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Alexis Hunter: Year of the crotch

Claire Murdoch looks at the gender politics of the then and the relevance now of the art of feminist photographer, Alexis Hunter

In 1972, the same year she arrived in London from Auckland, Alexis Hunter started walking around Hoxton taking photos of men at work and rest. Over the next 12 months, she would do the same in New York’s Little Italy.

Later, she stencilled the prints like crates or wool-bales in Cadbury purple with YES, NO, MAYBE, and, in at least one witty example, ALMOST, to (as Wikipedia delicately puts it) ‘indicate the level of sexual rapport she felt existed with the subjects’.1 These pictures became her ‘Sexual Rapport’ series (1972–76).

Of these subjects, these working-class blokes and dudes, Hunter said, ‘They liked me, with my long red hair, tight jeans and lace-up bovver boots.’2 Her lens liked them right back. And it’s easy to like this series – the horny, hetero, participatory perambulations around the as yet ungentrified, un-galleried hoods of the Hoxton and the SoHo of the then, all executed with the humour, purpose, and directness that seem to have characterised pretty much everything Hunter ever did. The images have the easy, hazy, daytime vibe of bunking off and buggering around and watching. They’re candidly grainy. They might be slightly stoned. They wear the complicit grin of getting away with something – and they were. Their ease belies them, though, because they were deadly serious, too.

The year 1972 was the same year the first Women’s Liberation Movement conferences were held in London; the same year the feminist journals Spare Rib and Ms. magazine (the latter founded by ur-second-waver Gloria Steinem) were launched. Less than 12 months earlier, art historian Linda Nochlin had published in ARTnews her game-changing essay of provocation, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’3 (It’s funny how they always call it ‘seminal’, but Jesus it bore fruit.)

Hunter was already, in 1972, a capital-F feminist, soaking in the urgent politics, consciousness, and collectivism of the period like a hand in Palmolive. That same year she would join the Artists’ Union Women’s Workshop and the London Women’s Liberation Art Group, explaining that ‘it was too hard to be a feminist artist on your own; the criticism was too great to bear’.4

Maybe it’s hard to grasp all ‘the criticism’ at this remove; maybe the why isn’t clear; maybe the history-making radicalism of Hunter’s work and mission are as hard to focus on, from 2016, as the hazy summer of ’72 itself. It’s important to remember the basics. In Hunter’s own words, ‘When I left university … I couldn’t hire a television without a man’s signature.’5 As artists, women were historically invisible, widely treated as incapable, relegated to ‘lesser’ media and forms, subject to insane tokenism, and certainly not bankable. As obvious feminists, it was impossible for them to make a living or be shown – hence, in part, the need for collectives. ‘We couldn’t get work,’ said Hunter.6 There was ‘no market … no income’.7 Printers would literally refuse to print Hunter’s work, and gallery workers would refuse to hang it. Critically? ‘We were ridiculed in the press.’8 This was a feminism both urgent and essential, as well as properly, conceptually cutting edge.

As Marsha Rowe, a founder of Spare Rib, would write years later, ‘We intended no less than to take on the culture of the whole western world [by] finding a new language for both image and word …’9 Hunter intended no less than this through her art. She knew the artist had a role to play in social change (thanks in part to her mentor, Colin McCahon); she knew she was ‘making history’10 and finding a new visual and political language – just by taking some photos of some men. As she told one interviewer at the time, ‘After 600 years of paintings of women by men, I decided to do a little bit of a reversal.’11

Subversion, undermining, flip-it-and-reverse-it. In 1972, the British film critic Laura Mulvey was still a few years away from coining the phrase ‘the male gaze’,12 but this was the precise new ground Nochlin’s essay was breaking and Hunter’s boots were walking all over. ‘I felt very strongly about feminism, and photography better expressed my political ideals,’ Hunter said of her adoption of the medium that year (her training at Elam School of Fine Arts had been in painting).13 Like film, photography was ideal for Hunter’s gaze-flipping mission, with its 1:1 relationship to looking, its prevalence in advertising (i.e. in creating want, not least through sex), its urgent connection to documentary and news-making and, of course, its eternal mateship with pornography.

