Radical 90’s Feminist Artist Ellen Cantor Is Finally Getting Her Due

Three years after her death, a once-polarizing artist is still setting the New York art world on fire with four simultaneous exhibitions and the premiere of her magnum opus film tonight at MoMA.

Niklauss Stauss, courtesy of the Estate of Ellen Cantor

Many artists would be pleased with just one slot in the packed schedule of openings this fall in New York, when most gallerists tend to bring out their headliners. This season, though, Ellen Cantor has now had three solo exhibitions — at 80WSE Gallery, Participant Inc., and Foxy Production — and a restaging of a now-seminal show she’d curated over two decades before at Maccarone. (That’s not even including a series of panels dedicated to her at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the premiere of her magnum opus, a film named Pinochet Porn, tonight at MoMA.)

It’s an impressive feat for any artist, especially for one who died in 2013. A feminist multimedia artist and curator renowned in her circles in 90’s and early aughts New York, Cantor passed away from lung cancer three years ago at 55, prompting many in her close-knit crew of artists, writers, gallerists, and other art-world types to come together to carry out her legacy. “Coming to Power,” the expansive, explicit exhibition Cantor curated in 1993 at David Zwirner gallery, was the logical starting point. Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Nicole Eisenman, Nan Goldin, Alice Neel, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono, and Marilyn Minter were just some of the artists featured; Minter recently recalled Cantor’s initial visit to her studio as “the first time I saw women curators celebrating pro-sex feminist artists.”

“It was a really exciting time,” Minter said of the era, when political and social fury were just starting to displace the male-dominated art world of the 80’s. Cantor’s mixed coterie – up-and-comers like Sherman, along with older stalwarts like Bourgeois – proved an ideal embodiment of the new attitude: “We all found each other in this show,” Minter said, adding that the group became a social and artistic support system that lasted for years.

“Coming to Power” paved the way for intergenerational feminism to enter into institutions, too, like the notorious “Bad Girls” show at the New Museum the following year. And while “Bad Girls,” which also featured male artists and more chastely sourced footage from “The Simpsons,” was still bold for its time, “Coming to Power” was unapologetic. Representation after representation of genitalia, graphic films on topics like female ejaculation, and programming from the Clit Club — a diverse, queer collective of chiefly women of color helmed by Julie Tolentino, who co-curated the current restaging at Maccarone with Pati Hertling — filled the walls of the Zwirner gallery. The white men in the scene of the time didn’t know what to think, exactly.

A Look Back at “Coming to Power,” One of New York’s Most Explicit Exhibits

Alice Neel, “Nadya Nude,” 1933.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Patricia Cronin, “girls,” 1993.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Zoe Leonard, “View from Below, Geoffrey Beene Fashion Show,” 1990.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Marilyn Minter, “Flurry,” 1994.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Doris Kloster, “Bullwhipping,” 1993.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Judith Bernstein, “FUCKED BY NUMBER,” 1996.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Carolee Schneemann, “Eye Body (From 36 Transformative Actions for Camera),” 1963/1965.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Monica Majoli, “Untitled (Bathtub Orgy),” 1990.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Judith Bernstein, “SUPERZIPPER #6,” 1966.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Nancy Fried, “If You Go Away,” 1976.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Lorraine O’Grady, “Body/Ground (The Clearing: or Cortez and La Malinche. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, N. and Me),” 1991.

Courtesy of Maccarone

Joan Semmel, “Purple Passion,” 1973.

Courtesy of Maccarone

“It was about diversity and sexuality and empowerment, and it was a very conscious commentary not just about women’s artwork, but the gallery train,” said Lia Gangitano, the founder Participant Inc. and a close friend of Cantor’s who is now managing her estate. “It was risky in every way.”

At the same time that she was collecting Ono’s birth control sculptures and Goldin’s explicit selfies, Cantor was also busy making her own art, veering away from painting and sculpture toward an abandonment of object-making by drawing on walls directly. Primarily, though, she was immersed in video. She would go on to be a pioneer in appropriating footage from known or cult feature films in her own films — splicing gory scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with mountaintop serenades in The Sound of Music, for example, and narrating them according to her own invented storylines.

By far, her most ambitious, and unsettling, project was Pinochet Porn, a two-hour long epic shot on Super-8 film that Cantor started in 2008 and worked on, Hertling said, “until she stopped breathing.” Finally finished this month, just shy of its premiere tonight at MoMA, it follows five children into adulthood. It’s an alternately tragic and comic soap opera, which mirrors the story behind the making of the film.

“There definitely was a point, I think, for many of those of us involved where we were like, ‘Okay, my life is disappearing — it’s all in this movie,’” said Gangitano, one of the scores of Cantor’s peers who worked on the film. And while many of them appear in it, too, Cantor also stuck with her usual practice of incorporating found footage — this time from tragedies such as the Holocaust and 9/11, and video testimony from a torture victim of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal reign in Santiago, Chile.

It wasn’t for the sake of shock value. “It was more [because] this is part of our lives, and we have to look at it,” Gangitano explained, noting that Cantor grew up in suburban Detroit watching films like Shoah, the nearly nine-hour BBC documentary on the Holocaust. “She was unwavering in the inclusion of this material because it was pornographic to her, and she didn’t shy away from making analogies between these horrors in the world and people’s lives,” Gangitano said. “She was very motivated not only to tell stories of herself and her friends, but to show how larger historical tragedies create the sort of microcosm of your own life.”

Still, it’s the kind of gesture that can leave some cold. “She was a polarizing figure,” Gangitano acknowledged — not just within the general public, but among feminists as well, who at the time were decidedly split over whether or not pornography could be empowering. “She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I think that’s part of the reason she was respected as an artist,” Gangitano added.

“Perhaps Ellen’s story could be defined through her gender,” added Tolentino, “But it’s very much the story of a prolific artist.” And the story will continue to be told. There is still the rest of Cantor’s unexhibited oeuvre, including 400 paintings that, for the moment, await in storage.