[16] Later on, when during post-1989 ‘globalisation’, women artists made a really big departure, leaving not just the studio but their families and countries so as to map global space in relation to women’s place in it, the question of non-alienated labour had disappeared from view.[17] It is no longer relevant, as Marina Vishmidt notes in 2014, for contemporary art starts when modern art no longer draws ‘resources from an alienated reality’ that is external to art. What is contemporary art? It is: 


'a situation in which art is no longer a separate domain strategically distancing itself from or connecting to an “alienated reality” at will, but a specialized niche within that reality—art that is contemporary with its time, a time which is strictly harnessed to the temporal rhythms of the market, or more broadly, to capital accumulation.'[18]


This excerpt is from the opening paragraphs of an essay by Vishmidt that betrays a degree of disenchantment with socially engaged art. The article explains how socially engaged art, as a participatory, collaborative paradigm that has been the most important realisation of the exit from the studio, is by no means exempted from the dictates of the capitalist experience and business practice. This is an important observation for feminism because socially engaged art is possibly the most salient contribution of this feminist exodus. Indeed, an early book on such art was titled Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation.[19] It is just that in this post-1989 revival of ‘situation’, autonomy would not be of a better fate than in the studio. The emergency exit taken by many feminists could lead, after all, to a dead end. 

3.     Not an entry, not an exit: The collectivised studio as also an exhibition space? 

 In his critical analysis of Post-Studio Art, Tumlir looks at Womanhouse, the early 1970s American collective feminist project, short-lived, but, one would (like to) suspect, of great impact to feminist artmaking. Co-directed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, Womanhouse relocated ‘the studio drama’ from an institutional, art-school context to a house that retained the patriarchal organisation of everydayness through its rooms’ ‘functional relationship to the family plan’.[20] Creating feminist art through a material context meant that the artists used the rooms as ready-mades, Tumlir notes, that were then ‘assisted’ or else touched by the feminist critique of the heteropatriarchal house. Womanhouse has been a legendary feminist art intervention because it conflated (to an extent) the private-public distinction and did so in relation both to domesticity and art – that is, in relation to social reproduction labour hidden in private kitchens and art as always exhibited and, therefore, public, at least in potentia.

I say in potentia, for according to a Marxist thread of analysis, art does not count as ‘productive labour’ for capital, and neither does social reproduction labour. Yet, art has clear social value (when seen as civilised society’s highest accomplishment) and therefore needs to be communicated, for which a huge and complex mechanism of mediation and display has been constructed in modernity to replace religion-affiliated contexts. Social reproduction labour, or ‘women’s work’, holds no social value and enjoys no such mechanism of mediation and display. Somehow, Womanhouse managed to connect these two kinds of ‘unproductive’ spaces and temporalities of labour – although one could argue that this achievement was not properly understood even by the artists involved. Moreover, despite the touted impact of feminism on art, the art field did not transform according to the Womanhouse example. Collectives have flourished since, but the art world did not fill with feminist-occupied houses or apartments where artists made and showed art, challenging, that is, ‘the social division of labour in which the knowledge, skills and privileges of the master artisan are distributed among a set of specialists’.[21] This sentence comes from the abstract of an exemplary and far-reaching 2019 article by Dave Beech in which he traces, precisely, the division of labour that capitalism, since its emergence, imposed on making and communicating art and which we know today as the ‘art world’. His analysis spans centuries, which makes it impossible to present here even some of its findings and arguments. Yet, what this analysis suggests to me, as a Marxist feminist art historian, is that at some point, the studio, or the idea of the studio, became a space where two social divisions of labour collided: the gender division of labour and the division between manual and cognitive-creative labour as organised under the ideological hegemony of capital.

From a Marxist feminist perspective, much remains to be said about this collision – if that would be the right noun (about which I harbour doubts but have no better suggestion at hand). What is important is that the ideological hegemony of capital I refer to is not (just) about class but, rather, about sets of hierarchies and priorities of value that ultimately orchestrate artmaking for subjects of any class, race and gender that opt to see themselves as artists at a certain historical moment. Danielle Child’s recent book Working Aesthetics shows, after all, how what we understand as contemporary art includes many kinds of non-artistic labour (absolutely not realised in artists’ studios) but also how certain kinds of labour enter art as capitalism itself changes, making the studio less or even not relevant.[22]

All this is unfolding today in a capitalist world where not only remunerated labour is precarious but where capital maintains a complex grip on creativity. On the one hand, the rise of the so-called creative class, dating back to the early 2000s, has blurred the division between artists and other professions or occupations where something called ‘creativity’ is supposedly valued in relation to various orders of accumulation (sometimes actualised through circulation rather than production, as in advertising).[23] On the other hand, the proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’, as the late David Graeber called the ensemble of meaningless jobs that defeat the working subject’s attachment to humanity, has meant that many people try to secure even a rented bench in a shared studio space so as to realise, to the extent possible, their humanity as creativity.[24] Plans by developers constantly threaten such spaces, as do higher rents, but the desire of people for even a bench where they can make art and craft remains undiminished. This is a very different order of ‘working together’ than that imagined and realised by the feminist artists who collaborated for Womanhouse. The exploitation of the desire to make art, the desire to rise above the dead end of what capital deems available as remunerated labour or needed as social reproduction labour for the family, is a crucial parameter for an expanded return to studio space today. 