Much of Hunter’s photography – including, most prominently, the works in the Te Papa exhibition Alexis Hunter: The model’s revenge – are very directly, even literally about this whole tricky business of who gets to do the looking and who gets checked out. In the photograph The model’s revenge (1974), camera = gun = turning the tables. In the super-cinematic Approach to fear XIX: Voyeurism – exposure (1978), a manicured, first-person hand molests and uncovers a concealed something frame by frame (sensuously, bravely, suspensefully). It’s a gun! (In plenty of her works there are guns.) No, wait. It’s a camera that immediately, and not benignly, turns back on the viewer to meet her eye. Our own eye. Even when Hunter’s body is her subject, as in Self-portrait (1977), she’s ‘looking’ at her own lens, making the viewer do the same, jolting us to think about watching, art-making, and who gets to do it.

Hunter’s use of (usually, her own) hands in her art warrants a longer essay than this one, but as well as loving the witty way they riff on the classic advertising imagery of luxury and longing, I adore these hands for their going-boldly, their mild, Addams Family surrealism, their status as stand-ins for us, and their enduring agency. I love that Hunter did this – jammed her fingers in rusty old machinery, as in Approach to fear III: Taboo – demystify (1976); fucked that rusty old machinery up (even when it looked scary, crushing, filthy); got her hands dirty doing it. It’s the perfect metaphor for her cause and her work; for what she felt was demanded of her.

Hunter would recall that for feminist artists, this act of transgressive looking, this female subjectivity, would become not only ‘the bravest and most radical thing we could do at the time’, but, critically, ‘the most hated aspect of our work’.14 Hunter’s fellow London Women’s Liberation Art Group member, Margaret Harrison, would surely concur. Her drawings of men and women – including a killer one of icky old Hugh Hefner, dressed in a Playboy bunny suit, dick popping out – were banned by the police when she exhibited them in her very early solo feminist exhibition at London’s Woodstock Gallery in 1971. They didn’t mind the ones of pornographic bunny women mashed in sandwiches, she said later, ‘but they did mind the way I altered the male body ... Those ones were thought of as being too pornographic … “disgusting”.’15

It’s no surprise, in this context, that Hunter’s table-turning work – including both the ‘Sexual Rapport’ series and the earlier ‘Tattoo’ series (which also depicted parts of male bodies, Māori and Polynesian) – was criticised as being ‘sexist’. Hunter was bemused but unsurprised (‘I thought, how can you take a sexist picture of a man if men have that power in society? Sexism comes from being in a position to look at a person and make them into an object. Art history does that to women.’)16 She doubled down, went downtown, and made the ‘Object Series’ (1974–75). Later, she’d go further again with the still-confrontational, ‘meant to offend’17 Approach to fear – masculinity – exorcise (1976), where those engine-oil hands deface and obliterate a photo of a man, hard-on first.

The ‘hero’ image from this body of work has long been this one. (Hunter even chose it for the cover of her artist’s book for the 2006 retrospective Alexis Hunter: Radical feminism in the 1970s.18) It’s the one cropping in on the topless young guy in leathers, thumb casually in belt loop, lit cigarette jutting right out from his pants, Twin Towers of the World Trade Centers sticking up in the background like (Hunter’s words) the ‘ultimate phallic symbols’.19 He’s the only curved thing in the picture, a snaky, snail-trailed S, and he’s hazy-sexy-cinema-cool. It goes without saying that he’s like a cowboy, a Marlborough Man, but unlike those dudes he never looks at us – and we’re staring. All the iconography’s there in this series – sideburns, hat, boots. Here he is again in another work with a snake & dagger tattoo and provocatively flopping belt. Here – everywhere – are smokes and biker boots and chains and belts and thrusting chrome bumpers and bad-boy tatts for our eyes to drink up, standing in for ev-er-y-thing s.e.x. like a textbook illustration of what a Freudian fetish object is. They work like charms. Still.

The proof-sheets for this series show that Hunter only took this one shot, THE shot, for the aforementioned hero pic and more or less every set-up. The surety and directness of the artist’s point of view in this series is astonishing – both her medium (her shot) and her message.

Sure, too, was her eye for the popular, the hot. Hunter had worked in advertising, and she knew her material had to be accessible and appealing to lure people in before she hooked them with her political point. She was right. By the 1990s, images like hers would be commodified and turned into jean merch; bottled and resold as the stuff of those now-famous, ‘role-reversing’ Diet Coke ads in which office ‘girls’ pant salaciously at a series of topless, denimed, Chippendale-fit window-washers and construction workers who don’t know they’re being watched, wank-banked.

