March 2, 2016

Interview: Judith Bernstein

Interview: Judith Bernstein


A retrospective of the work of American feminist artist Judith Bernstein is on view at Kunsthall Stavanger through May 15, 2016. In an interview with Exhibitions Manager Heather Jones, Bernstein speaks candidly about her relationship to the Women's Lib. Movement and American art history, as well as topics that have influenced and inspired her work throughout her prolific 50+ year career. 

You very pointedly described yourself as a FEMINIST artist. Norway has a very distinct feminist history from the United States. Can you talk a little bit about what that label means to you specifically, and also describe for our audience here in Norway what it was like working as a female artist in the US in the 1960s and 70s?

When I speak of feminism, I’m referring to the immense struggle for women to gain equal access to the system. This has been a central theme in my work for the last five decades—and delves deep into my personal experience working as a woman artist. I realize that my work sprung from the feminist movement. Yet, in truth I’ve always been an outsider. My early artwork was unique from feminist art in the sense that it observes the men and embodies the male subconscious instead of referencing women.

Graduating from Yale and coming to New York in the 1960s, I was like many ambitious women who were isolated from the art world. Galleries and museums were essentially closed off to us. We were shut out and had absolutely no platform to exhibit until A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) was founded in 1972. Artists Barbara Zucker, Susan Williams, Dotty Attie and Mary Grigoriadis sifted through Art Critic Lucy Lippard’s archive of women’s artworks. They came across my work and invited me to join them in establishing the gallery, and I said ‘yes!’ on the spot.

Twenty women came together to build A.I.R., and we began the operation from scratch. I suggested that we name the gallery TWAT (Twenty Women Artists Together), but I was ahead of my time! It was Howardena Pindell’s idea to name the gallery Jane Eyre – and we went with A.I.R. as a take on that. A.I.R. was a common anachronism that indicated to the NYC fire department that an artist was living in a commercially zoned building. It was the perfect reference to the aesthetic of the gallery, which mostly exhibited conceptual work.

Your work is often contextualized within Feminist art history, but less so within the larger context of American art history. What is your relationship to America, to being an American, in your work? I’m referring most specifically to the early works dealing with the Vietnam War. Is it important that audiences understand the cultural references of the work?

At long last, I’m seeing my work transcend the Feminist Art Movement into the broader canon. Fortunately, the times are changing, and the audience is viewing my work with a new perspective. On the most fundamental level my artwork goes beyond the feminist category and taps into the psychological experiences of trauma, struggle, angst, humor – the full emotional spectrum! It addresses the complexities of human relationships with dynamic and primal confrontation. That said, the Feminist Movement was a hugely important movement in America in the 20th century. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

My work is undeniably American. I am second generation American—and it’s in my DNA. I wrap my paintings and myself in the American flag to symbolize the wavering perspective on all the flaws, hopes, travesties, and victories of the US. I was incensed by the Vietnam War, as were so many Americans and others at the time. We were going to war, losing limbs, and dying...for what? Being against the war was deemed un-American; yet it is an American constitutional right to dissent and that’s entrenched in our ancestry. From 1966-68 my Fuck Vietnam Series protested the Vietnam War.

Another aspect of my heritage is my Jewish upbringing. Given our tumultuous history, I was impassioned by injustices. I’ve always been aware of being Jewish although I’m a secular Jew. My parents kept a Kosher home and went to a synagogue; their first language was Yiddish. They were practicing Jews but not strictly religious. Being Jewish in the 1950’s and 60’s, we were outsiders and the rest were the others. My good friend at Yale, Ron Whyte, came from a Catholic background, he joked that Catholics think the world revolves around Catholics and Protestants. Jews were never in the picture!

In terms of the context of my work, it is important but not absolutely necessary to understand every aspect and my history. There are more takeaways and metaphors that I’m not even aware of!

It’s been argued that it’s unfair to place a moral imperative on artwork. Do you have a strong stance in this argument? Are you actively thinking about political and social issues while you’re working?

Every artist makes their own rules; my process deals with political and social issues. I confront them head on.

Returning quickly to art history, it has been noted several times that your work was, until recently, largely left out of the Feminist art historical canon. What do you think was the cause or causes of this omission?

I believe that my work has largely been left out of the Feminist art canon because of the very rigid definition of Feminism. In the past, Hard Line Feminists perceived that if the work is not self-referential it is not Feminist. When in fact, observing men’s behavior and making connections with their psychology is very Feminist.

From the outside, it often seems like the “feminists” from that time were all one big group, but in fact, you’re saying there were factions within the Feminist movement that were exclusionary?

The Feminists are listed under one umbrella but are not just one voice. They are individuals, coming from different places with different sensibilities and agendas.

So in a sense, the definition and parameters of Feminism had to evolve to include a wider variety of practices?

Feminism is not static, it is ever-changing. Feminists of the decorative art and abstract movements all had to advocate for their place at the table. In the context of my work, the phallus is Feminist, that was a harder sell! I had to go it alone.

Ostensibly, it's taken the mainstream art world thirty plus years to gain insight into your earlier works. The new Birth of the Universe series is in many ways a very different body of work, both in imagery and in meaning. What do you hope audiences will understand about this work, and are there ties that connect this new series to your past works?

It has taken the mainstream art world a long time to gain insight, and they’ve just scratched the surface. My current Birth of the Universe series deals with the Big Bang, women at the center, and the birthing process. These paintings are very layered, in your face, and embody absurdist contradictions. I make the connection between the galaxies, the universality of birth, male, female, the expanding universe, and relationships. I am currently observing women and using the angry cunt at the center, as opposed to a romanticized passive vagina that’s plagued art history! Using these symbols to explore the expanding relationships between men and women, I am blurring the definition of what it means to be male and female.

