Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964. 16mm, color, sound (film still).
Rachel Middleman, Radical Eroticism: Women, Art, and Sex in the 1960s. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.
The sculptor Marisol once described eroticism as a means of individual self-preservation: “a good moral idea to distract people from destroying themselves” (2). In Radical Eroticism: Women, Art, and Sex in the 1960s, Rachel Middleman shows that desire is also deeply politicized and can be mobilized to disrupt and dismantle larger societal norms. Spanning the years from roughly 1963 to 1972, this compelling study analyzes the efflorescence of erotic strategies in the work of women producers and suggests the phenomenon had lasting effects on both American art and sexual politics.
As Middleman notes, critics and curators assigned the “erotic art” label to work ranging from traditional painted nudes to experimental performance practices (10). Her own case studies are similarly diverse, underscoring the deep heterogeneity of artistic practice in the long 1960s. She focuses in particular on five New York-based artists who explore eroticism through highly differentiated, yet variously interconnected, approaches: Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Martha Edelheit, Marjorie Strider, and Anita Steckel.1 These key individuals are not treated as isolated cases, however, as Radical Eroticism also attends to a larger network of artists, curators, activists, and writers who likewise engaged with the topic of eroticism.2 The insistence on multiple eroticisms challenges the modernist assumption of a normative viewer, even as it equally resists reduction to any one feminist theory.
Middleman situates the featured artists within a spectrum of feminist writings that include Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics: A Manifesto” (1968), and Linda Nochlin’s “Eroticism and Female Imagery in Nineteenth-Century Art” (1972), wherein Nochlin famously observes that, historically, “erotic art” meant “erotic-for-men” (22). These texts expose assumptions embedded in Kenneth Clark’s classic formulations in The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956), which suggested that depictions of the nude should not centralize eroticism but, instead, emphasize the idealized human figure to preserve the autonomy of art. Clark maintains that eroticism as a primary goal both lowers an artwork’s cultural status and renders it vulnerable to the vagaries of subjective taste. The artists and artworks studied in Radical Eroticism take Clark’s proscription as a challenge, offering unidealized, at times grotesque renderings of erotic forms. Rather than serving as a “primary goal,” eroticism becomes a means of political intervention.
Middleman’s analyses of two of the best-known practitioners, Schneemann and Wilke, consider eroticism in the context of performance, film, and photography. The chapter on Schneemann centers on her early collaborative works: the performance Meat Joy (1964) and the film Fuses (1964-67). As Middleman shows through extensive archival research, the seemingly spontaneous movements of Meat Joy were only possible because of their highly choreographed score (46-47). In combining visceral materials like raw meat and paint, Meat Joy created a sexual space that disintegrated social hierarchies and divisions between sexed bodies. Begun the same year, Fuses explored similar themes. Rather than recording a sprawling, multi-actor event, however, the film features footage of sex between Schneemann and her partner, composer James Tenney. It also includes interference that calls attention to the medium of film itself, such as streaks of light that flicker across the frames (50). As Middleman notes, while some Happenings used the nude as an object, within Schneemann’s formulation, the nude was also the artist, an innovation that breaks down “the male/female, eye/body binaries” (40). In both works, Schneemann merged the pleasure of sex with the pleasure of looking and blurred boundaries between agent, object, and viewer.
Wilke, like Schneemann, also used her body as artistic material. Other scholars have tended to place Wilke within a 1970s feminist lineage focused on the use of vaginal or “central core” imagery, iconography that was interpreted by some as productively foregrounding the experience of womanhood but criticized by others as essentializing.3 By contrast, Middleman highlights the formal ambiguity of ceramic and plaster works like Early Box and Six Phallic and Excremental Sculptures (1960-63). Rather than take it for granted that these works are strictly vaginal in reference, Middleman proposes instead to consider them as a form of “erotic abstraction.” Her analysis draws upon Lucy Lippard’s formulations on “eccentric abstraction,” as theorized in her well-known essay for a 1968 exhibition of the same name at New York’s Fischbach Gallery (127). Championing sensuous and organic forms, Lippard posited that abstracted works offered greater erotic possibilities than figurative representations; Middleman sees a similar “coexistence of sensuality and indeterminacy” in Wilke’s early sculpture.4Rather than engage with long-standing debates about the feminist nature of such works, Middleman instead emphasizes the ways in which Wilke, like Schneemann, actively worked against notions of a universal viewer as well as normative displays of gender and sexuality.
Middleman’s chapters on Martha Edelheit and Marjorie Strider show how eroticism enabled these painters to develop new approaches to painting after Abstract Expressionism. In Edelheit’s canvases, abstracted gestures sharpen into contorted figures, suggesting a renewed place for the body without reverting to idealized depictions of the sensuous nude. Female Flesh Wall (1964) is a representative example. Here, the painter has depicted herself among the colorful bodies, as if sketching the technicolor scene before her. Edelheit’s self-conscious inclusion emphasizes the female vantage from which these nudes were rendered and invites viewers to identify with her gaze.
