Wave of the World sculpture in City Park lagoon

Feminists in the Visual Arts

Lynda Benglis created The Wave of the World when she won a contest sponsored by the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. Owned by the city of Kenner, Louisiana, The Wave of the World sat in disrepair for years after Katrina until the Helis Foundation funded its restoration. The sculpture/fountain is now on display in a City Park lagoon by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Lynda Benglis was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. As a child, she traveled the bayous, waterways and channels that led to the Gulf of Mexico. “I preferred being on the water,” she said. She liked thinking about nature. She’d make little boats from sticks, mossy forms and leaves.  

“All artists are in a kind of situation that patterns their early memories,” she said.  

Waves always intrigued her—“little Gulf waves because that’s the first that I saw.”  

A 1964 graduate of Newcomb College, Benglis was a student of artist Ida Kohlmeyer (NC ’33, G ’56).  

Benglis moved beyond New Orleans to become an internationally known artist—and the first truly feminist artist.

Radical Sculptor

An iconic and iconoclastic feminist, Benglis took aim at the male-dominated art establishment of the 1970s. Not only did she flip the notion that so-called “feminine” values included passivity, modesty and gentility, she positively asserted her sexual and cultural power, and pushed for gender equality in the art world.  

“I’ve realized that what we’ve learned to do is repress our titillations or our feelings about what we see, and we call it taste,” explained Benglis. “What is the way we see, what do we respond to, without creating a taste that’s agreeable to everyone? I’m not trying to satisfy anyone.”  

Considered a radical, she pushed the boundaries of traditional art-making materials. Forsaking canvas when she poured gallons of latex paint directly on the floor of a New York gallery to create Self-portrait in 1970, Benglis was a stark contrast to the fashionable art of the day. By pouring effervescent industrial foam material used in insulation over chicken-wire molds, she produced what looked like lava flows. This process led her to the stunningly layered wave effect seen in the avant-garde sculpture/fountain The Wave of the World (1983–84).  

“In color, form and content, her art was a major departure from the dominant trend towards minimalism at the time,” said Katie Pfohl, curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). “At a moment in the art world in which many male artists were working a very restrained palette of black and white, and with very geometric minimalist form, her large pours in hot pink, electric yellow and royal blue were shocking. Lynda really did fly in the face of traditions both as a female artist entering the male-dominated world of large-scale sculpture, casting and welding, and as an artist who wholly embraced sexuality and the body. I would consider Lynda Benglis one of the best-known female sculptors of her generation.”  

“All artists are in a kind of situation that patterns their early memories.”

Lynda Benglis

Tulane adjunct professor of art and New Orleans native Nicole Charbonnet, whose unusual work is exhibited at NOMA, as well as in galleries in New Orleans, New York and Santa Fe, says she doesn’t consider herself a feminist artist, per se, but says she’s well aware of how far female artists have come, thanks to the trailblazers. Not surprisingly, the heart of Charbonnet’s art harkens back to a very female persuasion.  

“My art starts with a collage very much like quilting,” said Charbonnet.  

“My grandmother quilted, and as I watched her I realized that you could take so-called trash and turn it into something whole and usable,” remembered Charbonnet.    

“As a female, you learn this craft through osmosis. I grew up in the South, and, as a woman, got scraps from society. As any minority or disenfranchised group, you learn to make something out of what you’re given, and for me, it has always been a metaphor.”  

The current generation of female artists has entered a more accepting and inviting world, albeit a challenging one in the wake of today’s edgy political climate.  

They will not settle for scraps or leftovers.

"Femaissance: Primavera” exhibit opens in the French Quarter during festival season in April 2018.
"Femaissance: Primavera” exhibit opens in the French Quarter during festival season in April 2018.


“It was after the Women’s March in 2017, the hope for the first female president had been dashed, and suddenly an opportunity for a guest curation for an all-female art exhibit at a gallery on Royal Street presented itself,” said Madeline Rose, a 2015 Tulane graduate and content creator, whose history includes an internship in marketing and digital media at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.  

“Over coffee with my best friend, it was decided we’d embark on this new venture, providing a platform for female artists in an as-yet-untitled femme space. The idea was that I would tell a narrative, based on my art history background, that would include themes of female identity, and the concept of equality and inclusivity from different angles, and Halle would handle the event direction.”

Halle is Halle Kaplan-Allen, also a 2015 Tulane University grad, who majored in sociology and communication. Her ideas about bringing the community together in terms of social justice issues were a perfect melding with the original project at the French Quarter Gallery.  

“We set about finding female artists on Instagram and looked for works that would bring attention to many of society’s inequities,” explained Kaplan-Allen. “Along the way, we knew we needed a special name under whose umbrella we could position these works of art. When Maddy called me and said she had come up with the name Femaissance, a mashup of words alluding to a female renaissance, we knew we had hit on something.”  

