50 years later, (re)Focus brings women artists back into galleries across Philadelphia

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A basketball hoop has been installed in one corner of Moore College art gallery. Its net is crocheted rainbow-color yarn. Below is a rack of 18 basketballs, each knitted to resemble a human head: a knit hat, a nose ring and a tuft of facial hair.

They are abstractions of the head of artist Wit López, called “A Self-Portrait of the Artist as Balls.”

No, you can’t dunk them.

“A lot of my artwork includes humor or something that’s really foolish, that breaks the fourth wall and brings the audience a little closer to the art itself,” they said. “It’s really important for me to include something that makes people chuckle or laugh about it.”

López, a 76ers fan, made the balls along with the accompanying hoop (“Hoop It On Over Here”) and a print of themself with swirling colors of braided yarn (“If You Can Read This, You Deserve Joy”) as an installation for “(re)Focus 2024,” a 50-year reboot of a city-wide feminist art exhibition that once took over Philadelphia in 1974, called “Philadelphia Focuses on Women Visual Artists.”

”A Self Portrait of the Artist as Balls,” by Wit López is on view at the Galleries at Moore College, part of the multi-venue celebration of women and non-binary artists, ”(re)FOCUS 2024.”(Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Galleries at Moore is hosting the centerpiece exhibitions, “(re)Focus: Then and Now,” featuring work by the original artists and artists emerging now. There are more than 60 associated events and exhibitions scheduled in the Philadelphia region through next fall.

The exhibition 50 years ago was at the then Philadelphia Civic Center in West Philadelphia and dozens of other museums and galleries across the city. It was a grassroots effort to raise the stature of female artists who were often overlooked and ignored by the larger art world.

López, who is in their late 30s, had never heard of it until Moore College approached them to show their work in the reboot. A self-described “archival nerd” who once studied anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, they approached the show with equal parts humor and seriousness.

López expanded the (re)Focus feminist perspective to include artists who are non-binary, LGBTQ, disabled or chronically ill. Their piece, “Red Yellow Green Purple,” is a large, 12-foot tall banner used to project portraits of artists whose works go unseen because of their chronic impairments.

“It’s a way for me to uplift the work — and also the personhood — of disabled and chronically ill artists, of which I am also one,” they said. “It was important to me to have a piece in here that represents another population that often gets left out of the arts, which is disabled and chronically ill people.”

The original Focus exhibition, as well as its 50th anniversary, was coordinated by Diane Burko and Judy Brodsky, two prominent art figures. Burko is a notable artist and climate activist, Brodsky is an artist and curator.

Judith Brodsky (left) and Diane Burko coordinated both the original FOCUS festival in 1974 and now the reboot, ”(re)Focus 2024.” The original show was Burko’s idea and Brodsky had a big hand in making it happen. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In 1974, they were young artists and teachers navigating the art world. Burko, who was teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia, had attended her first teaching conference in 1972, the College Art Association conference.

She remembers that 2nd wave feminism was in the air.

“I was sort of wide-eyed about the whole thing. I got caught up in a meeting which was mainly with art historians, and they were up in arms over the fact that the CAA board was made up of men, all white, old men,” Burko said. “They felt that that was not right.”

Women had already started self-organizing into collectives and initiatives, such as the New York collective A.I.R. Gallery and the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. The landmark exhibition “Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists,” believed to be the first feminist museum exhibition, had been staged at the Aldrich Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1971.

Burko and Brodsky thought they would go bigger, creating the largest feminist art exhibition yet that would span an entire city for two months.

The problem was they had never done anything like this before.

“When you’re in your 20s, you just go ahead and do it,” Burko said. “Not really thinking: Could we do it? Is it right? Do we have any money? How’s it going to happen? Who’s gonna listen?”

“We didn’t have the vocabulary then, but we wanted it and so we went ahead and we did it,” Brodsky added. “It was really my introduction to organized feminism in the visual arts. I was already a feminist – I mean, I don’t think you could be a woman and not be a feminist –  but I hadn’t been an activist.”

  • January 24, 2024
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