Researching and Writing 'Mothers of Invention'

The authors of 'Mothers of Invention: The Feminist Roots of Contemporary Art', Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott, reflect on how the book came about, and the way that their teamwork led to a radical rewriting of the history of contemporary art from a feminist perspective... 

 From left: Nancy, Sue, Eleanor, Helaine

Eleanor: This book comes out of our twenty-year collaboration and is the third in a series of books about women artists. Sue, you lit the spark that got us started...

Sue: I began my career as a curator outside of New York and prior to the internet and Google, I was dependent on compendium types of art books that offered a broad look at the contemporary art world. Years later, when I attended an ArtTable luncheon honoring Linda Nochlin -- Nancy and Helaine were also there -- I came up with a similar compendium idea for a book on women artists by women writers. I contacted the women writers and curators that I admired the most. It was you three. At the time we didn't know each other that well but you were all interested in the idea. 

Helaine: If my memory is right, we met for a year and a half before we wrote anything.  We started by drawing up a really long list of artists and narrowed them down through many sessions. We eventually worked with Chris Lyon at Prestel and he encouraged us to winnow the list to twelve artists for that first book. 

Nancy: I remember a meeting in Helaine’s loft where we put a lot of images on the floor. It was sort of like a police procedural TV show where they pin photos of suspects on the wall to sort out the crime. But we had prints of works by artists on the floor and we were moving them around, shuffling and reshuffling them, trying to decide: who was important? Who is unsung? Who did we personally care about? It was hugely challenging, but fun. I think we did that for the second book too.

Eleanor: Each of the earlier books had a long gestation. That was true for this book too. One important event for Mothers of Invention was a 2018 panel we participated in at Christies Education called Celebrating Female Agency in the Arts. We had already started thinking about a third book and it really helped us put our thoughts together. 

Helaine: We had been thinking about themes, but after the panel I changed my subject from Identity to Performance.

Sue: I had an idea about my essay. After the panel an artist came up to me with some other observations that helped me expand the idea of feminism and abstraction.

Helaine: We put together a proposal, and then Trump got elected. And it threw us into this crisis. We had to reevaluate it and ask, what should we really be writing about?

Nancy: Yes. The Women's March in Washington was organized as soon as Trump was inaugurated. And then just a couple of years later, the world changed again with COVID. All this feminist energy had come up around Trump and Harvey Weinstein, and it was followed very quickly by the impossibility of being out in the street protesting. Then there was George Floyd. Suddenly people realized no, it's not impossible. One of the first things that brought people out of their homes during COVID was the racial and social justice protests. All that made us think about the relationship between feminism and about other drives for social and also racial justice.  I think that really fed into this book.

Sue: I was looking at the art on Instagram and there was a lot of discussion of what is art for a time of crisis. But we had already covered a lot of very political feminist artists in our previous books. And we thought maybe we weren’t the ones to write that book.

Eleanor: So, what we ended up doing was going back to the 70s, a time of very similar turmoil, and seeing how artists dealt with it. It seemed important to return to those roots and find models for action.  All this came out of our weekly zooms, which initially were really about giving each other moral support during the isolation of the pandemic.

Sue: Since we were talking weekly, we thought, why don't we rewrite our proposal?

Nancy: We did so much of the work on this book while we were isolated. That allowed for a different kind of focus, but also really reframed the work we were writing about. We began sorting through ideas for this book, thinking on one hand, we have to deal with the politics of the moment, and on the other about making this book much more personal and telling our own stories. In the end, we pulled away from that, but I think both of those impulses are still there, because the late 70s were a pivotal moment for feminist art and also the time when we all began as workers in the art world. And we should acknowledge that Lund Humphries gave us two years to write the book, which allowed us to reach more deeply into our four subjects.

Eleanor: I think it's important to say how much we've all learned from each other. That's an important part of what has kept this collaboration going for twenty years.

Nancy: Part of what’s good is that we're very different. If you're working by yourself, you tend to double down on your own opinions.

Sue: And you might not follow something through because you feel too insecure about it. But we very much encourage each other to write about what interests us.

Helaine: It’s also sometimes very specific. When I was writing about performance, Nancy or Eleanor recommended specific books which were extremely helpful. And we suggested artists to each other.

Sue: It’s also significant that two of us are critics and two are writers. Early on, Helaine and I would talk about how easy it is for writers who can just sit down and knock these things out. But we also would wonder, can I really say that? And Eleanor and Nancy said of course, you are allowed to have your own opinion! 

Helaine: That opened up a lot of things for me.

Nancy: And as writers we thought, you curators get to do all this work with the real objects in institutions!

Eleanor: In a way we all kind of envy each other. 

Sue: I would say we’ve come to respect the different kinds of choices critics and curators have to make.

Eleanor: It has certainly broadened my life and my thinking to be involved with you guys. I want to thank you all for this collaboration. Let’s keep it going for another twenty years!


MOTHERS OF INVENTION: THE FEMINIST ROOTS OF CONTEMPORARY ART by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott is available to order now




Preview image credit: Suzanne McClelland, Diptych: Falling Sky (North), 2022, Falling Sky (South), 2022, Signed, titled, dated and inscribed in ink (verso), Mixed media on linen, Each 102 x 75 inches (259.1 x 190.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen, Colorado © Suzanne McClelland. Photo credit: Lance Brewer