The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
“In my work, there’s an awful lot of screaming to be heard.”
Judith Bernstein’s drawings and paintings are inspired by her early introduction to graffiti during her time at Yale School of Art. A vehicle for her outspoken feminist and anti-war activism, her paintings feature expressive line work, raw imagery, and an unflagging sense of humor. She was a participant in many activist organizations, including the Guerrilla Girls and the Art Workers’ Coalition. In the 1970s she was a member of AIR Gallery, the first to be devoted to showing female artists. Recently, Bernstein has exhibited at Mary Boone Gallery, Migros Museum Zurich, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The New Museum, ICA London, Studio Voltaire London, Hauser & Wirth London and Zurich, Karma International Zurich, The Box LA, and MoMA PS1. She is currently preparing for an retrospective at Kunsthalle Stavanger in Norway and a solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea; both opening in the new year. Bernstein is also working on a book of her work with Patrick Frey Publications.
On a steamy day in late June, I met Judith in the Chinatown loft where she lives and works. We began by looking through images of older work before moving into her adjacent studio and, over pungent chocolate-flavored coffee, beginning a more intimate conversation regarding touchstones in our own personal feminist histories.
Judith Bernstein This is the piece that was censored in Philadelphia [at the Philadelphia Civic Center]. I did it in 1973. I was doing these very large drawings, combinations of a penis and a screw. I was a student at Yale and had read an article in the New York Times about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And the article said that Edward Albee had gotten this title from bathroom graffiti.
That’s what started me thinking about going into the bathroom and seeing men’s fantasies. So I did drawings, basically, that were kind of extensions of bathroom graffiti: they were not taken directly, but once you know the idea you can really run with it. After that body of work, I did anti-Vietnam [works], very crude—they were very large penises. At that time, I thought there were so many dicks around, and the war was such a waste. The draft made a big difference. Now, people can’t stand what we’re doing, but it doesn’t touch them. And then, if you had to go and lose your life, that really touches you. So that’s how I started. These are really a combination of sex, warfare, also feminism, and mine’s bigger than yours. (laughter) But this piece was censored. And people wore a button that read “Where’s Bernstein?” all over the show.
Sofia Leiby I was thinking about Lee Lozano making erotic works around this time as well.
JB Well, first, I never knew Lee Lozano, which is unfortunate. I would have liked to have met her, but that was not the case. She would be twelve years older than I am now, and I’m seventy-two. I didn’t know her work, and it wasn’t shown. It was too bad, because there are so many overlaps in terms of our attitudes. Her work, in a way, is much more lethal. My work is much more humanist, in terms of being sympathetic as well as blaming.
But I think her work is extraordinary. And I know that, in the end, she was very hostile toward women, she boycotted them, wouldn’t speak to them. I was very impressed with the show put on at PS1 [in 2004]. I thought it was wonderful and realized that so many pieces overlapped with what I did.
This was at my first show at AIR Gallery, and one of my favorite pieces. It was shown again almost fifty years later at PS1, in the Greater New York show that Cecilia Alemani curated.
It’s mind-boggling in a way—fifty years. As you get older, that time frame actually closes in. It doesn’t go by in a second, but it goes by much faster than you can imagine. And, twenty years before I was born women got the right to vote. Isn’t that amazing? It sounds like I was born in the Civil War! I am very lucky, because my work was very graphic, very direct, in-your-face, and that is the zeitgeist of this time. And it was part of my own psyche. But, my work is really my own observations. My feminism is my observation of guys—and, recently, I’ve gone into the women category.
SL What was it like to have a piece you made fifty years ago shown again so much later?
JB Back then, people were aghast, seeing these humongous penises. They are not veiled images. It’s not a subtext. Fifty years later, the works have had a lot less impact in certain ways. People see it as art, not just as political. They see it in a broader way, and the reaction is much more neutral.
