I am calling Ida Applebroog
from work and am whispering a series of questions into my cell phone, hoping my co-workers don't pay too much attention as I mumble words like "vagina," "Hannah Wilke
" and "sexual awakening" into the receiver. The eighty-year-old artist is having trouble hearing me throughout the interview, and graciously offers to change phones to accommodate the strained connection. But the disconnect is ultimately not due to technology—it's the gap between her relationship to feminism and my own.
Applebroog, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner, was also a subject of the PBS documentary series Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century
. Though born in the Bronx, she was a recent transplant to New York in the mid-seventies, frequenting places like Gordon Matta-Clark's artist-run restaurant, Food
, in Soho. During our interview, she joked about the sad state of her neighborhood, saying, "I'm still in Soho and I'm living in a shopping mall. When Victoria's Secret arrived I knew it was over."
Her work explores the dark side of gender politics—the area where communication fails or becomes something else than what was originally intended. Applebroog draws you in through her discomforting images of ordinary people and scenes; at times, you become an unwitting participant in the violence of the mundane and the absurd. In the diptych "Marginalia (dog with hat)
" (1994) a man holds a small dog which is bedecked in a slightly-oversize tiara, while the scene below depicts another man flinching, thumb on the trigger, as he points a gun to his face.
In the late 90s she showed a series of pieces based on Édouard Manet's controversial painting "Olympia
." In "Modern Olympia (after Manet)
", Applebroog erased the servant and created a four-panel fan of seven nude Olympias casually staring you down. Each model gazes straight ahead, confronting the viewer with two coal black eyes.
Her latest work, "MONALISA
" (at Hauser & Wirth through March 6), also reflects on a much-commented on painting
. Applebroog says, "If you took art history [classes] you saw the Mona Lisa. It was huge. I went to see it and thought 'Is that all there is?'"
Applebroog's version consists of a series of recently found drawings of her crotch, originally sketched in the late 60s. These drawings were then scanned and enlarged onto gampi paper—a surface that mimics the consistency of smooth skin—and stapled to the frame of a one-room house in the back of the gallery. She explained, "It was a certain period of my life and before I got into the tub I'd sit with a full-length mirror on the floor. It was before my own radicalization."
In the 60s, Applebroog attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before, as she said in an artist's statement, "feminism was out of the closet." A decade later, however, feminist art was at its peak. Carolee Schneemann presented "Interior Scroll
" (1975), a performance piece in which she read from a long roll of paper she slowly pulled from her vagina. Schneeman referred to the mystical and sacred aspects of the taboo organ, reveling in, as she writes on her website
, "unifying [the] spirit and flesh in Goddess worship." That same year, Tee Corine published the Cunt Coloring Book
(1975), featuring tangled 70s bush and the occasional finger probing labial folds. This was officially the era of vaginal exploration, a time when many female artists confronted issues historically viewed as too personal or embarrassing to put on display. For instance, Judy Chicago's 1971 photolithograph "Red Flag
" depicting a bloody tampon being extracted from in between a woman's legs, was quickly followed by "Menstruation Bathroom
" (1972), which featured a pile of used tampons stuffed in a trash can inside an ordinary bathroom in the female-only exhibition, "Womanhouse
Visitors were not allowed inside "Menstruation Bathroom." Instead, they had to view the piece through a sheet of gauze hung from the doorframe. Viewers of "MONALISA" will have a similar experience as they navigate the space around the house. Instead of the original's bulletproof glass, Applebroog's piece is covered in thin parchment paper.
She said, "The interesting thing about Duchamp was the mustache
on the Mona Lisa. And the bottom in French was 'she's got a hot ass.'" She continues, "You have Dali
and other great artists that have done Mona Lisa [but] this had to do about me, not artists opposing other artists."
Applebroog is not Hannah Wilke, opposing Duchamp's work on principle. Instead, the octogenarian artist created the Mona Lisa she wanted to see, focusing on the quiet repetition of a single, intensely personal form. The room is lit from within and gives off a soft inviting glow, but the gap near the doorframe reveals an untouchable figure beyond our grasp. Unsurprisingly, due to the history of her work, the figure rendered is childlike and deformed, his skin blotchy and mottled hues of red. "It was the most organic thing that happened, it sort of just made itself," Applebroog said.
Applebroog's daughter, the artist Beth B.
, is featured in The Visible Vagina
, a group exhibition at David Nolan Gallery
and Francis Naumann Fine Art
that opens this week. Inspired by the work of Eve Ensler
, the creator of The Vagina Monologues
, the exhibition revisits the taboo part of the female anatomy that still seems to mystify audiences forty years after Applebroog began her bathroom sketches.
Nevertheless, growing up in an era when the focus switched from feminism to gender studies, I found it difficult to relate to the themes behind "MONALISA." After circling the exterior, I began to examine the individual panels; each featured a different illuminated sketch of Applebroog's family jewels. In the end, I became much more interested in the form than the content. The gaps in between the paper and rough texture of the house beams provoked more of a reaction than seeing the simple line drawings. The second floor was filled with more than a hundred rescued vaginal sketches, and again, I was more curious about the water damage than the prurient forms before me. But even if the images no longer hold the same power as they would have in the 70s, the fact that it's Applebroog means that there is always something disturbing behind the comfortable façade.
(photos copyright © 2010 Hauser & Wirth)