The Aldrich explores and expands feminist legacy in ‘52 Artists’ art show

"Talisman" by Florencia Escudero.  

"Talisman" by Florencia Escudero.

Charles Benton/ Contributed photo

On June 4, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum will open its most ambitious and largest exhibition ever, the first one to take over the entire museum since its new building was inaugurated in 2004. 

52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” will celebrate the 51st anniversary of the groundbreaking exhibition, “Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists,” curated here by Lucy R. Lippard in 1971. The exhibition will remain on view through January.

The museum’s senior curator Amy Smith-Stewart didn’t want to merely revisit Lippard’s landmark show, but explore multi-layered definitions of feminism and the legacy of five decades of feminist art practices to show where it’s been and is going. The new exhibition features work from nearly all of the original 26 artists as well as a new group of 26 artists that are female-identifying or nonbinary and born in or after 1980.

“Just revisiting Lucy’s show would actually undermine her activist gesture so we decided to show continuity over time and the legacy of the exhibition,” she said. “The original show was during a moment that was very much a second wave of feminism…so joining that with 21st century gender-fluid intersectional feminism was really interesting.”

Alice Aycock's "Untitled Cyclone." 

Alice Aycock's "Untitled Cyclone." 

Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Gallery, New York

As in the original exhibition, the new roster of artists are based in New York but at least half have heritages or birthplaces outside the United States — ranging from Mexico and Uganda to South Korea and the Dominican Republic — so the exhibition shares international perspectives. 

“Feminism exists at very different points of a continuum in each country,” Smith-Stewart said, noting that one of the artists, Leilah Babirye, left her native Uganda when it banned homosexuality in 2015. Contemplating Lippard’s legacy in giving women artists a voice in the art world that had silenced them, which influenced younger generations, she said this show “is showing a lot of different feminist experiences and feminist expressions.”

The original show was quite pluralistic with works ranging from figurative and abstract to conceptual, performative and dematerialized. “You had so much of a variety and a range and I think that it really opens things up for the younger generation,” Smith-Stewart said, adding she sees the same diversity in the new show. Themes of personal mythology and autobiography resonate in the artists’ work as well as ideas of diaspora migration and movement, trauma and regeneration and 21st century-specific content.

“The carved wood sculpture that I created for the Aldrich is from my ongoing series of monumental totem forms,” Babirye said. “ I title the works with traditional names from the clans of Buganda, my native region in Uganda and add the word kuchu, a “secret word” of Swahili origin, used by those in the queer and trans community to address one another. Through my work, I celebrate the queer and trans community and present my subjects with dignity and beauty.”

Sharing her life experiences as a feminist artist amid cultural differences, Babirye said she was inspired by one of the professors at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. 

“I saw one of my future professors — a small woman — carving a large piece of wood with a chainsaw. I’d never seen a woman carving before, and in Uganda women were not traditionally encouraged to be artists,” she said. “While this professor supported my carving, she rejected the fact that my works were dedicated to and celebrating queer and trans subjects. Since my time in Uganda, I’ve been involved with LGBTQ+ activism and I use my art to demand that the queer and trans community be recognized and seen.”

Grace Bakst Wapner's ""17 lbs. 8 oz." 

Grace Bakst Wapner's "
"17 lbs. 8 oz." 

Intermedia Foundation/ Contributed photo

A good number of the artists are creating new work for this exhibition, including LJ Roberts, who is making a site-specific stone wall [using real rocks dug up in town] that references the Stonewall uprising in 1969 in New York City after police raids on the gay club as well as Ridgefield’s predilection for stone walls. 

“Obviously, I was not alive for Stonewall — I was a beneficiary of that event. For me, feminist art has been a lot about legacy. I’m someone who has been very invested in queer liberation but feminist art has played a big part in that for me, I think that the work that the feminist artists were doing in the the 1970s was dismantling a canon that was very much constructed around white heteronormative men for the most part," said Roberts.

Best known for poetics and their textile work, Roberts said the opportunity to return to sculptural work as a medium for this exhibition echoes the practices of pioneering feminist artists.

“I saw that as a chance for me to emulate what they have done throughout their careers, which is to respond to the moment and sometimes that means changing your medium and doing something really different,” they said of how feminist artists evolved their art practices.

“I think that is a very big commitment to feminism —  to be very agile and making decisions in terms of concept, material and location. I turned 40 during the pandemic, which was very difficult so I am trying to not only to kind of double down on this artistic longevity via evolving my practice but I am also trying to really have some fun and it has been fun digging up boulders at the Aldrich. There is a lot of joy working with new materials.”