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Judith Bernstein on Art, Politics, and the Birth of the Universe

Emi Fontana: When did you know that you wanted to be an artist? What or who inspired you then? Who or what inspires you now?

Judith Bernstein: I wanted to be an artist from as far back as I could remember. Even before I understood what that meant. I loved to draw, paint and explore my imagination, and many things influenced me. For instance, I became fascinated with scatological graffiti after reading an article in The New York Times in 1963 about Edward Albee taking the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf from bathroom graffiti. At the time, I was a graduate student at Yale School of Art, when Yale had an all-male undergraduate program and the Vietnam War and draft were happening. The graffiti I found was very raw and poignant. I realized that graffiti has psychological depth because when someone’s alone and releasing on the toilet, they’re also releasing from the subconscious. I began to use text like “this may not be heaven but Peter hangs out here” in my drawings and paired it with crude images. Looking back over the span of my career, there have been a number of factors that have led me to where I am today. I’ve always been attuned to what’s happening in the world and especially interested in exploring human behavior. My curiosity is always evolving. Currently, I’m inspired by the advances in science, astronomy, in the expanding knowledge of the universe and how it relates to ever-changing dynamics between women and men. This is the source for my new “Birth of the Universe” series, in which I use the active cunt to explore issues of women’s rage with both severity and humor. This work represents a major break from the type of work that I made earlier on in my career, including the large phallic screws that confront male dominance, warfare and sexuality. I’m now working with a vibrant, fluorescent color palette and centering my focus on human relationships.

EF: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? leads us right into the heart of our conversation. The story of that title is brilliant: originally the play was supposed to be titled Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs, but then, as you said, Albee saw this graffiti in a bathroom and used Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? instead, saving himself the hassle and money required to ask Disney for the rights. The subject of the play is obviously sexuality and role-playing among heterosexual couples at the dawn of the sexual revolution. We could say about the two main characters of Martha and George, played in the movie by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, that she is a cunt and he is a dick. Can you talk about this in relation to your work?

JB: Virginia Woolf’s vagina! Now that’s an interesting topic! When I was inspired by the story of Albee taking the title from bathroom graffiti, I didn’t consciously think about the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virgin Woolf and relating it to my work — but it certainly does relate. The play is about anger and relationships. The characters act out their deep psychological wounds, and I directly confront these types of relationships in my work. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on dominance and aggression through a humorous lens. Aggression, sexuality and humor are strongly connected. My new “Birth of the Universe” series addresses these themes. I put the angry cunt (or “cuntface”) at the center of the painting. She is the source of the universe, representing the birth. Orbiting phalluses, which are sometimes passive and sometimes active, surround the cunt figure. She’s a self-validating vagina and doesn’t need the cocks’ validation! My work playfully addresses the dynamic between men and women, women and women, and men and men. The paintings are absurdist and chaotic, expressionistic strokes of radiant color, which is how I view relationships. My roots are in antiwar and feminist activism, but I’ve continued to broaden my subject matter to focus on the underlying psychology of human behavior. It’s fun but it’s dead serious. In Who’s Afraid of Virgin Woolf, George and Martha invite over a young couple. The couple witnesses their tumultuous — often violent — interactions. The young couple is the voyeur. I use the theme of the voyeur in my series. The voyeur represents human curiosity and the role of the spectator. In a sense, when someone enters my exhibitions, they become a voyeur entering my universe and my mind. There’s an innate curiosity that I like to play on. It’s a marvelous curiosity about science and the universe, about the subconscious and of course sexuality. Societal norms of the 1950s centered on the concept of the nuclear family. Women were expected to become wives and mothers. Albee’s play is a rejection of that ideology by shedding light on the ugly side of the American dream and inequality within these constructs. My work is very much about confronting this ideology as well. During that time, women and minorities were marginalized and did not have access to the system. My work threatened the ideology and I experienced censorship as a result. In many ways, the 1960s represented the start of a revolution in America. And, it’s a struggle that continues and I’m confronting it in a new context.

EF: Did you start to paint phalluses in the 1960s? How were your first paintings received? It was quite transgressive for a woman to do that. Did you encounter criticism from the feminist side, too?

