What is feminist art?
Is it a photo of a Hasidic man fondling his very real — and very naked — female breast?
How about a photo of a two silver-haired women dancing on an ice-covered lake?
Is it a studio-apartment-sized, 48-foot-long dinner table laid with place settings for 1,038 historically significant women?
Or is it just an excuse to bring some new art to town?
The question has gained a new resonance as the Brooklyn Museum opens its new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, an 8,300-square-foot exhibition space and education center that will bring Judy Chicago’s gargantuan piece, “The Dinner Party,” together with Oreet Ashery’s controversial gender-bending photo of a breast-holding Hasid and Milena Dopitova’s wintery ode to aging womanhood.
A landmark event for the art world, the center is the first of its kind. But why is it needed?
“Feminism is something that we still live and breathe, even though women today might not be conscious of it,” chief curator Dr. Maura Reilly told GO Brooklyn.
“The Dinner Party,” created by Chicago in 1979, is the feather in the cap of the new center — and its original inspiration.
Chicago’s iconic piece — a larger-than-life play on the historic exclusion of women from the “table” of culture and the significant role they have played, regardless — has shaped much of the last two decades of conversation about feminist art.
In that respect, it is fitting that the massive table serves as a foundation for the rest of the center’s programming, allowing for a rotating exhibition focusing on women “seated” at it.
Remaining gallery space will highlight larger themes, the first being “Global Feminisms.”
This inaugural show, curated by Reilly and her mentor, famed feminist art critic Linda Nochlin, brings together the work of contemporary women — all born after 1960 — from 49 countries, including artists who openly identify as feminists and others who are torn about the label.
Ashery is the controversial British-Israeli multi-media artist behind three of the center’s most overtly political images, including the shot of herself dressed as Hasidic man looking down at her obviously female breast. (See the controversial photo.)
“I grew up in Jerusalem,” she told GO Brooklyn. “I would visit Orthodox neighborhoods with my Dad and be attracted to the lifestyle, but at the same time realize that I would be excluded.”
By dressing in the traditional garb of Orthodox men, she said she is challenging that community’s strict gender codes and encouraging “dialogue.”
But already, there are signs that starting that dialogue won’t be quite so quiet. In a vague reminder of the museum’s controversial 2000 show “Sensation” — which featured a painting of the Virgin Mary peppered with butterflies cut out of a porno magazine — religious believers are already complaining about the Sackler’s take on feminism.
In the Orthodox neighborhood just one subway stop from the Brooklyn Museum, some Hasidic men singled out the Ashery photo.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Yakov Edelman.
Another Orthodox Crown Heights resident who identified himself only as Aaron called Ashery’s breast-and-pais portrait “vulgar.”
“It’s like putting a knife in a beautiful painting of a rose,” he said. “Both sides of it could be beautiful, but both are ruined by putting them together.”
Even inside the feminist art world there have been some objections to the new center.
Jenni Sorkin, a columnist for “Frieze Art,” feared that without a permanent acquisition program — though Reilly assured us that one is in the works — the center will have trouble attracting artists.
“Maybe [artists like] Lisa Yusavage or Elizabeth Peyton will surprise me and agree to be in a group show at the Sackler Center,” she wrote recently. “But given the option, I suspect it will be artists of a lesser stature.”
Another feminist artist raised questions about the lack of age diversity at the center (see “Sacklash,” above).
And still another critic pointed out that Elizabeth Sackler, for whom the gallery is named, is a prominent collector of feminist art — making the new gallery a great showroom for pieces that she hopes will increase in value, just as “Sensation” did for the Charles Saatchi–owned pieces it spotlighted.
Chicago, however, believes that critics will be pleasantly surprised by what they find at the new Center.
“The Brooklyn Museum is looking at how to make a more diverse, welcoming institution that reflects the multiplicity of points of view,” she told GO Brooklyn.
Sackler also believes that there is no better time to incite this shift in the perception of feminist art and of the women’s movement as a whole.
“Now is an exciting time to be a woman,” she says. “For the first time, we might vote for a female president. A woman is Speaker of the House. I think we are right on target.”
The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center For Feminist Art opens on March 23 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights). The museum is open from Wednesday through Friday from 10 am until 5 pm and on weekends from 11 am - 6 pm. Admission is $8, $4 for students and seniors, free for members and children 12 and younger. For information, call (718) 638-5000 or visit www.brooklynmuseum.o....