Fifty Years Post Roe v. Wade, the Art of ‘1973’ Frames a Turbulent Era (2023)


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The show at Frieze New York, of works that women artists created the year of the landmark Supreme Court decision, gives a panoramic look at a watershed moment.

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Fifty Years Post Roe v. Wade, the Art of ‘1973’ Frames a Turbulent Era (1)

By Keridwen Cornelius

In 1972, Ms. magazine published a campaign and petition that thrust the movement for abortion rights into the national spotlight. Fifty-three prominent American women — including the writer Nora Ephron, the tennis champion Billie Jean King and the artist Nancy Grossman — declared on the magazine’s pages, “We have had abortions.”

Ms. Grossman, now 83, admits she hadn’t actually had an abortion, but she participated in the campaign in order to reduce the pervasive cultural stigmas surrounding abortion and to stand in solidarity with a sisterhood of women.

“We signed it to be fierce,” she said, holding up a fist in a video interview from her home in Brooklyn.

The following year, the United States Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion across the country. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling, but also the one-year anniversary of its overturn in the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

In sending the decision on abortion’s legality back to the state level — prompting nearly 20 states to restrict or ban the procedure — the Roe reversal, for some, harks back to the time when Ms. Grossman and her friends were stenciling aprons with the words “Is this uterus the property of New York state?” and wearing them at abortion rights rallies.

“I think we all feel like we’ve time traveled,” said Halley K. Harrisburg, director of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, in a video interview.

“This 50th anniversary should have been a moment of celebration for us,” said Ms. Harrisburg. Instead, she added, “it’s a real moment to pause, reorganize, reflect and help support a movement.”

As Ms. Harrisburg considered the future of her daughters and other women, she came up with the idea for “1973,” the gallery’s exhibition at Frieze New York this week. The group show will spotlight works created by women the year Roe v. Wade was decided, providing a window into that tumultuous era, when fights for women’s rights, civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War took center stage.


The show will feature sculptures, drawings, assemblages, paintings and weavings from artists including Ms. Grossman, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas and Magdalena Abakanowicz (whose gigantic woven sculptures are currently being shown in a major retrospective at the Tate Modern in London).

Though these pieces do not directly address abortion, they reveal signs of more women finding (and raising) their voices as they worked to assert their claim to equal rights, both in the art world and in American culture at large.

“It was so difficult in those years in the art world for women to have opportunities to be seen and taken seriously, and it took extraordinary courage to be an artist,” Ms. Harrisburg said.

Women artists of the time were striving for more representation in museums, galleries and academia, and their efforts were met with resistance from the art world establishment, Ms. Grossman recalled. For example, she noted, H.W. Janson’s “History of Art” — a massive tome considered the bible for art students, first published in 1962 — did not name a single female artist, a fact that remained unchanged until the book was issued in its third edition in 1986.

To try to gain gravitas in the male-dominated art world, Ms. Harrisburg said, many women eschewed traditionally feminine aesthetics such as pastel colors. “I think, whether it was a conscious or unconscious decision, they very much wanted to remove any identifiers that would be stereotyped as women’s work,” she said.


Hence, the overall palette of “1973” is monochromatic or neutral, from Claire Falkenstein’s tumbleweed-like tangle of patina-blue copper called “Untitled (Point as a Set)” to Lenore Tawney’s earth-toned sculpture “Dark Music,” made of feathers, an egg, bird claw, paint and paper collage.

One piece in “1973” is overtly feminine: Ms. Abakanowicz’s lipped, circular weaving, “Kolo I (Orchidee I),” simultaneously evokes a womb and a vulva.

The other artworks in “1973” appear gender neutral, such as Lee Bontecou’s untitled graphite drawing of a humanoid figure with amphibious eyes, or Ms. Grossman’s drawings and sculptures of heads that are meant to be self-portraits but bear the features of men, even according to the artist herself.

Ms. Harrisburg explained that Ms. Grossman “has tried to neutralize gender so it makes universal statements about our fragility, our vulnerability and the armor that we wear.”

Ms. Grossman’s artworks also express her experience of living in the 1960s and ’70s.

Take her sculpture “Black” (1973-74), a carved wooden head sheathed in a tight leather mask crisscrossed with zippers. When she began creating it, Ms. Grossman said, women were expected to keep their mouths shut and not ask questions. “I felt I was not able to speak, and I didn’t,” she said. “The most powerful thoughts I had were my secrets.” The taut leather represents social constraints, the artist explained, as well as the second skin people grow to hide their true selves.


On the other hand, her series of “gunhead” drawings and sculptures — in which a pistol emerges from a human face — reveals how the people who do have the power to speak can wound with their words. “I thought the gunhead was a perfect way to say that words are much more devastating than bullets, that true harm comes from people with armed mouths,” Ms. Grossman said.

She drew “Sighted Gunhead,” which will appear in “1973,” partly in reaction to the Vietnam War. “I just felt that this country was a bully,” she said.

By participating in abortion rights activism and creating artworks that challenged traditional notions of gender roles — and the actions of powerful people — Ms. Grossman said she started “feeling like an autonomous and dangerous person.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, Betye Saar was also finding her identity as an artist and striving to be seen in the white male-dominated art world, Ms. Harrisburg noted. Ms. Saar, too, created works that could be considered dangerous to the status quo. Her mixed-media assemblages, two of which will be shown in “1973,” draw upon her African American, Native American and Irish heritage, often morphing images of marginalized people into representations of power and revolution.


In one of her pieces in “1973,” a metal box has been separated into two pieces. The top is illustrated with two Black children sitting side by side; the words “Quality” and “Revolt” frame the scene. The bottom of the box is open, revealing miniature guns and grenades.

Ms. Saar’s other assemblage, titled “My Last Buffalo,” is a painting of a heroic Native American man, paired with beadwork and bones. The piece was inspired by the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation, when around 200 Oglala Lakota people protested corruption in tribal leadership and the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties that they had signed with Native Americans, leading to a 71-day conflict with law enforcement.

While “1973” acts as a time capsule of a tempestuous era, another show at the Brooklyn Museum underscores the idea that battles fought by ’60s and ’70s-era activists are ongoing.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the museum is presenting Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” which runs through Aug. 13. In this video and photography exhibition, the artist raps her life story in a documentary film and superimposes her own image over exploitative nude photos of a Black girl.

These projects connect a chain of ideas: the artist’s own experience of giving birth over the course of 43 hours in shackles while imprisoned; the sexual exploitation of Black girls; and African American women’s struggle for safe pregnancy and childbirth.

The exhibition reframes ideas around reproduction, linking them with larger issues of bodily autonomy, human rights and intersectional feminism.

By zooming out from the issue of abortion to look at the 1970s and womanhood at large, “1973” and “Ain’t I a Woman” expand the conversations about choice and how women’s positions in American culture have changed — or not.

“Hopefully,” Ms. Harrisburg said, “it’s a call to action.”


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