Remembering Moira Roth ‘a truly maverick feminist art historian’

Moira Roth In Memoriam

Moira Roth (born Shannon), who died peacefully at the age of 87 on June 14, 2021, was a truly maverick feminist art historian and extraordinary human being who enriched the lives of every scholar, student, and artist lucky enough to meet her. Trained with a PhD in Art History from UC Berkeley (after studies at University of Vienna, the London School of Economics [psychiatric social work], and New York University [sociology and art history]), she taught art history at University of Indiana, and in California at UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, UC San Diego. She ended her teaching career with an over 30 year stint at Mills College in Oakland, where she was a beloved colleague and mentor to generations of students.

Born in London on July 24, 1933, by the late 1930s Roth was attending an experimental multicultural school in Letchworth and living with her mother, Eve Shannon, herself an immigrant from Canada who hosted people such as Rose Hacker and her children, Jewish refugees from Hitler’s blitz on London. In her early years, Roth was thus immersed in a world of immigrants and refugees from the war. One of her great gifts was in making and sustaining friendships, and Hacker remained a profoundly important figure in her life, giving her a strong sense of belonging in relation to Jewish people and traditions, and providing material for a biography Roth published in 1996 (entitled Abraham’s Daughter: The Life and Times of Rose Hacker). Roth’s father, who worked for the International Monetary Fund, and step-mother were in Washington DC in the 1950s and Moira moved to the United States in 1952, staying with them, meeting her mother’s Scots-Canadian family in Canada, travelling by bus across the US (discussing McCarthyism with a range of seat-mates), and meeting John Cage. Her life as a scholar and creative thinker flowed from these experiences.

While living in Los Angeles and teaching at UC Irvine, Roth became active in the thriving feminist art movement, meeting with women artists and activists at Joyce Kozloff’s house and developing her attachment to the work of women artists as well as participating in the agitation that lead to the first large-scale exhibition of work by women artists possibly in the world—the 1976 Women Artists, 1550-1950, curated by Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In addition to pathbreaking scholarship—Roth’s essay on neo-Dada and its “aesthetic of indifference” published in Artforum in 1974 is a classic; her interviews with John Cage, Allan Kaprow, Robert Smithson, and many others are historically significant; and her writings on feminism and performance are central to these alternative canons—Roth also curated exhibitions (such as of the work of feminist performance artist Barbara Smith at UC San Diego very early in the 1970s), and produced a range of creative writerly works exploring an imagined character of Rachel Marker and presenting a “library of maps.” She was the first major scholar, along with Lucy Lippard, to understand the connection between feminism and performance as it emerged in the early 1970s, publishing The Amazing Decade: Women in Performance Art in America in 1983, and Rachel Rosenthal in 1995. She researched and supported the work of Hung Liu, Faith Ringgold, Howardena Pindell, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and many, many other women artists and artists of color, long before most scholars and art writers were considering such creative work as worthy of attention.

Roth’s personality sparkled, her generosity was legion, her intelligence manifold. She changed not only the field of art history—insisting on opening it to forbidden topics, from the conceptually driven work of Marcel Duchamp (at a time when the art world was obsessively focused on abstraction) to performance art to feminist art to hybrid modes of writing and curating—but ideas about the very life a scholar could lead. Her life was her work, her lectures (sometimes performance art works in themselves) famously entertaining and informative, her dinner parties legendary for their company and food (often presented through elaborate menus that were themselves works of art). Her students were friends, her friends de facto students, always learning from her—not just information but an approach to living well.

Moira Roth’s energies and care nurtured the Bay Area artistic communities and an international network of friends and colleagues for decades. She will be profoundly missed.

By Amelia Jones, Robert A Day Professor of Art & Design and Vice Dean of Academics & Research, University of Southern California. 25  June 2021.

Photo of Moira by Karen Sharpe, taken in August of 2019 having lunch in Sam’s Log Cabin in Albany, near the assisted living center where Moira was living.