A Tribute to Mary Beth Edelson
An originator of the Feminist Art Movement and longtime resident of New York City, Mary Beth Edelson, passed away peacefully on April 20, 2021, at the age of 88. Mary Beth’s children Lynn Switzman (née Strauss), Nicholas Edelson and his wife Berit, grandchildren Benjamin and Liza Switzman, and Oscar Edelson honor their mother and grandmother, the “Woman Rising.”
Mary Beth’s practice was a call to action. Through painting, collage, drawings, photography, performance, and her iconic posters from the 1970s she was integral in asserting women’s agency in the arts and actively contributed to exposing injustices, oppressive structures, and boundaries that had been created to disempower women. Begun in the early 1970s, ”Woman Rising” was a series of work in which Mary Beth photographed her naked body in nature as a way of reclaiming her body as her own and empowering other women to do the same. Through this historical body of work, Mary Beth became the Warrior Goddess of the Feminist Art Movement—political, cultural, eco-conscious, mischievous, powerful, revolutionary, and embracing—reconfiguring femaleness on her own terms, creating a contemporary feminist sacred practice expressed through her art, to be shared and celebrated amongst community.
Mary Beth’s work has been exhibited at museums throughout the United States,internationally, and is in the permanent collections of major institutions including the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Malmö Konstmuseum, and the Tate Modern. Significant works from her oeuvre include: Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1972), which appropriated Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper to create a clever visual map of women artists in the absence of other such resources. Kali Bobbitt (1994), is a life-size monument to Lorena Bobbitt, who famously castrated her abusive husband in 1993. Selected Wall Collages (1972–2011), is a wall-based installation of 146 collages, each exploring the representation of women across time and culture.
Born in East Chicago, Indiana in 1933 to Dr. Albert Melvin and Mary Lou Johnson, Mary Beth was the eldest sibling to Jayne (Glass) and Allan Johnson. Mary Beth began formal art studies at age 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later attended DePauw University earning her Bachelors of Fine Arts, and then her Masters of Fine Arts from New York University. Mary Beth’s thesis exhibition at DePauw was controversial and ultimately censored; this was just the beginning for the ways in which Mary Beth would challenge and push the boundaries of the status quo. It wasn’t until 1993 that Mary Beth received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from DePauw University, a testament to the progress she initiated forty years prior.
Mary Beth was a lifetime advocate for the betterment of those marginalized in society, a pillar for human rights, women’s rights, and women in the arts. At a young age, she organized the sponsorship of a Romanian D.P. family’s emigration to the US, and went on to become an active participant in the civil rights movement, speaking out for the rights of mothers and child custody. Mary Beth was at the forefront of the women’s feminist art movement—dedicating herself to the rightful acknowledgement and furtherance of women and of women in the arts, challenging dominant patriarchal values and their viewpoints of women.
In 1972, Mary Beth spearheaded the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts (CWVA) and went on to be instrumental in the creation of many collectives including Heresies Collective and WAC (Women’s Action Coalition). Starting in 1976, Mary Beth was an active member of A.I.R. Gallery, the first all-women’s gallery in the United States, where she exhibited much of her most impactful work including Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era. In 1994, Edelson produced Combat Zone: Campaign HQ Against Domestic Violence, with Creative Time, creating a dynamic campaign headquarters and safe-space for battered women behind the façade of a shoe store. Her papers documenting these and other collaborative projects are located at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. For her enduring contributions to the cultural field, in 2019, Mary Beth was presented with the National Lifetime Achievement Award by the Women’s Caucus for Art.
In Memory of Mary Beth Edelson
It is with great sadness we learned of the passing of Mary Beth Edelson earlier this spring. Kristen Accola and I have been honored to work with Mary Beth for more than a decade since first opening Accola Griefen Fine Art in 2011, hosting a number of solo exhibitions and projects including the first exhibition to focus on her participatory, socially engaged practice.
Previously, as the director of A.I.R. Gallery, I had the pleasure of engaging with Mary Beth in her studio over a number of years, interviewing her for a video by Meredith Drum on the history of the first all-women’s gallery with which Edelson was deeply involved in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mary Beth was a rare individual who understood the significance of her work, both as an individual and that which she collaboratively authored in the feminist community. Mary Beth documented everything. Throughout her career she thrived on feminist community and friendships with artists including Carolee Schneemann, Janet Henry, and fellow A.I.R. Gallery artist, Nancy Spero, among others. Before national and global art world connections were the norm, Mary Beth initiated A.I.R.'s National Artist Program and also established an international network of women artists, organizing their unrealized but fully planned habitation/occupation of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
While Edelson was deadly serious about the “Death of the Patriarchy,” I’d like to share one lively and lesser-known story that I hope captures the spirit of trickster mischief and feminist fun (she wanted everyone to know feminists have humor too) which she often generated.