JB: I first used the phallus in my scatological graffiti drawings as a graduate student at Yale, which was in the mid-1960s. Most of the work from that timeframe was never shown, so in that sense it wasn’t received at all! The image of the phallus represented the subtext for warfare and male dominance. Lester Johnson (then chair of the art department at Yale) pulled my first dick painting from a public exhibition in New Haven. Johnson called me to say that the exhibition was not an appropriate venue to protest the war. I found his reasoning to be preposterous! Ironically, his response to my painting represented the type of posturing that I was commenting on. Robert Doty, a curator at the Whitney, was the judge of the exhibition. Around the same time, I sent slides of my work to be duplicated at Kodak and was told that the company would not reproduce “that kind” of image. I started to see a theme. I began to realize that the content was viewed as defiant (and still is!), but I never saw myself as a “bad girl” and I naively imagined there would always be a platform to exhibit. When I experienced censorship and criticism, I realized that my work threatened a lot of people. At Yale, I was hanging out with some of the ABC Theater Fellows, including playwrights John Guare, Ken Brown, actor Ron Leibman and graduate playwright Ron Whyte. They loved telling me crude vernacular words and limericks, all the synonyms for cock and cunt that you could imagine! I was starting to tap into my hilarious side. I continued to use the image of the phallus throughout my career. In the early 1970s, I began making screws that morphed into humongous charcoal phallic presences. The screws stood as silent witnesses to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. In 1973, I had my first solo exhibition at AIR, the first women’s gallery. The feminist gave me a venue to exhibit. Otherwise, my work would never have been seen. Even as a feminist, I was always an outsider. For many feminists, my work was not considered feminist art because it was not self-referential. I was not portraying women. Instead, I was observing the guys in a critical way. Just to clarify, I was never against men but I wanted what they had. I wanted equal opportunity.

EF: And then in more recent years you switched to vaginas — we mentioned this a little bit at the beginning of the conversation: for me as viewer, in the latest paintings you represent so well the feminine force of creativity, the Shakti, the vortex of energy from which everything began. Can you talk more about this transition? Did this change in your art correspond to a change in your view of the world?

JB: My shift of focus definitely paralleled some major changes in my life. My art is autobiographical. After decades of using the phallus and observing men, I decided to start looking at women. It’s been a psychological experience, and I’m now confronting rage that I’ve seen with women. I’m reflecting on my involvement in feminist groups and, on a more personal level, reflecting on my own childhood. My mother had great deal of anger. And in that sense, women’s rage is an integral part of my background and I wanted to address it, as well as my own anger. There’s also a lot of humor and play there. I’ve channeled that energy into my work and the results are astounding. There’s a vibrancy and resilience that’s connected to survival — and sex and birth on the most primal level. The last few years have been an extremely productive period for me. When I began the “Birth of the Universe” series a couple years ago, I had no idea how much my own universe was going to expand. In that time, I received a lot of exposure and had the opportunity to exhibit my work internationally in a number of venues. I’ve always had the momentum, but with the new platform I have the chance to create even more. And I love to go for big scale! The “Birth” paintings engulf a room and the viewer feels like they’ve entered a bombastic universe. So, yes, the feminine force is undeniable.

EF: Can you talk about the use of black light paint in your recent works? Among other artists who used that I can recall Andy Warhol, especially with his series on the “Last Supper,” and more recently Jacqueline Humphries. I like the idea of looking at paintings in the dark — it connects us with history: all the masterpieces of the past were looked at in candlelight. It seems particularly appropriate for religious and mythological subjects that transport the viewer to a space of contemplation…

JB: The black light experience is very unique. My paintings are transformed under black light. Some elements fall into the darkness and intimate nuances become forceful brushstrokes — brought to the forefront. It is a hyper-energized experience. At the same time, there’s serenity in viewing “Birth of the Universe” under black light and in the dark. It’s almost like the paintings transform into stained glass windows, appearing lit from within and glowing like embers. Nighttime has always been my most productive time. The outside world quiets and I connect with my inner self and my creativity. The darkness quiets everything in that way, and in the “Birth of the Universe” the borders disappear and the paintings morph into each other. It becomes an environment that surrounds the viewer in the space and invokes a sense of mystery. The gallery walls and borders vanish and the images of cunts, cocks, nooses, eyeballs, teeth, black holes and celestial bodies protrude into the space. As we venture into the new, unprecedented Information Age, and as our knowledge of technology and outer space broadens exponentially, we’re thrown further into darkness. I use the massive black hole to symbolize mystery. A black hole is a region of space that theoretically violates everything that we know and understand. Both interconnectivity and feelings of isolation define the digital world in which we live. Human relationships have become ever more complex. With knowledge also comes the unknown — the primordial scream. I’m referencing Munch’s Scream and Courbet’s Origin of the World in a whole new context. My art is extraordinarily challenging. It’s more important now than ever to confront these issues head-on, as the state of the world changes rampantly.

by Emi Fontana