This was the first Judith Bernstein I did—the screw drawings. The screws became my signature, then my signature became the signature. So, it’s also about stardom, about ego, about men’s posturing, and about my own ego. I don’t leave myself out of it. (laughter)
SL Sign the face, right?
JB Yes, that’s exactly right, absolutely right. It’s about putting women at the center, and there are many factors involved. I redid it a couple times, but this one was at the New Museum [in 2010].
This was last summer at Studio Voltaire, which is an alternative space in London. It was originally a Methodist church. I had these cocks going up to the altar. So, it makes a play on religion, but is also is a very meditative space.
SL These are on paper, right?
JB I did them in paper initially. But now they’re on linen.
SL They look like tapestries. And there was a black light?
JB They had a room with only black light, which was wonderful. I did this in three weeks. My assistant [John Reynolds] and I were crazed by the end of it.
JB This was all under black light. The part that is oil paint just goes back, and the black light comes out. At the Mary Boone show, we had black as well as regular light, so that you could see the oils and the fluorescents coming out.
SL This reminds me of the black light test, like in a hotel room at a crime scene investigation. And also of this metaphor of “painting in the dark.”
JB Yeah, that’s interesting! The funny thing is that they kid around in California because semen, urine, all that kind of stuff will show up—but also scorpions.
JB It’s funny, because the word “cunt” is probably one of the last venues of crudity. Whereas “cock,” no one thinks at all about it. Obviously it depends on who you’re talking to, but the cunt is something that gives it more punch.
SL Growing up, my mom actually told me that was the worst word in the English language, worse than every other curse word. I remember saying it in front of her, and she was just like, “Never say that! That is the most offensive term toward women.”
JB Oh, really! Interesting. When you take that word and use it, then you kind of take the stigma away, the onus. And it’s funny, because when AIR first started there were a lot of women who went to the Art Institute or, like myself, to Yale, and we were trying to find a name for the gallery, so I suggested “TWAT: Twenty Women Artists Together.” (laughter)
SL I saw your piece, Vietnam Garden, at the new Whitney.
JB I did this anti-Vietnam series when I was a student at Yale, and when I first came to New York. And then I made this one, Fuck by Numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, with figures of how many people died, how many had post-traumatic stress syndrome, how many refugees there were, and also how much money it would cost, which is the least important in my estimation—but nevertheless, six trillion dollars by 2015. And you see, it’s also fucked by numbers because you’re connecting the dots—like a penis, and it’s a penis-gun.
SL How do you think this piece reads now?
JB Really the general public doesn’t see this work because it’s in an art context. It’s not in a public space, so the public is not aghast. For example, when Paul McCarthy exhibited his butt plug-inspired Christmas tree in Paris last year, the public was outraged because it was in a public space. My work has only been viewed within art institutions thus far. Viewers go in understanding that context. I’m not putting my work on Capitol Hill as of yet.
And it’s funny, because I sent Paul a Christmas tree, I had these plastic Christmas trees that play and light up different colors. And I said: “Dear Karen and Paul, Merry Christmas, don’t use this toy without a doctor in the house.” Since it looks like a butt plug… (laughter)
SL Do you collect toys?
JB Well, I collect everything. I’m a hoarder. It’s messy, but I have all the things I need here, and it’s wonderful. I love toys. I like the color, the fun, the childlike aspect of toys. They’re just interesting objects I get a kick out of. In the past I have used some in collages, but I haven’t done that for a while. I’ve used guns and other things. I even have toys that are much more lethal, bombs and stuff—not real bombs or live ammo.
SL So, you mostly collect for their color and shape?
JB Yes. Recently I did a piece for a publication. They wanted artists’ recipes, so I drew a hairy banana slicer, and I wrote: Banana Slicer/Banana Sandwich. My mother loved banana sandwiches. She liked them on rye, but it works on any good bread. In some insane way, it’s a tribute to her.