In March 1979, Edelson hosted a gathering at her loft to introduce her friend Ana Mendieta, who had recently arrived in the city, to women in the New York art scene. With Edelson’s signature blend of humor and social critique, she asked the attendees to the party to come dressed as their favorite woman artist. While Ana arrived as Frida Kahlo and Edelson dressed as Leonor Fini, many others selected unrelated costumes and six women—including Louise Bourgeois—arrived dressed as themselves.
This story and so many more can be found in visual or written form in Mary Beth’s archive which is located at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University and, thanks to the work of the Feminist Institute and art historian, Kathleen Wentrack, some of these materials make up a 360 visit to her former SoHo studio and can be accessed online through this Google Arts and Culture exhibition. Placing Mary Beth’s dynamic documentation of feminist art and its community with the Fales Library and Special Collections had been one of the highlights of Accola Griefen’s decade of work, which I was pleased to share with Mary Beth the last time I visited with her. I anticipate many future exhibitions, articles, and books that will come out of research in her archive. I am grateful Mary Beth had the foresight to document her art and the communities she was involved with and I know she was pleased to be remembered in this way.
A matriarch and mentor to many, Accola Griefen has dedicated our current virtual exhibition, Mother Water, to Mary Beth Edelson. This group exhibition includes work from Edelson’s “Lifesaver/Black Spring” series, which highlights her interest in eco-feminism and the Green Movement. Also included are works from her iconic “Woman Rising” series, some based on performance rituals enacted at the water’s edge. Writing in the 1970s, Edelson described this series as: “a profoundly political act against the patriarchy and for spiritual liberation—the ramifications of which are still unfolding.” Turning to her own words, Edelson’s career in itself was a profoundly political act. With her broad sphere of influence and significant early contributions to multiple major artistic movements we know that the ramifications of Mary Beth Edelson’s work are still unfolding.
The following essay, “Considering Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artist,” by Kat Griefen was originally published by the Brooklyn Rail as part of the March 2019 Critics Page curated by founder of the Feminist Institute, Kathleen Landy.
I was inspired by Mary Beth Edelson's ceremonies and her “Goddess Head” series. In this piece I am recreating Ochpaniztli, the Aztec ceremony held on the vernal equinox. During this ceremony a young woman was dressed as Chicomecoatl and decapitated, her blood spilled on the seed that would be planted the following spring as a blessing. Her attendants were men dressed as the god of rain, Tlaloc, in this photo I combined Tlaloc and his wife, Chalchiutlicue’s regalia. This ceremony reminds me a lot of Chhinnamasta, or “she whose head is severed” of the Hindu pantheon. These are goddesses who are supposed to remind us of the sanctity in the horrifying, who are both beatific and wrathful. Chicomecoatl means seven serpents. A snake is a blessing to a milpa, in that it keeps away mice, but a snake will also bite your ankle when you tend your crop. Awe and annihilation. That sustenance can come from suffering.
Janet Olivia Henry
I met Mary Beth when we were members of WAC (Women’s Action Coalition), but we didn’t really start collaborating until after it imploded.
The New York Times Magazine recreation of its 1993 “Art World All-Stars” cover seemed to infuriate everyone but the gaggle of men populating it and their dealers (I forgot collectors). Mary Beth did something about it. She organized an action (also known as demonstrations but with a lot more visual cohesion). So one Saturday afternoon in 1993, a group of women artists “picketed” Pace Gallery on 57th Street wearing men’s attire and both prosthetic and six-foot-long fabric male apparatus.
Mary Beth was as resourceful as she was proactive. Her loft in SoHo became a hive of activity when signs and banners were needed for actions frequently.
The other project we worked on was Combat Zone: Campaign HQ Against Domestic Violence in 1994. It combined disseminating information about where to get help, self defense workshops, a performance night, and an installation entitled Kali Bobbit, a conflation of the Hindu goddess of war and nature and the infamous Lorena Bobbitt.
Mary Beth was a wonderful artist and a great, great human being.
My favorite story about Mary Beth Edelson didn’t make it into the obituary I wrote for her for the New York Times. Her son, Nicholas Edelson, told it to me. In 1975, Mary Beth and her then-partner, Robert Stackhouse, moved to New York City. She had sold her house in Washington, DC, and used the money to buy a loft in SoHo, in one of the artist George Maciunas’s co-op buildings. The space was raw, in need of major work before it could be habitable. Mary Beth, Robert, an assistant, and young Nicholas set to fixing it up.
One day while working, Mary Beth heard yelling and screaming coming from next door. Looking through small holes in the sheetrock, she saw two men beating up Maciunas. She started banging on the door that connected the two spaces. Robert was out, so Mary Beth loudly impersonated a group of men, a phantom work crew who said they were trying to get through the door. The men who’d been beating up Maciunas fled, leaving him in a pool of blood. Mary Beth was able to save him, but he had several broken ribs, needed dozens of stitches in his head, and was blinded in one eye.