“Femaissance” opened in November 2017 at the Oleander on Royal in the French Quarter, and enticed visitors with a poster featuring Shelby Little’s painting, Lilith, whose namesake had a personal meaning for Rose.  

“In the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, there’s a large sculpture called Lilith, created by Kiki Smith in 1994. I went to high school across the street from the Met, so was always familiar with this work,” said Rose.  

“Lilith is the personification of the snake that tempted Eve throughout the history of art, particularly since the Renaissance. Lilith tempting Eve, therefore, is probably the first-ever example of women being pitted against one another, particularly over a man.” This is the narrative from which Smith draws in her piece.  

“Eve is the genesis of how society often treats women who buck tradition,” said Rose. “And, this painting of Shelby’s not only referenced Lilith, but humanized her. Stylistically, it paid homage to Matisse, Manet and Rousseau. And since ‘Femaissance’ was about rebirth and renewal, it seemed like a perfect fit to lead our story.”  

The exhibit encompassed a variety of surprising art, which had implications well beyond the aesthetic of their mediums, be it paint on canvas or photography.   “Artist Emily Ferretti did a piece called Egg Boobs,” explained Kaplan-Allen. “She photographed women’s naked chests with fried eggs on their nipples, alluding to Instagram’s censoring of the female body part. The eggs over her actual anatomy, ironically, made the photos ‘acceptable’ on the photo-sharing site.”

Femaissance co-founders Madeline Rose and Halle Kaplan-Allen
Femaissance co-founders Madeline Rose and Halle Kaplan-Allen
Proserpina by Anna Koeferl
Proserpina by Anna Koeferl
Rape of Proserpina I by Kayla Wroblewski
Rape of Proserpina I by Kayla Wroblewski

So successful was the exhibit that another one followed on its heels, this one called “Femaissance: Primavera” … the word primavera meaning spring in many of the romance languages and signaling a rebirth of ideas.  

“We opened in mid-April 2018,” said Kaplan-Allen, “which overlapped with festival season here in New Orleans, and we had gotten an incredible mention in Vogue in an article called ‘What To Do in New Orleans While You’re There for Jazz Fest.’ ”  

Inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, a Renaissance painting, the show was a nod to the accomplishments of women who shaped New Orleans’ post-Katrina renaissance, but most importantly, the exhibit was all about providing a safe haven for women in an artistic space that spoke to a whole array of feminine issues.  

“During ‘Femaissance: Primavera,’ so many women walked in and told us their most intimate stories,” recounted Rose. “Drawn in by the welcoming pink walls in the gallery, women felt comfortable sharing their stories about the struggles of womanhood. The space seemed to invite and encourage conversation. It certainly fueled our energy to make sure more shows keep happening.”  

Unable to use their previous venue in the Quarter, the Femaissance founders called their next show “Proserpina in Exodus,” after the Roman goddess of the Underworld, who is a life-death-rebirth deity. That installation was seen throughout the city in various female-owned small businesses through mid-September. In October, “Proserpina” as a full-scale exhibit comes to the Lighthouse Building, 743 Camp Street, in New Orleans’ Central Business District for the entire month.  

“You know, New Orleans is that rare midsized city where artists can actually make a living … particularly female artists,” said Michael Plante, professor of art history at Tulane. “Walk into any gallery and by and large you’ll see predominantly male artists. So, many women have moved on to galleries outside New Orleans to be a part of larger installations, reach bigger audiences and fetch heftier prices for their work in major cities like New York and Los Angeles.  

“Joan Mitchell is an important artist whose foundation funded an artist’s retreat in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans in 2015. At the time of her death in 1992, Mitchell’s abstract expressionist artwork was selling for around $200,000. Just recently, her auction prices went crazy … in the $25 million category.  

“Lynda Benglis has multiple homes around the world …  in NYC, Santa Fe, Greece and India, and has virtually outgrown the marketplace in New Orleans, not in an artistic sense but because the number of people in this city who will buy artwork for a million dollars or more is limited,” explained Plante.  

But, the founders of Femaissance—Rose from New York City originally and Kaplan-Allen from Washington, D.C.—have vowed to keep meaningful art in New Orleans accessible to the masses.  

“A lot of art is inaccessible for socioeconomic reasons, or it’s for a certain class of person, or it requires understanding in technical ways,” mused Kaplan-Allen. “Femaissance has turned that concept on its head. Yes, there are art history references in the pieces that will be in ‘Proserpina,’ but the art is for everyone and has a universal appeal … and we think that is really cool.”

Feminist art burst on the scene decades ago, but art historians, curators and appraisers alike agree that it is here to stay.