Mary Beth Edelson Obituary | Art
One hot June morning in 1984, hundreds of women converged on New York’s Museum of Modern Art in protest. MoMA organized a huge exhibition of recent art and of the 165 artists exhibited, only 14 were women. The crowd chanted “You don’t have to have a penis to be a genius” and wore Suffragette scarves. Among them was artist Mary Beth Edelson. By this point, Edelson, who died at the age of 88, had spent 20 years at the forefront of the feminist art movement.
In 1972, she created a collage titled Some living American women artists/ Last Supper. Riffing on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, she replaced the faces of the disciples with those of female artists, including Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Frankenthaler. In place of Jesus is Georgia o’keeffe. The work has become a poster, widely distributed and iconic for those who fight misogyny in the art world.
“The women who really stuck their necks together originally, they tried to cut them off,” Edelson recalled in 2013. “Culture didn’t want what we were doing and culture is good at punishing people who do things it doesn’t want.” Frustrated with being excluded from museum collections and major exhibitions, Edelson helped found several women-led organizations, including Heresies, a feminist journal, and AIR Gallery, an art space in New York that is still open today. “If you want to do something, form a group,” she liked to say.
In his fight for equality, Edelson turned to the neo-pagan spiritual goddess movement. Her interest was both personal and professional and resulted in a series of performances in remote settings conducted mostly in private, but sometimes photographed for exhibition. Woman Rising / Earth (1971-73) presents six black-and-white photographs of the artist undressing on a bushy sand dune in the Outer Banks Islands of North Carolina. In a final image, Edelson is standing, hands raised triumphantly, the white rags she was carrying thrown away. Throughout the photographs, the artist has drawn esoteric triangular symbols.
She would go to extremes to find the right place to perform. In 1977, she read about a Neolithic cave on the Croatian island of Hvar and decided to find it. “I needed to do my rituals in a real prehistoric cave; to experience a Neolithic site where I could smell the earth, dig in the ground, breathe the air and know that the cave air had circulated through my body and had become a part of me … j sold my car and bought the trip.
Arrived in what was then Yugoslavia with a friend, Edelson interviewed the locals to find the right place, with an investigation into a cafe bearing fruit. At dawn the next morning, she set off up a mountain and, beyond the deserted village of Humac, found the cave. There, in pitch darkness, she set up a ring of candles on the rocky ground and produced a series of weird and deep photographs that became the series of the Neolithic Caves of Grapceva.
Art historian Lucy Lippard wrote of Edelson: “Like the great goddess to whom she dedicated her art, she has (at least) two aspects: political rage and life-giving affirmation.
Mary Beth was born in East Chicago, Indiana, a steel town, to Mary Lou Johnson, who was active in the local meal-at-home program, and Albert Melvin, a physician. By the age of eight, she had shown an interest in art and had embarked on activism as a teenager.
While still in school, she attended Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and, after briefly joining a contemporary dance troupe, in 1951 she went to study art at the University. DePauw, Indiana, with a master’s degree from New York University. After graduating in 1959, she taught at Montclair State College, New Jersey.
In 1964, a first marriage ended acrimoniously, her ex-husband obtaining custody of their daughter. A year later, she married Alfred Edelson, head of a stationery company, and, frustrated by the lack of career progression for female tutors at Montclair, the couple moved to Indianapolis and opened the Talbot Street Art Gallery. Mary Beth also formed a local arts association, Professional Artists in Indiana, but was told that if she wanted this to be taken seriously, she would need to find a man to act as a spokesperson.
Something broke, she recalls. “I got angry; 30 years of anger have come out and there has been no turning back. In 1968, the year before the couple left for Washington DC, in a speech at the Herron Art Museum in Indiana, she excoriated her peers for the misogyny she had experienced.
Living in the capital for five years, in 1972 she co-hosted the first National Conference of Women in the Visual Arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which featured Judy Chicago, Elaine de Kooning and Alice Neel among the speakers. She started the project Story collection boxes, which continued until 2014. Participants were asked to write down answers to questions such as “what was it like to be a boy?” [or girl]? And “what did your father teach you about women?” The book was meant to be a “new story” in which ordinary women were listened to.
Now divorced again, in 1975 Edelson, along with her partner, artist Robert Stackhouse, moved to New York City, taking up a studio one block from the original Wooster Street AIR gallery. She had an exhibit at the venue titled Give a Five Year Retrospective, and two years later on Halloween she used the gallery to host a pumpkin-lit group procession titled Proposals for Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era. In the same year, 1977, Heresies was founded and published 27 issues until 1993, each edited by a new group of women and devoted to topics including the great goddess, women and women of the third world and the violence, not covered by traditional arts. hurry.
Amid the theory-heavy conceptualism of the following decade, Edelson’s overtly political work fell out of favor. However, in 1989 another retrospective, titled Shape-Shifter, visited five museums across the United States.
In the 1990s, Edelson began a new work, featuring not mythological goddesses but celebrity. The subject of her 1993 painting Lorena Bobbitt’s Last Temptation had received enormous press attention four years earlier when Bobbitt cut off the penis of her abusive husband, John Wayne. Kali / Bobbitt (1994), a sculpture, presented Lorena as a Hindu goddess in S&M attire. The drawing and collage Marilyn Monroe Never Got to Be: Two Things at Once (1997) shows the actor looking into a mirror wielding a pistol; and Right in the Kisser (1997) portrayed Judy Garland administering a wicked right hook.
Age did not dampen Edelson’s activism. She was energetic in the Women’s Coalition of Action and in 1994 rented a storefront in SoHo, New York, putting up a sign that proclaimed Combat Zone: HQ Campaign Against Domestic Violence, and organized classes in self-defense.
In 2006, retrospectives took place at the Malmö Konstmuseum and the Migros Museum, Zurich. True to his beliefs on the popular scene, when WACK !: Art and the Feminist Revolution, an influential group show featuring his work, came from Los Angeles to MoMA Ps1 in New York in 2008, Edelman hosted a week-end. end of studios opened for female artists in 2008. the city.
His work was included in Waking the Witch at the Oriel Davies Gallery, Wales, in 2018, which toured other UK galleries, and in the group exhibition Animalesquem, which opened at Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden, in 2019 before heading to the Baltic Sea at Gateshead. later this year. We can also see it in the Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, an exhibition that has been traveling for more than 10 years since it opened at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, in 2010, with a stop in 2016 at the Photographers. ‘Gallery in London.
Edelson is survived by his daughter, Lynn, from her first marriage, and her son, Nicholas, from her second, and three grandchildren, Benjamin, Liza and Oscar.