SL You mention your mother in a couple of other interviews that deal with these new paintings, sort of this thing about—
SL Anger, and a mother who feels like her daughter owes her. Can you talk about that a little more?
JB I think that women have something men don’t. Men have their own shit, too, but women have a way of demanding: You owe me. You come home for Christmas. I gave birth to you; you owe me. Men don’t do that. My mother would do it—“Oh, I want you to have your own life!”—but underneath was strangulation. You owe her. Maybe other people don’t feel that way, but, despite the fact that you are independent, there’s still that connection, an umbilical cord that’s not completely severed. Now it may be different for other people, but I just say what I think my own feelings are. I tap into my own observations with my own work.
SL Was that something that happened fairly recently, these feelings?
JB I can’t say it happened fairly recently. My mother has been dead for a while. She died in ’92. It wasn’t too sudden a death. She had Alzheimer’s. I have one painting that has nooses. It’s really about life and death. It has more meanings than I know. But, nevertheless, it has that strangulation because of that obligation. So, with that one, I did feel that way. You have the three cunts in there, and three is always a good number.
SL Is there a direct relationship to the number three?
JB No, but I like the number three, and I also like the way three images look together. Thirty-three is when Christ died. There’s a lot of other things: the trilogy, the trinity, just a lot of things that three is about. There’s the triangle. Now I use numerology in a certain way. It’s not a belief system, but most of the time in these paintings of cunt faces there is actually a clock. The most significant number is the age of the universe, which is 13.82x109. But I use other numbers that actually have to do with me personally. I was born in 1942. I am seventy-two years old. October fourteenth I was born. Sixty-nine, the old favorite.
I’m always surprised the numbers in some of those old ditties, those crude references, still pertain today, even after such a long period of time since they were originally enacted—fifty or sixty years, though I’m sure it’s much longer than that. Probably World War II, or whatever. Certainly in graffiti in World War II there was Kilroy Was Here, with the nose, which is phallic! But the universe—time doesn’t have the same meaning there. Numbers are meaningless in space. And I am so fascinated by the extraordinary idea of parallel universes—it’s so sci-fi. If these people weren’t scientists, you’d think they were just batshit. But, nevertheless, they have these wonderful things they are thinking now. Black holes. All of this is so mysterious. Now, I have to say, the birth process is mysterious, too. We know how it works, yet it’s a shock.
SL Yes, I went to a school that had very little in the way of sex-ed, though I grew up in a fairly liberal town outside of DC. The gym teacher taught “Health.” He said, “I’m not going to cover contraception, homosexuality, or suicide.”
JB That’s ludicrous! Why? That is what they should have focused on. Kids know about and engage in sex at such a young age.
SL And he played that live-birth video, but first forward, then in reverse, because he thought it was funny. The vagina was this thing that just pushed out an object, then took it back in. That was my first impression of birth, until sophomore year of college when I took this class with a woman named Terri Kapsalis, who was a health educator and an artist.
JB That’s great.
SL She was amazing and taught this class called “The Wandering Uterus.” It was all about the history of women in medicine. Plato thought of the uterus as this thing that wandered around the body, causing hysteria and all these things, but what was fascinating to me was that no one in this class, let alone me, knew much about their own body. We read Our Bodies, Our Selves, and I learned so much.
And this attitude persists. The first time I had my period I told my mom, “It’s so gross.” And she said it wasn’t: “Your body is not gross, not dirty.” Then to go to school, to see all of this happening in the ’70s, thinking: Well, now where are we? I am in the same place, relearning everything.
JB When I was a kid there was a girl next door, and she got her period and thought she had cancer and was dying. Of course, it was the ’50s, but still, no one should have that feeling—of not knowing what’s happening, and of not knowing that this is part of life and also that this creates life. It’s all part of the legacy of Puritanism. Women are bad, women are dirty, and that’s just not the case at all. But, that’s the feeling, and now we take on that onus because we are told so many times. The curse. When my mother was a child that’s what they called the period—the curse. First, if you didn’t want to get pregnant, it certainly wasn’t a curse, but just the thought that this was—well, that you’re somehow unwell. It’s not about being unwell. It’s a natural process.
