Mary Beth Edelson, pioneer of the feminist art movement, 1933–2021

Mary Beth Edelson. Courtesy David Lewis Gallery, New York

Mary Beth Edelson, who died on 20 April, used the tools of 1960s land art and performance to produce a body of work that studied the discrimination women have suffered since the beginning of time, inversing those historic injustices and turning them against the patriarchy.

In the black-and-white photographic series Woman Rising the artist photographed herself as a goddess or witch-like figure, communing with the landscape, nature and the elements, seemingly in the act of casting a spell or calling upon higher powers. If the imagery seemed from another time, then the radicalism was contemporary, the message of empowerment a testament to the feminist art movement, at which the artist was at the forefront.

Some Living American Women Artists (1972), is a collage which replaces the all-male faces of apostles, as featured in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with those of famous female artists: Georgia O’Keefe appears as a benevolent Christ; Agnes Martin, Alice Neel and Yoko Ono are also pictured. Light Feet (1977), shows a figure, presumably the artist, leaping through a forest arbor shrouded in robes. A second photograph shows the same scene, but this mysterious person has disappeared, seemingly, it is suggested by the juxtaposition, into thin air. The magical, witchy, feel to the work is compounded with the knowledge that the artist developed it as part of the larger project Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era.

Mary Beth Edelson, Light feet: The burned one prays for light feet (3 works) , 1977, gelatin silver prints, 51 x 51 cm

Edelson was a printmaker, book artist, collage artist, painter, photographer, performance artist and author. Inspired by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet, she made paintings of mothers and children in the 1960s, as well as operating a gallery, Talbot, in Indianapolis. By the 1970s however, recognising the irony of those earlier infleunces, she shifted to performance and began a lifelong study of how women have been depicted in art.

In 1968 she established the country’s first Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in Washington, D.C. and began a protest after the Corcoran Gallery of Art presented the Corcoran Biennial that included no women artists. Through various grassroots initiatives, including the the Heresies Collective, which published the Heresies journal exhibited at the New Museum, New York, and protested at MoMA, New York, she joined the likes of Lucy Lippard, Carolee Schneemann and Judy Chicago in establishing a first-generation feminist perspective to art.

In the 1980s and 90s the artist moved on from the goddess/witch motifs, to confront celebrity. In 1997 she made a series of works featuring icons of old Hollywood, for example, transforming them from objects of the male gaze to dangerous feminist radicals: Marilyn Monroe Never Got to be: Two Things at Once (1997) features the actress staring into a mirror brandishing a pistol; Right in the Kisser (1997) features Judy Garland, boxing gloves on, about to throw a right hook.

Having been vocal about the fact that women were (and remain) underrepresented in museum collections, she nonetheless became appreciated by the very same institutions. Her work can be found in the Guggenheim Museum, and MoMA in New York; the Corcoran Gallery and National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Seattle Art Museum; the Malmö Art Museum in Sweden and at Tate Modern in London.

Read on: A Mary Beth Edelson exhibition proves impossible to shake

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