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In conversation with feminist art pioneer Judith Bernstein

Dan Webb
A true pioneer of the feminist art movement, Judith Bernstein has been creating work described by the New York Times as “masterpieces of feminist protest” since the 1960s. We caught up with her for a chat during the 2016 US presidential primaries.

Madeline Albright recently stated “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” in reference to voting for Hillary Clinton. As a senator, Clinton voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq, and as secretary of state she was a willing participant of President Obama’s drone policy. Given the anti-war sentiment contained in much of your work, are you prepared to endorse Albright’s comments and Clinton for president?
Absolutely not! Madeline Albright’s comment is unfortunate, and does not help the feminist cause. We want equal access to the system, but voting on gender alone is wrong headed, especially now that gender has become so fluid.

My choice for a candidate is much more dimensional, not having a penis is not a surefire bet to get my vote! I feel Hillary Clinton is a compromised candidate, based on her long-term record including Whitewater, and her current email scandal. I believe invading Iraq was a mistake, and should have been averted at the time. I’m interested in Bernie Sanders as a candidate. It is important to vote! Given a choice between voting for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I would vote for Hillary in a heartbeat.

How do you feel critique of your work has changed, if at all, over the course of your career?
The critique of my work has changed and it is continually evolving. The original critique was flat-footed, heavy handed and not nuanced. My work is very layered; it deals with what you see and references a psychological subtext.

I feel there is no good reason for censorship in art. Of course, artists should never censor themselves; the world will continually do it for you.

Your drawing “Horizontal” (1973) was banned from appearing in an exhibition in 1974. Briefly, what are your thoughts on the role of censorship in art?
Horizontal was censored from a 1974 exhibition at the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum, which included 170 works by 86 established and emerging female artists. A very distinguished selection committee selected the work. The decision to censor my work was made by the Executive Director and its Museum Curator and went up as far as the Mayor. A committee circulated a petition to protest the exclusion of the work. I feel there is no good reason for censorship in art. Of course, artists should never censor themselves; the world will continually do it for you.

What did your time in the anonymous feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls involve and what led to your unmasking?
Being part of the Guerilla Girls was amazing, as I got a chance to confront The Art World through posters and performances bringing the inequalities to light. It was very liberating! We targeted critics, curators, gallerists, and museums.

The archives of the Guerilla Girls were sold to the Getty Foundation. In the foundation I am listed under Guerilla Girl no. 1, Judith Bernstein. I named myself Guerilla Girl no. 1 representing all of the women that were unknown throughout the ages. I could really relate to that!

What is the best way to inspire political or social change?
I think everyone should decide what is best for them; there are many venues on a small to huge scale. Each person that you encounter should be an opportunity for discussion.

Is there a particular career highlight you’re most proud of?
I am most proud of the work I have accomplished. The images and work were solidified with my one-person exhibitions.

My first show at A.I.R. Gallery in 1973 was my introduction to the Art World with my gigantic drawings of Phallic Screws that were a combination of sex, antiwar and feminism.

Signature Piece, (a huge drawing of my signature), 1984, was 14 x 45 feet, and was the largest drawing I ever made. It dealt with stardom, male posturing, my ego, and putting women at the center.

Hard at the New Museum 2012, was monumental for me, being my first solo museum exhibition. It incorporated Screw Drawings, my Signature, Antiwar Work, and my Birth of the Universe Series.

The Box L.A. 2013 and Gavin Brown 2014, both showed my new Birth of the Universe Series, equating birth with the changing balance between men and women, with the Angry Cunt at the center, addressing female rage. The work was installed in a black light environment, highlighting the fluorescent paint.

Studio Voltaire 2014, where I transformed a repurposed church creating a central 18 x 18 foot Birth of the Universe painting, flanked by charcoal Screw Drawings. The show was called, Judith Bernstein Rising, and it was a religious experience!

There have been many other exhibitions, but my most recent show Dicks of Death 2016, at Mary Boone Gallery, was extremely important in bringing about a visual and literal dialogue between my older and current work addressing war and masculinity.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
I would love to have collaborated with the anonymous artist who created the Venus of Willendorf, Louise Bourgeois, and Lee Lozano. Collaborating with historical artists is too hypothetical. I am interested in the artists that are alive today. Currently, I would like to collaborate with Paul McCarthy, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Kerry James Marshall, Jenny Saville, Carroll Dunham, Peter Saul and Maurizio Cattelan. I have no idea what will come out of these collaborations, that’s why it’s so fabulous!