Where Edelheit reintroduces figuration, Strider disrupts the modernist emphasis on medium specificity. Middleman’s chapter on the latter artist demonstrates core tensions in erotic work that positions women as both the object and the agent of the work. This knotted position has produced similarly contradictory readings of work by women as simultaneously liberatory and essentializing. Strider in particular has long been overlooked within histories of both Pop and feminist art because of her position as a woman artist and her ambiguous use of the pinup. In Green Triptych (1963), a bikini-clad woman is depicted with her breasts jutting from the canvas: the oversized sculptural appendages crudely sexualize the picture plane. Taking the notion of an idealized form to an extreme, Strider’s graphic style became the subject of contemporary criticism. Barbara Rose, for example, saw Strider’s work as representative of a new wave of “‘cold’ erotic art,” representations which pare down sexuality and sex organs into simplified forms (101). Middleman highlights the subjectivity of Rose’s reading and instead argues that Strider’s use of sculptural appendages “renegotiated the terms of painting and sculpture in work that hinged on gender and sexuality” (105). Strider’s use of eroticism offers a significant example of how Pop art and feminism can be commensurate.5
The concluding chapter on Anita Steckel outlines the ways in which erotic art in the 1960s set a foundation for the creation of more explicitly feminist artwork in the 1970s while also intervening in larger discourses about obscenity and censorship in the art world. Like Strider, Steckel also intervened within the arena of Pop art with her series Mom Art. In a piece from the series, Girl Scout (1963), a standing female nude is collaged atop a section of Thomas Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Racing (1872). The nude balances upon the male figures’ heads and leans forward, acting as a guide as they row (152). New York Skyline (1971) similarly overlays the familiar image of the city with phalluses scaled to match the width of each building. Middleman attends to the reception of such works during Steckel’s 1972 exhibition The Feminist Art of Sexual Politics at Rockland Community College, New York. The show met with calls for censorship and charges of obscenity due to the portrayals of male sexual organs, while depictions of nude women went uncriticized—thus highlighting a pervasive double standard. The controversy led Steckel to form the Fight Censorship Group the following year. Counting both Wilke and Edelheit among its members, the collective advocated for women’s rights to produce sexually explicit artwork.6
Middleman’s readings disentangle threads that are typically subsumed under a general categorization of feminism, producing discrete historiographies of interrelated yet importantly distinct topics such as erotic art, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the rise of feminist art and art history. In so doing, they attend closely to the complex situation of the featured artworks within their original socio-cultural contexts (29). These analyses are rewarding, but do come with certain costs. Middleman’s approach risks reproducing the era’s blind spots, particularly with respect to homosexual, queer, and otherwise marginalized subjectivities. One especially fraught area concerns the entanglements of race and eroticism. While Middleman mentions the contributions of Faith Ringgold, Lorraine O’Grady, and Adrian Piper, the central case studies focus primarily on contributions by white, heterosexual women artists. Attention to the work of women of color would open dimensions of the politics and aesthetics of eroticism not considered in this study.
Eroticism, in all its permutations, is a destabilizing force. As such, it has been largely side-stepped as a central issue within debates about both the autonomy of art and the role of sex and desire within feminist thought. Rather than calling for a new aesthetic category of “the erotic,” Middleman’s study identifies the use of diverse erotic aesthetics in art produced by women as a means of political action. In so doing, Radical Eroticism amounts to a political act in its own right.
- While Middleman offers new perspectives on the work of Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann, Radical Eroticism is the first significant study of Martha Edelheit, Marjorie Strider, and Anita Steckel. Recent scholarship on Schneemann includes Elise Archias, “Concretions: Carolee Schneemann,” The Concrete Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) and Christine Filippone, “Technologies of dominance and liberation: New Left thought in the work of Martha Rosler and Carolee Schneemann,” Science, Technology, and Utopias: Women Artists and Cold War America (New York: Routledge, 2016). Recent work on Wilke has been featured in Paul Schimmel and Jenni Sorkin, eds., Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947-2016 (New York: Hauser & Wirth, 2016) and Gabriele Schor, ed., Feminist Avant-Garde: Art of the 1970s: The Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna (New York: Prestel, 2016).
- This includes figures like Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeoise, Judy Chicago, Yayoi Kusama, Lucy Lippard, Cindy Nesmer, Barbara Rose, and Miriam Schapiro.
- Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro introduce the notion of “central core” imagery in their article, “Female Imagery,” in Womanspace Journal 1, no. 3 (1973): 11-14.
- For another perspective on Lippard’s Eccentric Abstraction, see Briony Fer, “Bordering on Blank: Eva Hesse and Minimalism,” On Abstract Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
- The latter half of the chapter discusses Strider’s work of the 1970s and her use of colorful urethane spray foam in her work. The resulting “oozing” forms further put medium specificity into question, without relying on the human figure. These forms also fit within the category of “erotic abstraction,” that Middleman put forward in her chapter on Wilke, as Strider’s later work was read by critics as both symbols of liberated femininity and as male ejaculate.
- For additional scholarship on Steckel, see the recent exhibition and accompanying catalog, Legal Gender: The Irreverent Art of Anita Steckel, curated by Kelly Lidner and Rachel Middleman.