Women of the Los Angeles Woman’s Building saw themselves as a local artist collective that was part of the larger feminist community coming out of the social-political movements of the 1960s. They were creative and wanted to actively inspire other women to be free to live independent lives.
One of the women involved in the Woman’s Building community was Kate Millett. Known for her 1970 book Sexual Politics, she was also an artist. She created the iconic Naked Lady sculpture that was installed on the roof of the Woman’s Building at 1727 North Spring Street in 1978 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the art center.
Naked Lady defied the usual “sexy nude woman as muse” by being enormous in both stature and girth. Her arms and fists rested on her hips with her legs far apart, sturdy. She overlooked the street like a beacon of strength and independence. A strong woman to motivate others was a fitting architectural symbol for Kate Millett and the women of the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles.
The Woman’s Building and its Feminist Studio Workshop was founded in 1973 by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Arlene Raven, and Judy Chicago. It was a rebuttal to the climate they experienced in art and academic culture that privileged white, male perspectives. They wanted to offer something else, specifically female-centered, in art practice and education that encompassed the fullness of women’s differing lived experiences.
The collective began in a living room and then moved to the old Chouinard Art Institute building, and finally into the building on North Spring Street in 1975. The Los Angeles Woman’s Building became a central hub for queer and feminist artists and organizations until its closing in 1991. The name was an homage to the first Woman’s Building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was designed by architect Sophia Hayden to showcase cultural contributions and art made by women at the end of the 19th century.
Kate Millett faced strong polarization over the ideas she wrote about, and fit right in with the avant-garde group of artists at the Woman’s Building. They made work in direct response and confrontation to misogyny as a normal practice in cultural expression, addressing topics like sexual harassment at work, in the media, and on the street. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel became the cover of Time Magazine in 1970, headlined “The Politics of Sex.” Throughout the 1970s, Millett participated in the Woman’s Building by showing work in exhibitions, attending events, and giving talks there. She was Artist-in-Residence at the Woman’s Building in 1977.
In these photographs, Kate Millett and a team of women from the Feminist Studio Workshop build giant sculptures of the female body in everyday poses for Millett’s 1977 Artist-in-Residence culminating exhibition titled Naked Ladies. It was one of these sculptures that became the iconic architectural feature on the roof the following year. The striking Naked Lady sculpture towering over the street earned them a photograph in the Los Angeles Times and put the building on the map in the neighborhood.
The images of the making of these sculptures were recently digitized from 35mm negatives as part of the Getty Research Institute’s Woman’s Building preservation project made possible in part by a Save America’s Treasures grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences and the National Park Service. They show the collaborative effort, hard work, and fun that defined the ideals of the Woman’s Building.
The ideal of feminist art practice at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building was not to just destroy stereotypes and unequal systems but was also an attempt to build safe spaces for the creative, multi-dimensionality of women.