With this in mind, it would be hard to argue that the studio condition is gone – or that it should be gone. The question concerning what the studio fantasy enacts and re-enacts can no longer be separated from the general organisation of life under capitalism rather than just production. This is true for feminists too, for the simple reason that feminism has not managed to realise an alternative organisation of social reproduction that would leave behind the dream of atomised self-realisation. It is hoped that the observations made in this short essay on entries, exits and the persistence of the studio, elliptical and incomplete as they are, might be used to ask: Why didn’t feminism in art move in this direction? 

Angela Dimitrakaki is an art historian working across feminism and Marxism on the critical interpretation of art and culture. Her books include Gender, ArtWork and the Global Imperative (2013), Art and Globalisation: From the Postmodern Sign to the Biopolitical Arena (2013, in her native Greek), Politics in a Glass Case (2013, co-edited with L. Perry) and ECONOMY (2015, co-edited with K. Lloyd). She has co-edited the special issues Social Reproduction and Art (2017) and Antifascism/Art/Theory (2019) for Third Text and Social Reproduction for Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory (2016) and has contributed chapters and articles to many edited volumes and journals, including to the special issue Art and Class of the Oxford Art Journal in 2022. Presently, she is co-editing a volume on the photography-centred collective Depression Era, active in Greece in the 2010s, and completing her book Feminism, Art, Capitalism. She teaches at the University of Edinburgh.  

[1] See Linda Nochlin, ‘Starting from Scratch: The Beginnings of Feminist Art History’, Women’s Art Magazine 61 (November–December 1994). 

[2] Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[3] Jillian Steinhauer, ‘How Mierle Laderman Ukeles turned maintenance work into art’, Hyperallergic (February 20, 2017), https://hyperallergic.com/355255/how-mierle-laderman-ukeles-turned-maintenance-work-into-art/.

[4] Griselda Pollock, ‘Painting, Feminism, History’, in Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips, eds., Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), p. 140.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth Press, 1929).

[7] See Bernard Magubane, ‘Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and the Housing Question (1872) Revisited: Their Relevance for Urban Anthropology’, Dialectical Anthropology, vol 10, no. ½ (1985): pp. 43–68.

[8] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London, Verso, 2006).

[9] Lara Perry, ‘The Artist’s Household: On Gender and the Division of Artistic and Domestic Labour in Nineteenth-Century London’, Third Text31, no. 1 (2017): pp. 15–29.

[10] Jan Tumlir, ‘Studio Crisis!’, Art Journal 71, no. 1 (Spring 2012): pp. 58–75. 

[11] Ibid., p. 72.

[12] Ibid., p. 73.

[13] Ibid., p. 72.

[14] See https://www.suzannelacy.com/maps.

[15] Catherine Taft, ‘Group Material’, Artforum (May 2019), https://www.artforum.com/print/201905/catherine-taft-on-the-art-of-suzanne-lacy-79521.

[16] Tumlir, 2012, p. 72.

[17] See Angela Dimitrakaki, Gender, ArtWork and the Global Imperative: A Materialist Feminist Critique (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[18] Marina Vishmidt, ‘“Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated”: Social Practice as Business Model’, e-flux journal 43 (March 2013), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/43/60197/mimesis-of-the-hardened-and-alienated-social-practice-as-business-model/.

[19] Claire Doherty, ed., Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, (London: Black Dog, 2004).

[20] Tumlir, 2012, p. 70.

[21] Dave Beech, ‘Art and the Politics of Eliminating Handicraft’, Historical Materialism 27, no. 1 (2019): pp. 155–81.

[22] Danielle Child, Working Aesthetics: Labour, Art and Capitalism (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

[23] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

[24] David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (London: Allen Lane, 2018.) See also Nathan Heller, ‘The Bullshit Job Boom’, New Yorker, June 7, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-bullshit-job-boom. Graeber first developed this theory in a 2013 essay: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-on-the-phenomenon-of-bullshit-jobs-a-work-rant. 

Related Content