Aloft in Mid A.I.R.

Aloft in Mid A.I.R. by Carey Lovelace

It is hard to recreate how epochal it was. Two friends who shared a Centre Street studio in downtown Manhattan decided to form the first all women’s artist-run gallery. Artist-run galleries were “not thought of highly,” remembers Barbara Zucker. “The only thing worse would be a women’s co-op. A double negative. It was thrilling!”1

Then, feminism was in its infancy, it had barely penetrated the New York art world a year earlier, notably in a historic 1970 Whitney Museum protest, launched by the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists, to draw attention to the dismal 5 percent or less of female representation in the museum’s prestigious annual. In one action, saboteurs, famously, cached Tampax and hardboiled eggs in sculptures and alcoves around the museum with the hopeful demand “Fifty Percent” on them. Of course, misogyny is still alive and well, but in those days, it flourished unquestioned. “Dames can’t paint,” as Barnett Newman said. This was a common belief among artists. Dealers deployed the rejection line, “You’ll just get married and pregnant.” Or as gallerist Allan Frumkin was quoted: “I don’t like women. They cry.”2

Given those realities, Zucker and Susan Williams, were unclear about how to find others of their ilk—or if more than a handful even existed. Critic Lucy Lippard directed them to the Ad Hoc Art Registry that she had been collecting. In a year’s time they had gathered slides from some 600 women, most operating (like the two friends) in isolation. For Zucker:

“It was so moving to see that work, to realize how many of us there were–like the first time I’d snorkled. I’d thought the world existed above the water line. Then I looked under the sea and saw the world there was at least as big as the one on top.”3

They meanwhile had joined with two others, Dotty Attie and painter Mary Grigoriadis. The four visited 55 studios. “We took this task very seriously,” recalls Grigoriadis. We spent days driving around New York City, “also trying to be as sensitive as possible.”4 A majority of three was needed for approval, but Grigoriadis recalls, it was usually unanimous. “We knew right away.” However, a handful of the approved declined, nervous about being in an all-female gallery. (And some who joined, Williams recalls, were warned, “What are you doing, it’s a big mistake!”5)

At the first meeting, March 17, 1972, in Williams’s loft, surrounded by her huge hanging transparent “bag” installations, the “approved” showed up, including Maude Boltz and Nancy Spero (who had joined the core founding group), as well as Louise Bourgeois, Howardena Pindell, the late Ree Morton, Harmony Hammond, and Cynthia Carlson. For logistical reasons, several dropped out, and were replaced by others. They ended up with a highly eclectic mix of 20, most in their 30s. Agnes Denes left an uptown gallery to join them.

“The most important thing was that the work be really, really good,” said Attie.6

In those early days of feminism’s high hopes and aspirations toward consensus, group meetings could be anguishing. The name “A.I.R.” arose when Pindell suggested “Jane Eyre.” From that came “air”–then, “A.I.R.,” a reference to the “Artists in Residence” certification (an actual piece of paper) given by the city to artists who had met certain criteria to allow them to live in otherwise illegal commercial spaces. “It was one of the few moments when we all agreed,” says Zucker.7

Over the summer, members renovated the dark, narrow, 70-foot-long storefront at 97 Wooster St., located in Soho in downtown Manhattan, which had peeling plaster and warped floors, rusting pipes and radiators.8 Patsy Norvell and Laurie James knew carpentry,9 teaching others to build walls and do electrical wiring.10 Denes spent the summer refinishing the floors they laid themselves with her husband and son.11 One man said, “I can’t wait for the gallery to open, to come and see how you girls made your walls. Ha, ha, ha.”12 Committees were formed, not-for-profit status applied for, arguments raged. In a trial-by-fire, deep affections and camaraderie were forged.

