Mary Beth Edelson: Art and Activism

The Feminist Institute Digital Exhibit Project

"If you want to get anything done, form a group."

Recognized internationally for her multi-dimensional art work using diverse media, Mary Beth Edelson has been active in feminist groups and actions since the 1960s. Edelson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1968 where she organized the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in 1972. She became more involved in performance, participatory art, and performative photographic work after settling in New York in 1975. Early works include the group performance Proposals for Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era (1977) at A.I.R. Gallery and private performance photographic works such as Grapceva Neolithic Cave Series: See for Yourself (1977). Edelson was invited to join A.I.R. Gallery and later became a founding member of the Heresies Collective in 1977. 
For Edelson’s public and private performance rituals she frequently used her studio as a space for such work inviting others there to collaborate, especially on the various activist causes in which she was involved such as the Women’s Action Coalition (founded in 1992) and Combat Zone: Campaign HQ Against Domestic Violence (1994). Edelson almost always carried her Hasselblad or Nikon camera shooting images of these events, but also taking headshots of women artists who were active in the community. These photographs were resources, most notably for the series of five collaged posters from the 1970s that began with Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1971-72) and the numerous wall collages that covered her studio walls and were included in her exhibitions in the United States and abroad. 
The themes found in the wall collages that Edelson created since the 1970s parallel with those in her prolific body of work including ancient goddesses, Sheela-Na-Gig, Baubo, Medusa, Venus, snakes, movie stars, stereotypes, beauty, mythology, humor, and a celebration of her feminist colleagues. Throughout her career, Edelson created drawings, paintings, collages, performances, photographic works, installations, and interactive works as she remained committed to activist causes. 
Photo series studio
The wall and table display several series of photographs begun in 1977, each group consisting of three or four images of Edelson in nature. For these private rituals the artist chose remote locations in Long Island, North Carolina, Maine, and California; covered herself with a cloth; and photographed with long exposure settings on her camera resulting in blurred images that suggest movement or flight.  The photo series on the wall include Cliff Hanger (1978), Rising Firebird Energy (1978), Shaking the Grass (1980), and The Sacred Manic Goddess Makes Tracks (1978).
Moon Mouth, 1975
Mary Beth Edelson took numerous photographs of herself nude in a natural landscape be that rocks, hills, caves, or beaches mostly prior to 1977. She often collaged or drew on these images, as in Moon Mouth of 1975 in which her naked body is positioned behind a rock with arms raised and an image of a shell is pasted over her face.Several versions of this image were produced, sometimes with additional drawing or painting on the surface, with the title of Goddess Head. The artist intended to conjure up the Great Goddess and an embodied spiritual state of being. This image also appeared as Goddess Head/Soft in the Femfolio collaboration along with prints by 19 additional artists all of whom were featured in the exhibition How American Women Artists Invented Postmodernism: 1970-75 curated by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin in 2005.
Light Feet, 1977, Kassel, Germany
This table displays Light Feet, an example of various photographic series Edelson began in 1977, each group consisting of three or four images of Edelson in nature. This series was created in 1977 in the arbor of the Castle Lowenburg in Kassel Germany and is part of the larger project Proposals for Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era. Edelson stated “I was the fire spirit with light feet that both gives and takes away, mourns and celebrates, and leaves you wondering.” (Mary Beth Edelson, Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums, Mary Beth Edelson: New York, 1990, 60)
Wall collages
The genesis of the wall collages was one of playfulness, evolving from the scraps of photographs leftover from Edelson’s process of making her poster series in the 1970s and she continues to make them throughout her career. The themes and images in the wall collages range from the Great Goddess, Sheela-Na-Gig, and Baubo to Medusa, Venus, snakes, birds, and many images of women artists, and most frequently in combination. Many of the collages celebrate women’s art collectives such as A.I.R. and Heresies, while others are Cameos devoted to a specific feminist artist and the women in Edelson’s milieu. Many of these portrait photographs are composed in unusual vine or web-like shapes emphasizing the unique relationships, influences, and working methodologies shared among many women artists active in feminist art collectives.
Woman Rising/Sky 1973, above left Pink Heresies 1977, and above left wall collage Cameo: Nancy 1979
Woman Rising/Earth (1973) and Woman Rising/Sky (1973) are based on private rituals Edelson conducted in nature in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where she used her body as a substitute for the Goddess. Pink Heresies (1977) and Cameo: Nancy (1979) are indicative of the wall collage work Edelson began in the early 1970s and worked on throughout her life. Pink Heresies has a rose at its center and assembles portrait photographs of members of the Heresies collective and places them in unexpected arrangements that break from traditional group portraiture that typically supports hierarchy within a group. Such an arrangement reflects the collaborative structure of Heresies. Cameo: Nancy is a wall collage work in the Cameo series devoted to Nancy Spero (1926-2009) and is a web that presents the many faces of women associated with Spero emphasizing her long alliance with the women of A.I.R. Gallery. The Cameos present the nature of each artist’s connection to others as well as shedding light on the natural influences that exist between artists, especially in bringing about change to women’s presence in the art world. 