Yes! The artworks are funny! People often come into the galleries and laugh and then quickly look guilty as if one isn’t supposed to laugh in a gallery... You often say that your work is funny and dead serious at the same time. Can you describe your use of humor in your artwork?

Laughter gives my art impact! It opens the door to the subconscious – making my work more accessible and of course...much more fun! My work involves many contradictions. The biggest one is being funny and at the same time dead serious!!

You've mentioned the bathroom graffiti at Yale as an early source for your work. What are other sources, cultural, artistic, literary, etc. that have influenced your work?

My work is graffiti inspired, but it is not graffiti. There are so many factors that feed my visual language. Graffiti has been a great inspiration for me, both as a way to tap into my subconscious and the male psyche. There is so much visual and auditory information that is embodied in the work that I produce; I reference the history of art, current developments and ideas, scatological language, literature, and film. The list goes on!

During our guided tours of your exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger, several visitors have asked about your work in relation to other artists such as Nancy Spero and Lee Lozano – and of course, this was before the internet where it’s easy to find artists working with similar themes. What was your relationship to other artists working in similar ways or at the same time as you? Throughout your career, have you had a supportive artistic or cultural community?

Nancy Spero and Lee Lozano have created terrific bodies of work, their work is their work and my work is my work. When I was doing my Fuck Vietnam Series, I was a student at Yale and I was not aware of them or their work.
Women who work with sexual imagery are often lumped together, when in essence their aesthetic and message are very different. Sexuality is so super- charged in our society; the subject often blurs all distinctions.
Lee Lozano’s art is an exception just like anything. When I first encountered it, I felt I could have created some of her pieces. There is an overlap of sensibilities.

I have had support throughout my career from both female and male artists. I found support within groups: A.I.R., Guerilla Girls, Art Workers’ Coalition, and Fight Censorship. Artists like Louise Bourgeois, Joyce Kozloff, Joan Semmel, Walter De Maria, Bill CPLY, and Paul McCarthy have provided much encouragement throughout my career.

You’re right in that sexual imagery (especially in the US) tends to override any other critical thought. Viewers who aren not familiar with your work often first think that it is overtly about sex, until looking deeper. Can you discuss the relationship between your use of sexual imagery and the deeper messages in your work?

It is only sexual on the surface, but it addresses the psychological and social constructs associated with the male phallus. Not everyone reads a large sex organ in the same way.

Following the censorship of your drawing from FOCUS: Women’s Work 1974, there was an extended period where it was difficult for you to show your work in a gallery setting. Can you discuss this time period, and your feelings about the importance (or lack thereof) of showing work for the development of an artist?

I think it is extremely important for an artist to exhibit. It gives the artist’s work a broader context, exposure to the critical community, and opportunities to expand ideas conceptually and aesthetically. Exhibiting brings exposure to new audiences. My SIGNATURE PIECE (1986, 14 x 45 Feet) addresses this directly. The large charcoal mural represents an opportunity for me to confront male posturing and put a woman at the center. It’s also about men’s ego, my ego, and the subtext of large-scale artworks. I was tagging the space, saying I’m here!

Something that is wonderfully confusing about your work is the reiteration of motifs and characters – Cockman from the 1960s is reinvented in a recent show at Mary Boone Gallery for example. While many artists are constantly in search of the new, you don’t seem to shy away from returning to and remixing older symbols and forms of expression, and making them relevant again. Can you discuss these perpetuating motifs and the repetition in your work?

I constantly revisit all of my imagery. The psyche has no age! The current climate of warfare stirs the familiar outrage from my early career— and Cockman continues to emerge! These resurrections in my artwork deliberately address the fact that we’re dealing with the same issues today. My current exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, Dicks of Death, deals with this head-on. My God, there are so many double and triple entendres!

In the US, we now have a ‘volunteer army’ that’s based on class. While making the Fuck Vietnam series, on the other hand, the catalyst of protest was the college-age draft. That’s a big difference between then and now—and relates directly to the underlining apathy today. Cockman was originally made in response to the reactionary governor George Wallace of Alabama, now we have Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and the current tagline is “Cockman Always Rises.” An artist develops his or her own visual language over a lifetime; I am working within my own vocabulary that I have fine-tuned for over more than fifty years.

In the exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger, there are two large paintings that, though created 48 years apart, are strikingly similar in both content and appearance – Vietnam Salute and Isis Gunk. Can you discuss the relationship between these two works and the impetus behind their creation?

No imagery can be as crude as war. In the exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger there are two different paintings, both dealing with rage, sexuality, humor, and taboos. These are themes that I will constantly revisit and remix.

Bernstein (born 1942, Newark, New Jersey) has lived and worked in New York City since 1967. She received an MFA from Yale University School of Art in 1967. Bernstein was a founding member of A.I.R. Gallery as well as an early member of many art and activist organizations including Guerrilla Girls, Art Workers’ Coalition, and Fight Censorship.

Solo exhibitions include the New Museum, New York; Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York; The Box, Los Angeles; and Mary Boone, New York. Her work has been included in group exhibitions such as The Comfort of Strangers at MoMA PS1, New York; The Last Newspaper at the New Museum, New York; and The Historical Box, at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich and London. Her works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Jewish Museum, and Yale University Art Gallery.

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