The year 1972 might as well have been the Year of the Crotch – the stuffed, ogled male crotch. It’s impossible, looking at this series by Hunter, not to remember the Rolling Stones’ still-new-in-’72 Sticky Fingers album, with its famous Warhol-produced cover art featuring a real zipping zipper, barely containing the bulge of one or another of those Factory hunks and hustlers; or of the emergent Springsteen, working the slouchy working-class vibe real hard and looking for all the world like a Hunter street subject in his tight jeans. Even Mapplethorpe was, at that moment, taking informal, rumpled, denim-clad portraits (both self and dual, with Patti Smith) that share more with Hunter’s candid style than the more staged, formal, constrained compositions that would follow.

For obvious reasons, the deliberate ‘female gaze’ has always shared its object – and its objectification – with gay imagery and gay porn. On that timeline, Hunter’s ‘Object Series’ photographs fall chronologically and (not unsympathetically) between the deadly, tight, lolly-sweet camp of Kenneth Anger’s experimental short film from 1965, Kustom Kar Kommandos (with its bits of chromey bikes and butch-boy bodies) and those later, tonier Mapplethorpes of the ’80s. They’re synchronous with Lou Reed’s hit song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, from the album Transformer, which pays tribute to the transgender hustlers of NYC. Its cover art features the biggest, Tom of Finland-est banana bulge of them all.

Like Lou once said, those were different times. There was no HIV/AIDS. The Twin Towers were still standing – and could still stand for everything upthrustingly ’80s that would follow. Feminisms hadn’t splintered as minutely, pluralised, become as (necessarily) intersectional. It’s hard, from 2016, not to feel one’s nostalgia aroused by this series, as well as one’s … everything else. Somewhere between Hunter’s ‘Object Series’ and the World Trade Centers coming down; somewhere between Stone Pony-era young Springsteen (YES!) and our own era’s Adam from Girls, with his iffy grip on consent and condom use and 11-year-old-junkie-little-whore-with-a-Cabbage-Patch-lunchbox dirty talk (SWIPE RIGHT); somewhere among the comments and the unsolicited dick pics and the gonzo porn with its total POV take-back of the gaze, the trigger warnings and the #NotAllMen, all this sex politics stuff got a whole lot stickier.

Meanwhile, some important stuff has stayed way, way too much the same. Here is Hunter in her artist’s statement for the online Feminist Art Base, compiled by the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: ‘The privileges that women fought for in the 1960s and 1970s are now under threat.’20 It’s even a listicle (on Mic magazine), ‘8 Feminist Reasons We Know 2015 Is Just 1972 All Over Again’. And in art, almost 45 years after Nochlin’s essay, and 30 years after the Guerrilla Girls first postered Hunter’s old stomping ground, SoHo, to show up the gender, race, and LGBTI inequality in the art world, it remains. Less than one-third of all solo shows given at the major contemporary-art museums in New York since 2007 have been by women. Though women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women.21 Women lag behind men in directorships held at museums with budgets over $15 million, holding 24 percent of art museum director positions and earning 71 cents for every dollar earned by male directors.22 Only 7 percent of all the art on display at MoMA was made by women. While the auction record for a work by a male artist is held by Picasso at $179 million, the auction record for a female artist, held by his contemporary Georgia O’Keeffe, is less than a quarter of that, at $44.4 million. The list goes on.23

Alexis Hunter died in 2014 of motor neurone disease, which meant that by the end, she had lost the power of speech – but nobody could shut her up. One of the last things she said, in an interview with Andrew Paul Wood shortly before her death, was ‘The only way of keeping [feminism] alive is by supplanting the word with a new voice of vibrant new feminists utilising [social media]. This third-wave feminism has all the frontiership of the radical feminists of the 1970s.’24

Radical 1970s feminist art like Hunter’s is, plainly, resurgent – from Brooklyn Museum’s A Year of Yes feminist art programme, beginning in 2016, that takes as its starting point ‘the transformative contributions of feminist art during the last half-century’,25 to major international exhibitions like Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2007 retrospective WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, which featured work by more than 120 feminist artists, Hunter included. Closer to home, we’ve had Enjoy Public Art Gallery’s 2015 exhibition Enjoy Feminisms, its special-edition occasional journal Love Feminisms, and the 2016 ‘Four Waves of Feminism’ event, run in tandem with The Dowse.26

And what of those photographs from 1972? Yes, the works still work. As Hunter herself said, of the art of this time, her time, ‘It is so raw, so hard, so to the point. Some of the stuff cannot be surpassed in the way of bravery or breaking taboos.’27 Perhaps because of this, it remains relevant, and more urgent than ever in 2016. It’s like we’re looking for feminist art heroes, for icons, for Wonder Women; for someone just like Alexis Hunter to show us how to stick our fingers in some manky old machines and fuck things up.