Woman Rising/Earth 1973
Woman Rising/Earth (1973) and Woman Rising/Sky (1973) are based on private rituals Edelson conducted in nature in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where she used her body as a substitute for the Goddess. As Edelson wrote, “These photographic images were defining images—not who I am but who we are. The images were presented aggressively as sexuality, mind and spirit comfortable in one body...These rituals were photographic evidence of the manifestation and recognition of a powerful feminine force: Everywoman.” (Mary Beth Edelson, Seven Cycles: Public Rituals, Mary Beth Edelson: New York, 1980, 17) Woman Rising/Earth depicts the artist removing bandages to free her body and establish her own terms and relationship with the earth.
Sincerely Yours (Peggy Cummins) (1993)
Interested in female stereotypes Edelson focused on movie stars in films from the 1920s to the 1990s re-evaluating the concept of the femme fatale and the subjectivity of women with guns. She silkscreened images of Peggy Cummins, Gena Rowlands, and Grace Jones, among others, onto boards, canvases, and oversized chiffon curtains. This purple chiffon print is signed “Sincerely yours, Peggy Cummins, “Gun Crazy”” referring to her 1949 film of the same name. This work is related to Edelson's 1990s series of Pink Peggy’s silkscreen prints and drawings that depict Cummins full length in a black dress, high heels, wielding a gun onto which the artist has written humorous texts. As Edelson has noted, “I repeatedly use humor as a strategy for increasing receptivity to what I have to say and as an approach to social critique. Playing with the concept that humor exists outside the realm of patriarchy, and therefore provides a method for dispensing with the received script, forms my strategy as well as providing a cover for stepping over existing bounds… and humor reminds me not to take myself too seriously.” (Mary Beth Edelson, interview with Kathleen Wentrack, New York, 3 April 2009)
Cameo: Alice Neel (1970s), O’Kevelson (1973), and Double Voiced (1985) from the Backlash Series, Port Clyde, Maine, 1985
A specific grouping of wall collages that developed out of the remnants of the posters are the Cameos which quickly became their own body of work. The Cameos celebrated individual artists with their peers and comrades in arms, thus honoring the women who did the work that brought change to women’s lives. The Cameo format employs a larger image of the honoree’s head collaged either on a reproduction of a reclining nude or another body. This photograph of Edelson’s studio includes Cameo: Alice Neel (1970s). Below it to the left are images from her work O’Kevelson (1973) that was an homage to Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson in which she photographed herself in the same pose, expression, and costume as her predecessors then added paint to more closely adapt her appearance to theirs. Edelson’s posing as O’Keeffe and Nevelson was a way to insert oneself and play with concepts of identity that will become so important in art of the 1980s and 1990s. The two photographs directly below Cameo: Alice Neel are selections from Double Voiced (1985), from the Backlash Series Edelson made while in Port Clyde, Maine. While wearing everyday work clothes the artist made photographs of herself with a long exposure time that captured her movements as she aimed to backlash against the suppression of women.
Mary Beth Edelson files
The photographs that Edelson used for various projects including the posters and wall collages were readily available in her personal collection of images she had taken of feminist events and portraits of women artists who were active in the community. Her extensive archive of photographs taken over the years is perhaps the broadest and best visual documentation of the feminist art movement of the 1970s in existence. Many of these photographs have been used for various research projects and publications by historians and others through digital enhancing processes that exposed the previous unseen photographs while adopting them to a variety of media. For example, the film by Joan Braderman entitled The Heretics presents one such case in which Edelson’s enduring photographs documenting members and events of the Heresies collective have been instrumental. In addition to the countless photographs that Edelson made over the decades of participating in feminist events, she also gathered flyers, pamphlets, and other documentation. The Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University is preserving these documents and Edelson’s archives for future research. 
Ana Mendieta
A print of Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) hangs on the wall of the studio as an homage to Edelson’s colleague and friend at A.I.R. whose untimely and suspicious death impacted the feminist art community. Together they hosted Come Dressed as Your Favorite Artists (1979), a costume party at Edelson’s loft in honor of Louise Bourgeois who came as herself. Mendieta dressed as Frida Kahlo and Edelson as Leanor Fini. Other attendees included Michelle Stuart, Joyce Kozloff, Hannah Wilke, Judith Bernstein, Anne Sharp, Susan Copper, Edit D’Ak, Barbara Moore, Patricia Hamilton, Phyllis Krim, Barbara Zucker, Poppy Johnson, Marcia Resnik, and Gloria MacDonald.
Credits: Story

Written by Dr. Kathleen Wentrack
Kathleen Wentrack, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Art History at The City University of New York, Queensborough CC and the editor of the forthcoming book Collaboration, Empowerment, Change: Women’s Art Collectives. She recently published “1970s Feminist Practice as Heterotopian: The Stichting Vrouwen in de Beeldende Kunst and the Schule für kreativen Feminismus,” in All Women Art Spaces in the Long 1970s edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell (Liverpool University Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor to Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice and a co-coordinator of The Feminist Art Project in New York City.

Produced by Erica Galluscio

Photography of studio space provided by Kolin Mendez Photography

Special thanks

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.