Biological determinism: the idea that your genetics govern everything about you, that your biology determines your personality and any emotional traits you possess. This term can be used to illustrate the method of thinking which led to associating feminine art with the female body and masculine art with the male body. My purpose here is to explore a specific biological trait of the female body, that of menstruation and how the stain shaped the mindset of a feminine vs. masculine visual quality in American 20th century works of art.
Menstruation, commonly seen as a weakness or hindrance in the biology of women, contributed to the idea that women’s bodies produced work embodying the stain, an idea that was later challenged by Feminist art of the 1970’s. Feminist works like Judy Chicago’s installation, Menstruation Bathroom and Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, put the occurrence of women’s monthly cycles into a new context; one that glorifies menstruation as a thing exclusive only to women and something to be celebrated, however blatant and controversial the imagery used to convey the idea might be.
|Judy Chicago "Menstruation Bathroom"|
Helen Frankenthaler’s work comes to mind as art that has been frequently associated with the stain. Frankenthaler, an abstract painter who practiced in the mid-twentieth century, was known for her extravagantly large canvases onto which she painted washy forms reminiscent of landscapes, particularly bay areas. As Lisa Saltzman addresses in her article, Reconsidering the Stain, “it was the aspect of the liquid areas of color, the perceived fluidity of Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique, that endlessly captured the imaginations of the critics.”(Saltzman, pg 375) At the time that these pieces were produced, the “stains” came to represent menstruation, Frankenthaler’s act of pouring paint on the canvas as bleeding on a fresh bed sheet. Further contributing to this idea were the photographic images produced of the artist working in her studio as she placidly perches atop one of her enormous canvasses and gazes out and the viewer. She takes on a far less active role in her art-making and thereby loses her agency. (Saltzman, 376) The images that do show her working actively on her pieces depict the moments when Frankenthaler crouches near the ground and pours paint onto large surfaces, furthering the misconception that her style was accidental like the uncontrollable flow of blood. These paintings became then, to critics, a record of an uncontrollable and accidental bodily function. (Saltzman, 376)
However, I find that in Frankenthaler’s works, the precision and control demonstrated in her areas of color are unmistakable. In her famous piece,Mountains and Sea, wide expanses of watered down blues and greens are contrasted by smaller areas of reds, yellows, and purples in varying levels of thick and thin paint handling. Amid these more purposeful forms are marks that appear to have been created by paint splattered on the canvas in a very Jackson Pollock-like manner. Each and every detail seems thought out and purposeful, nothing like the uncontrollable body function metaphor critics so often associated with Frankenthaler’s paint handling.
|Helen Frankenthaler in her studio|
|"Mountains and Sea" Helen Frankenthaler|
Likewise, in her 1968 piece entitled, Yellow Span, the stain is still prevalent in her use of washy regions but here the play between thick and thin is very subtle. The surface consists mostly of a huge plane of muted yellow broken up by washy regions of the same tone. The yellow space is juxtaposed with another yellow area, this one more ochre and along a small space at the very bottom of the canvas are a blue area and a green area. This kind of subtle shift in paint handling, along with the attention paid to the color palette, is further evidence that these works were not accidental in their production.
|"Yellow Span" Helen Frankenthaler|
Interior Scroll, a performance done by Schneeman in East Hampton, New York in 1975, featured the artist in her menstrual cycle standing atop a table as she pulls a long, snake-like scroll from her vagina and reads from a manifesto she has handwritten onto the scroll. In this way, her body becomes a central element in the work she has produced, but does not put her in a position as the object, but rather the in-control subject and master of her biological malady. Her menstrual blood becomes a record of her piece, a part of the finished product, and adds another element of repulsion to the overall aesthetic of the performance. Schneeman’s statement for the piece is as follows:
"I thought of the vagina in many ways-- physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the sources of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual power. This source of interior knowledge would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh in Goddess worship." (http://www.caroleeschneemann.com/interiorscroll.html)
Schneeman’s piece in this way glorifies the biological traits of the female body, challenging the concept of both the woman’s body’s depiction in art and the depictions created by said body.
A similar piece that literalizes the occurrence of menstruation is Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom. An installation in the Womanhouse space in 1972, a typical, clean bathroom is presented, but with a big difference. To the left of the toilet are a wastebasket and a shelf, both showing evidence of a female presence. The shelf is filled with boxes and containers of feminine hygiene products like tampons and sanitary napkins, as well as tissues and what look like bottles of lotion or a similar product. The most blatant and shocking aspect, however, is the inclusion of the wastebasket, which is shown overflowing with bloody napkins and tissues. The only part of this disturbing cornucopia of gore not contained by the basket is a lone and bloody tampon on the ground a few inches away. The stark redness of the blood catches the eye immediately in this clean white space. According to Chicago, the room is “very very white and clean and deodorized--deodorized except for the blood, the only thing that cannot be covered up.” (http://planetwavesweekly.com/dadatemp/1120212912.html) Her purpose in this piece was to confront women’s feelings toward their own menstruation. She stated, “However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us.”(ibid)
|"Red Flag" Judy Chicago|
Such imagery of period blood in art is considered revolting to both men and women, so it is no surprise that pieces like these were considered controversial. What does seem odd is that while critics deemed Frankenthaler’s work to be reflective of the stain of menstrual blood, her work was not viewed in such a way as to shock or repulse the viewer. By literalizing the stain, Chicago and Schneeman address this dichotomy of the stain of menstruation and the stain of ejaculation a la’ Pollock paintings and the misconception that such fluid traces represent the gendered differences in styles of abstract painting.