On September 16, 1972, A.I.R., the first all-women’s gallery,13 held its inaugural exhibit in the former machine shop at Wooster St. For space reasons, it featured half the gallery’s members, the order determined by drawing straws. The range of styles was unusual, though this stylistic diversity soon became commonplace as “pluralism” took hold in the1970s. The Pattern and Decoration style that started in that decade was manifested early in Norvell’s textile pleated wall pieces of white vellum and gaily colored plastic. Spero’s Codex Artaud-based scroll works of diaphanous paper inscribed with typewritten words would become legendary later on, with its prescient emphasis on language and the body. And there was the near-hilarious feminist satire in Judith Bernstein’s huge, frenetic, very phallic-looking charcoal drawing of a “screw” from her Hardware series. Also on view were works by Boltz, Daria Dorosh, Rachel bas-Cohain, Nancy W. Kitchell, Loretta Dunkelman, James, and Rosemary Mayer. (The gallery’s closing show that season featured the other members: Zucker, Williams, Grigoriadis, Attie, Pindell, Denes, Hammond, Blythe Bohnen, Anne Healy, and Louise Kramer.)

Despite fears that the exhibit would be a second-rate showing—a dreaded confirmation that women couldn’t be “real” artists—A.I.R. proved “a rather remarkable and instantaneous success,” as Judy Siegel wrote, considering “it was initiated without ‘stars’ or powerful patronage.”14

In New York Magazine, critic Barbara Rose praised the gallery’s professionalism, calling its subsequent shows “a dignified, impressive display of both guts and intelligence.”15

After the opening (the story goes) one man said grudgingly, “Okay, you did it; you found 20 good women artists. But that’s it.”16

Thus began an unlikely “love affair” between the art world and A.I.R., an institution that was part for-profit gallery, part a radical, progressive, even subversive, not-for-profit organization, which created a home for many women, although it served men’s interests as well. At its founding, the Monday Night Program series was launched, which ran from 1972 to 1981, funded by a grant from The New York State Council on the Arts. The series would be renamed are reformatted as the Current Issues series (1982-1987) also funded by NYSCA and the National Endowment for the Arts. The programs included everything from general-audience panels on criticism, the market, and public art, to “slide raps” on women’s work, to helpful “how-to’s” (“Getting Your Work Out,” “Tax Night,” workshops on pottery, weaving, and “making things”).

A.I.R. stood at the center of the day’s debates—about criticism, commercialism, and shifting tastes. And, by the mid-1970s, with its feminist upsurge, these issues included the question of women’s relationship–or lack thereof–to art’s power structure. And these debates, in turn, touched on the very mission of the gallery itself. Should A.I.R.’s focus be on the professional art world, on advancing members’ careers, or should its primary contribution be to create successful “role models” for the next generation? Or should it, more altruistically and broadly, have a responsibility to help forge new alternatives to the traditional marketplace? From the beginning, it was agreed the all-woman gallery was not intended to be primarily “nurturing” or “motherly,” or to do consciousness raising. But it did act as a support for women artists. (However, several years in, when one member suggested doing a show with men in it–“Like, okay, we’ve made our little statement”–it caused a furor.) But, should there even be such “separatist” organizations; didn’t this “ghetto-ize” women? Yet, how could feminism’s far-reaching possibilities (anti-hierarchy, total egalitarianism, non-competitiveness) be explored except in radical new types of groupings?

By now, the gallery had artists clamoring to get in. A.I.R.’s only stated criterion for membership was (and is) “quality.” But this is a loaded term, one that many activists have felt has been used to exclude the disenfranchised. Despite the way this might be seen as ambivalence toward the day’s feminist party line, however—the aspiration toward revolutionizing standards—the group soon acknowledged other feminist goals, for example, the importance of building a heritage. It collaborated with Vassar College on a 1976 exhibit of female artists of the 1930s. Then, Attie and Spero, who were aware of the advanced work being done in Europe with little exposure here, invited a guest curator, Aline Dallier, to organize a group show by women from Paris in 1976 (Combative Acts Profiles and Voices). This led to other international invitationals–including Israel, then Japan (organized by Attie, Spero, and Kazuko), Sweden (coordinated by Lasch, Dorosh and bas-Cohain) and most recently an exchange exhibition with the 2B Gallery in Budapest in 2006 (planned by Louise McCagg and A.I.R.’s Director, Dena Muller). In 1980, new member Ana Mendieta and founding member Kazuko staged a group show of Third World women artists titled Dialectics of Isolation –this, in advance of the later importance of “multiculturalism.”

