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Contemporary Art  
 
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In lesbian art of the 1970s, there was very little specifically lesbian subject matter, with the exception of works of photographers such as Joan E. Biren (JEB) and Tee Corinne. Photography emerged in the decade as the medium most preferred by lesbian artists, a preference that resulted in some striking work throughout the period.

Generally, however, in the 1970s lesbian experience was coded in feminist imagery and the intimate experiences of women apart from men. This was the case for Hollis Sigler, whose bittersweet art gathered women's clothes and household furniture as proxies for the artist. Louise Fishman, an active lesbian and feminist in her politics, was neither explicitly lesbian or feminist in her art--although her bravura expressionist abstraction can be linked to an assertive "masculine sensibility" in modern art..

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Joan Snyder combined words and expressionist style in her lyrical paintings and works on paper to track private memories and relationships. In the 1980s, she began to honor the fate of women in history in a more polemical spirit. Snyder is arguably the most important feminist artist of the period. She has figured significantly in the history of contemporary art to the present.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-1979) is a paradigm of lesbian art for the decade. It is a mixed-media installation that consists of a triangle of joined banquet tables that rest upon a tile floor base. The triangular format represents what some artists and writers saw as the centralized and vaginal imagery of a true feminist abstraction.

Calling upon crafts associated with women's history--needlework and porcelain painting--The Dinner Party presents thirty-nine stitched and embroidered table settings dedicated to famous women writers, artists, and reformers, with 999 women's names inscribed in gold on the white porcelain tiles below.

Judy Chicago's roster of famous women included lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual women. This mix was also reflected in the women she gathered to help implement her design. She thus created an ecumenical community effort that suggested the traditional collaborative nature of women's work.

As an important representative of the Pattern and Decoration movement, Judy Chicago's Dinner Party was also symptomatic of a new feminist point-of-view in which decorative forms, previously marginalized in their association with home crafts, took on a new cultural significance as artists absorbed them into the realm of high art. The feminist questioning of traditional gender roles was also posed by the inclusion of male artists in the fabrication of The Dinner Party.

Gay Male Artists

In contrast to a vital tradition of lesbian art during the 1970s, there was no counterpart for gay male artists. This is ironic in light of the gay sensibility that was a hallmark of Pop Art during the preceding decade. Of the most influential artists associated with Pop Art, the majority were gay men: the Americans Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, and the Englishman David Hockney.

Joining the heterosexual Pop artists in ambivalent critiques that both celebrated and questioned the American Dream, these men could also draw gay identity into their art. However, they veiled their gay identity in the indirect language and idiom of camp.

The exception to this generalization is David Hockney, who was explicit in portraying same-sex love and sensuality, particularly in his prints. Yet, Hockney and the other gay Pop artists never gave their art the polemical edge that would come to mark gay and lesbian art of the postmodern period.

Within the younger generation, the only gay male artists of the 1970s to gain important recognition were Gilbert and George, a British performance team. Their most significant work was large-scale color photography in the form of screens of multiple backlit photographs and text panels. Later, this work became more frank in its explorations of lower-class youth, boy-sex, and the AIDS epidemic.

One explanation for the dearth of gay male art as compared with the efflorescence of lesbian art during the 1970s may be that gay male artists lacked the kind of support that lesbian artists received from their affiliation with an active feminist movement. The emergent Gay Liberation movement was less public and less accepted than the feminist movement. Benefiting from the feminist movement, women artists entered the art market's mainstream for the first time, an economic reality that encouraged lesbian artists.

The 1980s

By the end of the 1970s, modernist aesthetics and theory still dominated discussions of contemporary art. A decisive break, however, came in the 1980s, spurred by French critical theory and the poststructuralist and deconstructivist writings of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes. The term "postmodernist" came to describe the shift. Henceforth, it would be interchangeable with the word "contemporary" to characterize current developments in the visual arts since 1970.

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