A.I.R.

A.I.R. by Lucy Lippard

The A.I.R. Gallery was founded because, despite gains made by the early women artists’ movement, the majority of the emergent women had no place to show their art. The commercial galleries were filled up with men and, even if more good will existed than it does, it would take forever for women to sift through the extant openings. Other co-ops also tended to be run by men and to lack the cohesion that a political alliance, no matter how feeble, provides an all-woman gallery. Precedents existed on the West Coast (notably Woman-space, later to be absorbed into the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles) and A.I.R. itself has since been followed by other women’s galleries—ARC and Artemesia in Chicago, 707 and the two Grand-view Galleries in L.A., Hera in Wakefield, R.I., SoHo 20 in New York, WARM in Minneapolis, and so forth.

Most of these, like A.I.R., follow the presentational conventions of the commercial gallery, though A.I.R. is non-profit, the proceeds of all sales going directly to the artist with no dealer’s commissions detached. Located in the heart of SoHo, A.I.R. participates (perhaps of necessity) in the art world’s promotion and power games, competing for reviews and attention and sales with the rest of the gang, and doing well at it. Like the commercial galleries, it has a stable of 20 artists; here the similarities end. A.I.R. has no director. According to the tenets of the women’s movements there are no leaders; everybody has her say on everything; work and money are solicited equally from all members with the usual problems of haves and have-nots, workers and non-workers, solved intramurally. Most significantly, it is committed to a diversity of styles not found in the most high-powered emporia, as befits the organ of a movement devoted to a multiple, open, flexible view of life and opposed to the single, acceptable, currently fashionable image, opposed to the rejection of self and emotion for a place in the establishment’s sunlamp. The original group of A.I.R. members was selected from slides of some 600 “unknown” artists. The resulting stylistic mix has been maintained in the turnovers, and A.I.R.’s major problem is probably the fact that there are too many good artists for its small space, especially considering the women from out of town who want to show in New York, but cannot be here to do the daily work entailed by membership.

For the most part, A.I.R. has resisted the temptation to focus inwards on its own artists rather than looking outwards towards all women artists. It holds yearly invitational shows, and recently had its first international exhibition—a group of women from Paris, none of whom was previously known in New York A.I.R.’s non-profit status allows foundation support of parallel projects like the Monday night programs of film, panels, readings, discussions; the sponsoring of outside exhibitions, such as that of women artists from the 1930’s recently at Vassar; a possible periodical—and this portfolio, which offers a sampler of the gallery’s art for prices more accessible to other artists and to the growing feminist public which breaks art world (though not class) boundaries. It is only a pity that the space is too small to house the Women’s Art Registry of slides, from which the bulk of A.I.R.’s artists were initially selected.

Because not only styles but politics (opinions) vary so strongly, A.I.R.’s internal history has been a tempestuous one. At the beginning, there was a certain dissension among the 20 members as to how much the political aspect should be stressed. While all felt that the art came first, some felt that this meant “questions of exposure for women” came second, while others felt the two were synonymous (“I want everyone to know that it’s a women’s group. I want people to deal with the fact, not just have it be incidental”). There were initial fears of being “ghettoized”, i.e. ostracized by the “professional” art world. Some members feared that others saw the co-op as a “stepping stone” to a “regular gallery”. One of the founders may have spoken for many when she said she was constantly wrestling “with the idealism on which A.I.R. is founded and my avariciousness for my own success”. Some even felt that men might eventually be allowed to join. There were hopes and surprises. One woman felt that “this gallery could perhaps reduce some of the alienation from the art world that I felt and shared with the other women artists and would free us from male domination.” Still another found that “friendships with women in the gallery has done more for me than the opportunity to show . . . If I had my way, a co-op wouldn’t be at all integrated with the art world . . . I’d like to have a little different audience than I see in the art world. Something a little less manic” (Arts, Dec. 1972).

Now, at the beginning of its fifth season, six of the original members are no longer with the gallery and four are “adjuncts” (or showing elsewhere, though still participants) and there is no doubt that A.I.R. is and will remain a women’s gallery. However, that initial conflict—along the lines of the now famous distinction between a conflict—along the lines of the now famous distinction between a “liberated woman” (who wants to make it as a more or less gender-less equal in the man’s world) and a feminist (who is concerned with the needs of all women and is more likely to hold out for the hope of an alternative culture to make it equally a woman’s world) has, so far as I know, never been fully resolved. For me personally, the real importance of A.I.R. transcends its contribution of role models for women artists and art students, and its demonstration that a successful gallery can be built from scratch to provide a respected place for women’s art; it lies in the still tentative move towards a confident independence from the current competition and commodity-orientation, towards the recognition of women as a powerful creative force—powerful enough to change more than the look of the art world.

The brochure for A.I.R.’s opening show in September 1972 stated an intention to a “change attitudes about art by women. Because women artists have always met with such difficulty in showing their work there has been a strong pressure on women artists to produce work which conforms to already long-accepted norms, if women want their work to be shown at all. Thus the work of women artists is made to seem less innovative than that of male artists, as only the more conservative work is ever made public.” The implication was that women’s emergent “closed art” had something special, something specifically female, to offer. At the same time, in esthetic echoes of the political reservations mentioned above, there was a definite uneasiness about the dangers of positing a female esthetic, most frequently expressed as “art has no gender,” or as one artist put it, “first good art, second women”. Another felt “it’s a mistake to try to define what women’s art is, can be . . . [but] Our traditions as women are certainly different from men’s and our art education hasn’t done much to clarify the situation.” Someone else raised the question of men who also worked in fabrics and so-called feminine materials; and someone else felt there was a female sensibility but it must not be confused with feminist art, and “it is not based on a specific style or certain materials, but rather on something more intangible. One’s emotions. Women’s art is personal art . . . To be feminine gives a certain freedom in materials and ways of working” (Arts, Dec. 1972).

Still intangible is the critic’s challenge and I have been unsuccessfully trying to uncover or trace the network of that sensibility for years now. I find it extremely interesting that there have been very few one-woman shows at A.I.R. that I haven’t liked, on some level. I’d be the first to admit that I am prejudiced. I found on becoming a feminist (and before, though I didn’t admit it then) that the things I was temperamentally drawn to were shared by many other women—a certain “clutter”, fragmentation, layering, emotion, disjunction. I love looking at women’s work and mediocre art by women interests and moves me far more than mediocre art by men. What is under the surface, what is trying to escape, what has not yet found its proper form, or is disguised in a more socially acceptable form—these underlying currents I can identify, and identify with. Whether the style is representational, abstract, expressionist, conceptual, minimal, lyrical (or minimal-lyrical, which is a common genre at A.I.R.) makes little difference.

The attraction of women artists (and writers) to layering, transparencies’ overlays, levels, interstices between or around or inside forms within wildly varied stylistic matrices interests me because they seem so magnificently familiar—in the sense of recognition, not recapitulation. This attraction, this familiarity, is not surprising, given the new consciousness of the multiple structure of society and language as well as that of our daily lives inherent in the feminist movement. Many of these prints are visual counterparts of consciousness-raising—literally a raising from the depths of hidden, disturbing elements hitherto ignored, which has become so much a part of our new lives. Our (perhaps imposed) aptitude for positive fragmentation, for making connections between outwardly disparate parts—a product of the multiple roles played each day by most women—and the consciousness of our differences from men as advantages rather than as marks of inferiority quite naturally encourages the use of imagery based on our experiences as women. While it is too early to predict the results, these factors are already affecting men as well, men who envy the kind of contact women are coming to have with themselves and with each other, the kind of contact made concrete by enterprises like A.I.R.