The gallery was on the forefront of many developments. For example, the controversial, but widely influential Goddess Movement, “the political ramifications of the sacred female,” was launched in part within its narrow precincts. Mary Beth Edelson, who joined in 1975, staged performances like her tribute to women accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, Your 7,000 Years Are Up.17 And activist Hammond held a 1977 seminar on the then-new, but fundamentally important topic of women and violence.

Meanwhile, A.I.R. had managed to spearhead a proliferation of co-ops. Womanspace opened in a converted Los Angeles laundromat in January, 1973; Soho 20 opened in New York; and also Artemisia in Chicago, WARM in Minneapolis, Front Range in Colorado, WAIT (Women Artists It’s Time) in Miami, Hera in Wakefield, RI, and Central Hall, in Long Island, to name a few.

A.I.R.’s structure evolved. At first it was entirely artist-run, and each member was required to “gallery sit.” Soon an internship program was initiated, to aid members and provide leadership to young women artists and art professionals. The organization initially opposed out of principle, then experimented with, and finally fully embraced hiring a non-member director, and the gallery became further professionalized. Members left, and were replaced by others. In 1981, the quarters moved a bit outside Soho’s circumference, to Crosby Street—coinciding with 1980s Reagan-era backlash, when issues relating to feminism fell wildly out of favor and Soho started to become a high-priced residential district. In addition, the Affiliate Program, now called the National Members Program, was launched that year to incorporate more regional views and to give women artists outside of NYC an opportunity to show. With its pragmatic, artist-run, committee-based format and some risk-taking, however, an A.I.R. partnership was formed to lease space, and A.I.R. survived. Thanks in part to the gallery’s efforts, the notion of the “great” woman artist18 had become a commonplace. This, in turn, changed conditions for the gallery. As the 1980s progressed, other iconic institutions fell away—the Feminist Studio Workshop with its visionary training program, the Heresies Collective, the Los Angeles Woman’s Building all had shut by the early 1990s. (So had many commercial galleries.)

The scarcity of exhibition opportunities that existed for women seem far away today. When it began, A.I.R. was tossed on the seas of controversy due to its woman-oriented politics. This undercurrent of controversy lingers today. Meanwhile, the gallery’s mission to serve those outside the art-world power structure has evolved—now it comprises multiple geographies, aesthetic approaches, and predilections.

Launched in an exploratory age, this gallery that became a classic is now an established presence. The women who founded A.I.R. were ready to take a leap of faith and explore fully “below the sea”–the undiscovered visual world that amazed them when they first looked through those Ad Hoc slides.

Much time has passed from 1972 to 2008. In this time, A.I.R. Gallery has helped bring a universe up to the air for all to see.


1 Panel, “A.I.R.: The Early Years,” a discussion by original gallery members, moderated by Daria Dorosh, with Barbara Zucker, Mary Grigoriadis, and Dottie Attie, March 19, 1996 at A.I.R., 40 Wooster St, NYC.
2 Carol Haerer
3 A.I.R. 1996 panel.
4 A.I.R. 1996 panel.
5 A.I.R. 1996 panel.
6 A.I.R. video
7 Zucker, Barbara, “Making A.I.R.,” Heresies #7.
8 Ms. 2/73; Corinne Robins, “The A.I.R. Gallery: 1972-78″ Overview 1972-77, An Exhibition in Two Parts, 1978.
9 Zucker, Barbara, “Making A.I.R.,” Heresies #7.
10 Ms. 2/73; Corinne Robins, “The A.I.R. Gallery: 1972-78″ Overview 1972-77, An Exhibition in Two Parts, 1978.
11 Author’s interview, Agnes Denes, August 27, 1998.
12 A.I.R. panel.
13 Actually another woman’s gallery, Gallery 15, founded in 1958, operated briefly at 59 W. 54th St, NYC.
14 In Woman Artists News, 1975, cited in Siegel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream, NY: Midmarch Art Press, 1992.
15 Nov. 6, 1972, p. 91.
16 Robins, “A.I.R. Gallery.”
17 Siegel, Mutiny, xvi.
18 As in “Why Are There No Great Women Artists,” Linda Nochlin’s influential 1971 essay.