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In Pursuit of the Unspeakable: Heresies’ “Lesbian Art and Artists” Issue, 1977
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Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics published the “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue in the fall of 1977, occasioning what is believed to be the “first art publication to focus exclusively on lesbian creative work” (Hammond 2000, 41). Although the first of its kind in this respect, this Heresies issue was one of several contemporary projects that explored the relationship of lesbianism to feminism and the visual arts. “Lesbian Art and Artists,” assembled and published by a collective of women, certainly reflects the tool kit of its historical moment. Yet the issue was also, fundamentally, an intervention in the dominant discourses of its day—the feminist art movement and lesbian-feminist identity politics, as well as, more broadly, the legacy of modernist abstraction. The first two are signaled in the poster used to advertise the issue; the poster appropriates a seventeenth-century woodcut of “lion-headed Barbara Urselin” (fig. 1), a seventeenth-century bearded woman exhibited throughout her life by handlers who included her husband. Urselin’s visage establishes the difference between lesbians and women in terms of monstrosity, while it signifies (with the figure’s dress) the centrality of gender to lesbian representation. The Urselin woodcut appears within the pages of “Lesbian Art and Artists” as an illustration of Bertha Harris’s essay on the lesbian as monstrous; Harris, in a riff on Oscar Wilde, describes lesbian literature in these terms as “the pursuit of the unspeakable by the indelible” (Harris 1977, 5).

This essay considers “Lesbian Art and Artists” itself as a project of emerging culture and reveals the extent to which the issue was an attempt to reconcile the exigencies of lesbian feminism with the contemporary art world of Manhattan (and beyond), in order to establish a new conceptual space for lesbian cultural production. This was a necessary intervention because, on the one hand, coalitions between lesbian and gay male artists (for example at New York’s Gay Academic Union in the mid-1970s) were thwarted by male sexism and feminist disdain for explicit representations of phallic sexuality (Hammond 2000, 23) and because, on the other hand, lesbians were central contributors to the feminist art movement but endured homophobia and marginalization from straight women artists and were sometimes alienated by feminist content fixated on tropes of femininity such as makeup and domesticity (Cottingham 1996, 218). In some respects, “Lesbian Art and Artists” was akin to the culture-building projects that followed gay and women’s liberation movements, as is evident in its emphases on education (the historical excavation of lesbian art and artists) and visibility (the documentation of contemporary work by self-identified lesbian artists). The issue is particularly noteworthy for its implicit suggestion that abstraction is a visual style suited to a lesbian-feminist “pursuit of the unspeakable,” since abstraction (like lesbian art), despite its significant and varied histories, has long been marginalized within feminist art and art history.

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Fig 1. 

Collaborative poster for “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue of Heresie, offset lithography, 13 1/8 × 10 inches, 1977.

Courtesy of the Heresies collective.

Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics (1977 to 1992) was founded by a group of women in the New York art world to refocus the political and artistic fervor of the early 1970s into a new feminist quarterly journal. Each issue would be theme based and edited and designed by a different collective of women. This desire to create a platform for women’s art was inspired by the separatist ethos of radical feminist institutions such as New York’s A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) Gallery for women (founded 1972) and the Woman’s Building (founded 1973) in Los Angeles. “Lesbian Art and Artists” was the third issue of Heresies. Its editorial collective was composed of eleven women: Cynthia Carr, Betsy Crowell, Betsy Damon, Rose Fichtenholtz, Louise Fishman, Su Friedrich, Harmony Hammond, Marty Pottenger, Amy Sillman, Christine Wade, and Kathy Webster. Despite a range of political affiliations, ages, years making art, and years “out” as lesbian among its members, the group was fairly homogenous. As an introductory self-description, apologizing for the issue’s implicit biases, acknowledged, “We are all lesbians, white, college...

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