JB This is the first cunt piece that inspired the others. It has gold, like an icon. The crying cunt also has to do with the Virgin Mary. [highlighting with a pocket black light] See, it does a lot of things that you don’t see without the light. It breathes it all in.
SL The space is so shallow in paintings.
JB Exactly, the space is very shallow. This gives it more punch.
SL They are almost cute, the characters.
JB There is humor in them, but I would disagree with you on cute.
SL Well, maybe just the eyelashes. She, the vagina or Mary, starts to look like a doll.
JB That’s correct. Like a Raggedy Ann, especially the red here. And then I have the clit here—you know, “Saturday Night Cocks.”
SL The clit’s kind of like a wifi. It’s amazing to think about that; we were the ones providing Internet!
JB There’s no end to what we do.
Humor and laughter are a release, an ejaculation. I like being funny. It’s been a great asset for me just as a human being. For example, the cocks and screws. The way I do it, it’s not funny, but the idea is kind of funny. I didn’t realize, until I went back to some of the earlier pieces, how much humor was in my work. It’s been wonderful to rediscover myself. And it’s also wonderful showing—that’s been the greatest gift. When you show you get a more objective view about what you’re doing, then you can go from there. There are takeaways and a lot of other things that are very important about having shows, and I think it was really a loss that I didn’t have them for a while. So, now I am much more savvy. What do I take away? What can I do from here? Where do I go?
SL I read all these articles that called you a “genitalia-loving, seventy-year-old artist,” and I wanted to meet you because—
JB —it’s got to be more than that?
JB You know, I’ll tell you something: people stereotype what you do. You only do penises, or you only do this. It’s actually more complex. But, there’s no question that it has that factor to it. And so, you go with it. This is becoming my signature, too. I had done a lot of these phalluses, not just the ones I showed you, then I thought: You know, I also have feelings about women—in terms of the fact that a lot of women have a lot of rage in them. And my mother had a lot of rage. She’s not someone who wanted a career and didn’t get it. She didn’t know what she wanted, but she didn’t like the life she had—being the housewife and that kind of thing. But, I saw also, with all the groups of women—AIR, the Guerilla Girls, all these groups—how much rage women had, and I wanted to show that.
SL For each other, or for men?
JB Everything. It was uncontrolled and unfocused. For example, I have rage, but I put it into paintings. Most men who were doing female genitalia were romanticizing them. But, for me, it’s more about the big bang. I’m dealing with the relationship between men and women on a continuum. Things change. I have this very large one—it’s almost like The Scream, but contemporary and done by a woman.
SL An expression of rage.
JB In my work, there’s an awful lot of screaming to be heard.
SL It’s refreshing to encounter your work, because it is so direct. It’s kind of funny that I was on my period when I went to see your show at Mary Boone. I see these teeth and the vagina, and I’m like: That’s how I feel. It hurts so much. I went to this panel a few weeks ago, “Feminism and Painting,” at Maccarone with Joan Semmel, Cecily Brown, and Rosy Keyser. They picked three painters whose work, besides Joan’s, primarily uses abstraction. A lot of the time their work does not directly reference being female, so there was discussion of painting while female. How can one express her feminism as an artist? Then I went back to my studio with my cramps and thought: I am painting as a woman now because my uterus is hurting. So, to see your work and feel this anger that you’re talking about—I have this rage all the time, and my friends do, too.
JB We don’t have to be embarrassed by rage. Men have it all the time. They actually put it out, like in a Jackson Pollock. They are drinking and acting out in very crazy ways. There is an enormous amount of violence that men have enacted toward women. We have so much more information now, and on so many levels—psychologically. We’re talking about the universe and parallel universes, and all kinds of things. I kid around and say, “When I was a kid there were only a couple planets,” but, in comparison, it’s true. The thing is, with feminism, you want to be able to make a choice. You’re more informed about the things you want to do. It just gives you more options.
