Arlene Raven, 62; Established L.A. Center to Support Female Artists
Arlene Raven, an art historian, critic and educator who helped transform feminist outrage into the Woman’s Building, an iconoclastic Los Angeles institution that for 18 years was a magnet for women seeking to produce art on their own terms, died of cancer Aug. 1 at her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was 62.
Raven co-founded the Woman’s Building in 1973 with artist Judy Chicago and graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. The three women, who were colleagues at the California Institute of the Arts, also launched the Feminist Studio Workshop, a two-year training program that sought to merge consciousness-raising with practical art education.
For most of its existence, the Woman’s Building was a source of often outlandish creativity, where painters, poets, performance artists and others turned out work on subjects as mundane as waitressing and as disturbing as rape.
Raven, who often described the building as a place for “living and working with another vision of the world,” taught art history there and founded the Lesbian Art Project, which promoted work by and about lesbian artists.
Later the main art critic for the Village Voice, she was a passionate advocate of women’s art, championing such artists as June Wayne, Lesley Dill, Petah Coyne and Michele Oka Doner. Since 2000, she had been critic-in-residence at the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
“She had a very imaginative sensibility in relation to art,” said Wayne, 89, a Los Angeles painter and lithographer. “Sometimes she saw things in my work that I didn’t think were there. Lots of times she saw things I thought were there that no one else had noticed.... That’s how sensitive she was to the world generally and to artists and art history.”
Raven also co-founded and edited Chrysalis, an avant-garde feminist journal that attracted writers such as Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly and Susan Griffin. She wrote or edited nine books, including “Feminist Art Criticism” (1988) with co-editors Cassandra L. Langer and Joanna Frueh and “Art in the Public Interest” (1989). She was the author of perceptive monographs on Wayne, Oka Doner, Betye Saar and Nancy Grossman, her life partner since 1983.
“She was one of the very earliest women ... to begin to write women back into art history,” said Terry Wolverton, a Los Angeles writer and former director of the Woman’s Building.
Raven grew up in Baltimore and did not discover art and art history until she went to college. She graduated in 1965 from Hood College in Maryland and received a master’s in fine art at George Washington University two years later. She completed a doctorate in art history at Johns Hopkins University in 1975.
A defining moment in her career came in 1972, when she attended the Conference of Women in the Visual Arts at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. The event united artists and art historians in protest of their lowly status in their profession, signified by the absence of women in college textbooks and important shows, such as the Corcoran Biennial.
Hearing the testimony of artists, including Wayne, Chicago, Helen Frankenthaler and Alice Neel, Raven was radicalized on the spot and decided to leave the East Coast for California.
At CalArts she got to know Chicago, who ran a feminist art program and would earn considerable notoriety in 1979 for “The Dinner Party,” a multimedia installation that incorporated symbols of female anatomy in its tribute to 39 notable women. Soon, Raven joined Chicago and De Bretteville in developing the idea of feminist art education that could take place in its own space, free of male influence.
The Woman’s Building took its name from a huge structure designed by Sophia Hayden for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that showcased women’s art and crafts from around the world. The Los Angeles Woman’s Building was believed to be the first major women’s art center since that time.
Initially located in the former Chouinard Art School near MacArthur Park, it housed the Feminist Studio Workshop, Sisterhood Bookstore, a women’s travel agency, galleries, a graphic design center and theater groups. It later moved to an industrial area on Spring Street, north of Chinatown.
A number of nationally recognized artists found early support for their work at the Woman’s Building, including performance artist Suzanne Lacy and artists Judy Baca, Lili Lakich and Saar.
“Arlene meant a great deal to the women who came there,” said De Bretteville, now the director of Yale University’s Graduate School of Art. “Most of her work was to make visible people who otherwise would not be given much visibility.”
The workshop closed in 1981, the result of federal funding cuts. Its closure came amid criticism that the Woman’s Building was dominated by lesbians who wanted to exclude heterosexual women from its programs.
Raven defended the separatist approach as “a crucial part of feminism, a kind of feminism you have to have. Without women segregating themselves off for some part of their lives, they can’t understand themselves apart” from male-defined culture, she told The Times in 1992.
The Woman’s Building struggled for another decade and closed permanently in 1991.
After the workshop folded, Raven moved to New York and began to write for the Village Voice. She was one of the first critics to take serious notice of Coyne, who went on to show her sculptures and installations at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Raven not only wrote insightfully about Coyne’s work but also lent her books on feminism and introduced her to other artists.
“She turned me on to so many artists who became role models for me,” Coyne said in an interview.
Raven frequently visited New York artists’ studios, sometimes 50 in a week.
In the mid-1980s, she turned her passion into a class at the New School in Greenwich Village and was so engaging that her most devoted students -- a core group of about 15 women -- begged her to continue the program after the class ended. She led women on monthly tours of New York City galleries, museums and studios for 21 years, combining intimate conversations with artists such as Coyne and Lesley Dill with her own sharp commentary.
When they toured large venues, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “we would end up with a hundred people following us,” said Lynn Surrey, one of Raven’s former students, who helped organize the tours. “She was like the Pied Piper of art.”
One of the artists they visited, painter Mimi Gross, offered to paint a group portrait after Raven brought the women to her studio five years ago. She decided to paint them larger than life-size, with Raven, in a black pantsuit, holding a notebook and pencil.
The piece includes Grossman, a multidisciplinary artist best known for a series of sinister-looking sculptures of heads covered in leather. Besides Grossman, Raven is survived by her parents, Joe and Annette Rubin of Marco Island, Fla.; a sister; and a stepdaughter.
The portrait went untouched for a full year, and then Gross picked up her pace, particularly as Raven grew ill.
“I have a loving feeling of Arlene just talking about the painting,” the artist said a few days ago from her home in Provincetown, Mass. “She was a very supportive person, not only as a critic but as a character who really loved art.”
Gross learned later that the day she finished, signed and dated the portrait was the day Raven died.
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