After he had gotten help, she returned to the pool of blood. She swirled it into mystical shapes and photographed them, turning her act of rescue into an artistic ritual, before cleaning up the blood altogether. Later on, Maciunas expressed his gratitude by sending Mary Beth a note and a plant. In her response—which is in the Jean Brown papers at the Getty Research Institute and was shared with me by the art historian Colby Chamberlain—she wrote:
George, your thank you letter was more than enough thanks—it is the first and only “thank you for saving my life” letter that I have ever received. I am beginning to like this role and am considering getting myself a white horse and some armor, and becoming the first woman knight of Soho.
I never knew Mary Beth, but there’s something about this story that I think encapsulates who and how she was: caring, brave, creative. She didn’t hesitate to do the right thing (save a life) or the slightly weird, perhaps morbid one (make art with the blood). Both actions were equally part of her. She was faithful to her own vision as an artist, but also in community and relation with others—a way of being that is, for me, the ultimate model.
I’m not spiritual, and that branch of the feminist movement always mystified me. But I loved Mary Beth’s art! For her, those early matriarchal cultures were a vast source of imagery and spectacle. I particularly loved the installations: the wheels of fire, the boxes of personal stories, the witches’ lairs, the trickster rabbits, and moon goddesses! She was endlessly inventive and playful. She proposed a joyful feminism. And she believed in community, as I do, hosting gatherings, meetings, and parties, raising everyone’s consciousness. We entered her loft under a sign: “She Has Risen.” Mary Beth Edelson brought a large and diverse group of young women into her orbit, encouraging their creativity and empowering them. She was one of the most productive artists I ever met: her studio was filled with fascinating art creatures, crawling up the walls and across the floor. She was one of the first American women artists to have an international career, traveling widely and stirring up good trouble wherever she went. Mary Beth always carried a camera, before we all did, and she would shoot photos of everyone. Then we appeared in her art, transformed into a mythological goddess or an attendee at the Last Supper. I believe that she will have an enduring legacy.
Mary Beth Edelson: Courageous Collaborator
I first met Mary Beth Edelson at Carolee Schneemann’s birthday celebration held at her 29th Street loft in 2003. I was enamored with these powerhouse women who over the years remained so intellectually generous to me. We discussed the dearth of exhibitions of art by women and the lack of any devoted to feminist art in New York City. Always the activist with incredible energy, Mary Beth immediately said, “We must form a group and make it happen.” Over many months, several of us met at her loft in SoHo to strategize and, among other things, we crafted a letter on the necessity of exhibitions, obtained signatures from those in feminist art communities, and sent it to institutions focusing on New York City. I cannot credit our efforts to what followed, but Mary Beth was pleased to see and participate in numerous feminist art exhibitions in the years after.
During visits to Mary Beth’s loft, I became enthralled with the multifariousness of her wall collages, the genesis of which began out of a playfulness with the scraps leftover from the process of making her well-known poster series. The wall collages are unique among collages not only for their formal characteristics but also the incredible capture and celebration of the women artists, organizations, and activities that Mary Beth had been engaged with since the early 1970s. Composed in unusual vine or web-like shapes and applied directly to the wall, the structure of the individual collages extends to how she installed the works collectively. In Web Works/Heresies (1976) several photographs of each woman in the Heresies Collective are pasted together to form arc-like shapes that connect to each other to form a web-like structure that provides visual form to the collective process of the group. Alongside, and often in connection with, the portrait-based wall collages, recurring themes included snakes, Medusa, Venus, ancient goddesses, snakes, Sheela-Na-Gig, and Baubo. These themes were part of a larger impulse during the period in which Mary Beth researched alternative histories and spiritualities in which women held significant positions and power. In an example from the “Snakes, Gorgon” series (1977–2000) the artist combined images of fellow A.I.R. members, their faces forming the strands of wildly waving hair of Medusa placed upon an image of Baubo.
These are just two of the innumerable wall collages that function as historical documents and display the unique relationships, influences, and working methodologies shared among many women artists especially those active in feminist art collectives. The web-like shapes visually present connections among the women in Mary Beth’s milieu over the decades and reflect her collaborative energy towards her fellow artists. As Mary Beth once described to me, the historical intention of the wall collage project was one of commemoration. “I want to honor these women who gave so much of their time in the 70s to building the feminist movement, and stuck with it—making it happen. They acknowledge that we had a revolution in the 70s and we won the revolution.”1 As we continue our work on the revolution, Mary Beth’s indomitable spirit towards these efforts will long be remembered.
- Mary Beth Edelson, interview with author, New York, 12 September 2008.