SL At the panel, Joan Semmel said something like: I don’t paint as a feminist, but when I put my work into the world, then I need my feminism, then it comes through. Then you have Cecily Brown saying she didn’t know she needed feminism until she had a daughter. And then this woman from the audience asked: “But I want to make paintings as a feminist, so how do I do that?”
JB It’s not exactly popular, but it is funny—now a lot of people want the feminist label on them. But there was a long time when it was just anathema. A feminist! Oh, I’m not a feminist. Like Hester Prynne—an adulterer the “A” on her forehead, or was it her breast?
SL The red letter.
JB I think you have a choice. You don’t have to make feminist work. Each person chooses what they want to do, and I think there are just a lot more options now. Many times, people can be feminist in terms of their thinking but not have it in their work. I would say, for me, that I have things to say, things I want to shout, and I do it. But I don’t think everyone should be doing what I do. People have to find their own voice, and they need to find how they put their life together.
SL I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of these articles that have come out recently—you know, the lists, and how women are still excluded from shows. Just this summer I was looking at the number of shows I’ve seen that are more than two-thirds male artists.
JB And artworks by women go for a lot less than men, so this leads gallerists to not want to show women as much—because of the fact that the buck is not as big. Even the women that have achieved the most in terms of the art structure, validation, museum shows, and all kinds of things, their work goes for less than men who are in the same position. We’ll have to see what we can do, but I think all of this stuff is getting better. No, it’s not where we want it, but it’s getting better. More women are being shown, and also, they deserve to be shown. The work has something to say, something that is sometimes different, a variant, or whatever.
SL It’s difficult as someone who’s showing work, entering into this field and wanting to feel like I have a voice against what I see as unequal. I have a lot of rage, but it’s hard when feminism is a career disadvantage.
JB That’s correct. It is a career disadvantage, but, you know something—it’s up to you how you want to handle that, and you have to make your peace with it. That’s really the truth. You just have to decide, and I will tell you I didn’t show in New York for twenty-four years. I am old enough to be your grandmother, it’s a whole different time. I did what I wanted to do, but just because you do that doesn’t mean you’re rewarded for it. You could starve to death, too.
My work is not just in a feminist context; it’s actually just observing the human condition. That’s what I think my work does, and I mean that. And it’s the same with women. When I am observing the human condition I don’t think that women are saints. You can have women who are much more pro-war, like Hillary Clinton, than some of the men. The answer is complex. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to look at it and evaluate it, but it’s complex.
SL What were the paintings like during that time when you weren’t showing?
JB I worked all the time, in spite of that fact. My favorites were the large pieces, but I did a lot of small pieces, too, that I felt were very effective. I didn’t find that the work was different as a result of not showing, but I think showing is a great help. When you are in a situation where people ask you to do things, you do work you wouldn’t ordinarily do. For example, the Studio Voltaire big cunt that was in a repurposed church, at the altar, then you have these phallic pieces marching onward. I wouldn’t have done that unless I was commissioned. They actually gave me art supplies. They had me stay there, gave me help and some money. When you’re showing, you do more work and a bigger range, so it’s a loss not having shows for a long period of time in a context like New York, which has a lot of critique going on.
SL Yeah, though, the work stands out.
JB It’s not worth doing unless it stands out.
Sofia Leiby is an artist based in New York. Her solo exhibitions include East Hampton Shed (2015), Levy Delval (2015), and Devening Projects + Editions (2013). She has an upcoming solo presentation at Michael Jon Gallery (Miami) in the fall of 2015. She is also the co-founder of Chicago Artist Writers, has contributed criticism to Rhizome.org, Bad at Sports, and WOW HUH, and was a contributing editor to Pool Journal (pooool.info). She graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.