  1. ‘Alexis Hunter’, Wikipedia,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  2. Alexis Hunter in Nathalie Olah, ‘Manhunter’, Dazed website,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  3. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ ARTnews no. 69, January 1971, 22-39ff.,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  4. Lynda Morris, ‘Alexis Hunter obituary’, Guardian website, 12 March 2014,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  5. Alexis Hunter in Lindsay Dryden, Alexis Hunter: Approach to fear, Little By Little Films, 2014,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  6. Adam Gifford, ‘Feminist art buys a fight’, The New Zealand Herald website, 4 April 2007,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  7. Alexis Hunter in Lindsay Dryden, Alexis Hunter: Approach to fear.
  8. Adam Gifford, ‘Feminist art buys a fight’.
  9. Marsha Rowe, ‘Spare Rib and the underground press’, British Library website,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  10. Alexis Hunter in Lindsay Dryden, Alexis Hunter: Approach to fear.
  11. ibid.
  12. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.
  13. Julie Roberts, ‘Alexis’ art stops people in their tracks!’, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 24 July 1989, p.10.
  14. Alexis Hunter in conversation with John Roberts, 1997, cited in Lynda Morris (ed), Alexis Hunter: Radical feminism in the 1970s, artist’s book, Norwich Gallery, Norwich, 2006.
  15. Margaret Harrison in Unlock Art: Where are all the women? Tate, 2014,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  16. Adam Gifford, ‘Feminist art buys a fight’.
  17. Alexis Hunter in Lindsay Dryden, Alexis Hunter: Approach to fear.
  18. Lynda Morris (ed), Alexis Hunter: Radical feminism in the 1970s.
  19. Andrew Paul Wood, ‘Vale Alexis Hunter’, EyeContact website, 15 March 2014,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  20. Alexis Hunter, ‘Feminist Artist Statement’, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Feminist Art Base, Brooklyn Museum website,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  21. Cited in ‘Get the facts’, National Museum of Women in the Arts website,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  22. ibid.
  23. Maura Reilly, ‘Taking the measure of sexism: facts, figures, and fixes’, ARTnews website, May 2015,, accessed 12 September 2016.
  24. Andrew Paul Wood, ‘Vale Alexis Hunter’.
  25. Brooklyn Museum press release, August 2016,, accessed 3 October 2016.
  26. ‘Four Waves of Feminism’, The Dowse website,, accessed 3 October 2016.
  27. Adam Gifford, ‘Feminist art buys a fight’.




Alexis Hunter, Untitled. From 'The object series', 1974-75/2006, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on

Alexis Hunter, Untitled. From the series ‘Sexual rapport: yes/no/maybe’, 1973-75. Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images. Reproduced with permission from the Alexis Hunter Trust

Alexis Hunter, Untitled. From the series ‘Sexual rapport: yes/no/maybe’, 1973-75. Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images. Reproduced with permission from the Alexis Hunter Trust

<EM>Ms. </EM>magazine, July 1972. Reprinted by permission of <em>Ms.</em> magazine, © 1972

Ms. magazine, July 1972. Reprinted by permission of Ms. magazine, © 1972


Alexis Hunter, The model's revenge no.1, 1974, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2016.
Full object info is available on

Alexis Hunter, <em>Self-portrait</em>, 1977. Courtesy of the Alexis Hunter Trust

Alexis Hunter, Self-portrait, 1977. Courtesy of the Alexis Hunter Trust


Alexis Hunter, Approach to fear XIX: Voyeurism - exposure, 1978, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2016.
Full object info is available on


Alexis Hunter, Approach to fear III: Taboo - demystify, 1976/2008, Colour photographs, type C prints,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on


Alexis Hunter, Untitled. From 'The object series', 1974-75/2006, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on


Alexis Hunter, Untitled. From 'The object series', 1974-75/2006, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on


Alexis Hunter, Untitled. From 'The object series', 1974-75/2006, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on

Guerrilla Girls, 1989.  © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy <a href:""></a>

Guerrilla Girls, 1989. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy


Guerrilla Girls, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, 1988, offset lithograph on paper,
Gift of Sarah Farrar, 2015.
© Guerrilla Girls
Full object info is available on