A Loving Rage: Remembering Mary Beth Edelson
Mary Beth Edelson was a dynamo, a power to be reckoned with even before feminists had much in the way of power. Her activism began back in 1947 when, at the age of 13, she became involved in global civil rights, and it never quieted until her illness and death. She found her place in the oppositional world through feminism as a member of several groups, including Heresies and Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), where I knew and admired her. She instigated and was on the editorial collective of Heresies’s “Great Goddess Issue,” inspired by ancient women’s rituals. But she never let her interest in the past obscure her political organizing in the present. There was never anything woozy about her justice-driven spirituality. Goddess Head (1975)—the artist’s nude torso rising from rocks with an ammonite spiral as head/halo —is a classic example of her constant fusion of political rage and life-giving affirmation. Edelson noted that “the spiraling head presents Goddess within while she points outward to Her political implications.” That outward gesture can also be read as an embrace.
Collaboration and viewer participation was a hallmark of Edelson’s art, and of much feminist art. Her Six Story Gathering Boxes, begun in 1972, encouraged visitors to write their own stories, sparked by leading questions, such as: “What did your mother teach you about men? What did your mother teach you about women? What did your father teach you about men? What did your father teach you about women?” The open gridded boxes offered access to all the other contributions. Her “public” artworks included her famous posters—Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1972) and Death of the Patriarchy (A.I.R Anatomy Lesson and Heresies [both 1976]; I was very pleased to be directing the death blow delivered by Susana Torre in the latter).
Years later, Edelson complained to me that while her art was well received in Europe, in the US she seemed “frozen in the decade of 1970.” But the fact remains that most of her most compelling and original work emerged during that decade. The black and white and performative photographs, as well as the ritual performances themselves, were groundbreaking in their beauty, humor, and current relevance. In the 40 years remaining to her, Edelson branched out into many major projects about racism and domestic violence—the latter brilliantly expressed by the 1992 Bedding, where the linens on a welcoming bed feature the offputting image of actress Gena Rowlands pointing a gun at a potential abuser—and admired female icons. Her 1977 installation Your 5,000 Years Are Up! delivered a clarion challenge to the patriarchy that remains unanswered.
Signed with a Kiss
In late 2016, after working in A.I.R. Gallery for a few months I went to do some reorganization of our storage space. Among the cans of paint, chairs from the ’70s, uncountable light bulbs, tools, and pedestals I found a nondescript black tube. Opening the tube felt like finding a treasure, forgotten in the bottom of the sea for years and years, for me to dive into … and when I popped the top off, to my great surprise I had found several copies of Mary Beth Edelson’s 1976 Death of Patriarchy / A.I.R. Anatomy Lesson. I had seen this artwork countless times in books and classes, always signaling the way feminist artists subverted the art historical cannon, placed themselves within the narrative by metaphorically and physically penetrating its holes, cutting through with humor, violence, sorority, collectivity, generosity, and conflict. Here I was, with signed copies in my hands, as if time had stopped and I had a direct connection with Edelson, an artist I admire but never had the luxury to meet.
For the creation of Death of the Patriarchy Edelson intervened a number of posters of one of Rembrandt’s most canonical artworks, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, an oil painting on canvas from 1632. She dismembered the artwork with fury, cutting through its aura but keeping it recognizable enough that her intention would always be available to the viewer familiar with the original work. This mechanism was a staple of her practice at the time, when she intervened in the same form pieces by da Vinci, Delacroix, and Ingres.
Back in 1976 Edelson sold copies of the print as a poster in an edition of 1,000, which was described in the pricelist as “All women who have ever been a member of A.I.R. Gallery, a feminist co-op, are included in this anatomy lesson. On three sides of the border are scenes from the late patriarchal period (c. 3,250 b.c. - 1970)—the fourth and top side are A.I.R. scenes.” The original piece, is a collage of cut-and-pasted gelatin silver prints with crayon and transfer type on printed paper with typewriting on cut-and-taped paper, is now housed at MoMA. Edelson’s treatment of materials denotes the ambivalent relationship of deference and sharp critique she felt towards the original artwork and what it represented, combined with the deep commitment she felt towards the women that were her partners in the feminist cause.
The prints we found were from a different edition of 20. After the discovery we knew the work could not stay buried in the mounds of archeological debris that was piled up in the storage. It has since lived with the A.I.R. community in our office, and greets visitors to the gallery. There is an element in this edition of prints that always felt like a particularly personal connection, a touch, a gesture so human and feminine, a unique mark that denotes the audacity and ownership that characterized Edelson practice—above the signature and the edition, the works are signed with a red lipstick kiss.
The Brooklyn Rail, A.I.R. Gallery, David Lewis, and Accola Fine Art will hold a memorial tribute to Mary Beth Edelson in spring 2022.