3 early works
Fountain of Youth (version 2), 1994-95
This image is an homage to Bruce Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966-67. It was shot with the help of my then two year old child, who agreed to model in exchange for a Häagen-Dasz bar. They were still in diapers then, but we decided they would wear “grown up” underwear for the photograph. We shot two versions. This is version 2.
In the late 70s I did a series of black and white self-portraits. Those images were lost and it was only after I had returned to self-portraiture as subject matter that an old box of prints was unearthed in my mother’s house containing a few of the images from that earlier exploration and it is curious to see the persistence of this interest and its permutations over time.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, 1990
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, 1990 consists of two, 8” x 11 1/2” images, rephotographed side by side and thus married together into one image. I selected an image of Anselm Kiefer from a series he made in 1969 called Occupations or Bezetzung in which the artist photographed himself at various sites in Europe doing the “Sieg Heil” salute. To be fair to Kiefer, he is diminutive in relation to the overall image in these photographs. His image is on the left hand side of this work. On the right, I am depicted out in the woods, standing before half of the famous 1945 Life Magazine spread of the liberation of Buchenwald photographed by Margaret Bourke –White. My face replaces that of one of the prisoners. Many viewers have assumed that the image is a collage but in fact, I photographed the famous Life Magazine image and blew it up to life size. I cut a hole out for my face in much the same way that they used to do at amusement parks, where you could poke your head through a hole behind a life sized image of the fat lady at the circus or the acrobat with long blonde curls and assume their identity for the life of a photograph. I dragged this enormous photograph out into the woods at Bear Mountain and stepped behind it and inserted my face in the hole where one half-starved male survivors’ face had been excised. The Bourke –White photograph is a photograph of all men.
The piece, We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, 1990 was an important turning point for me. It brought together in one work a set of what seemed up to that point to be diverse interests and allowed me to see that they could be one. The work wove together my activity and practice as an artist and my undergraduate background in history. This work was to be a harbinger of work to come, work that moved away from a “meta” critique of art engaged in historical discourse and into a practice that became more direct and personal, while at the same time maintaining a critical discourse with history and with feminism.
In a funny way, Kiefer brought together similar threads in his work, but his work evoked suspicion in me, and retrospectively that suspicion seems more and more warranted. His bombast, both with respect to the scale of his work and the claims he made for it and his alignment with extraordinary privilege is hard to reconcile with his purported motivations. Heroizing alone is a suspicious activity. I don’t want to paint a simplistic portrait of Kiefer or reduce him to a cipher. His position in the art world is complicated and his work has been discussed critically by many serious scholars over the years but I don’t believe that form is entirely separable from content and it is form that ultimately belies Kiefer’s claims.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet was exhibited in 1992 at the Jewish Museum in New York in an exhibition called Bridges and Boundaries; African Americans and American Jews. The exhibition was an examination of the relationship between African Americans and American Jews and it was a moving and thoughtful exploration that I felt proud to be included in. There were various sections to the show and the room of contemporary visual art was named We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet, a special honor, since it included the work of artists for whom I have great respect, notably Adrian Piper and David Hammons. From there the work was included in dozens of exhibitions and reviewed many times. It began to feel like my trademark.
In response to the large group exhibition Burnt Whole which opened in the fall of 1994 at Washington Project for The Arts and travelled in the winter of 1995 to the ICA in Boston, Donald Kuspit, the deeply conservative art critic singled out We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet as an example of a “one liner” in a tirade against artists whom he viewed as lesser talents and whose works he deemed proof of their jealously of great male artists such as Anselm Kiefer. I had struck a nerve and Kuspit’s irate response only reinforced the power with which my work succeeded as a feminist critique of Kiefer’s masculinist large scale and overbearing work, which, in its most recent iteration at Larry Gagosian gallery in New York, could reasonably be described as both aggressive and oppressive while being tired to the point of exhaustion at the same time.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet had two facets that would recur in my work, the inclusion of historical material in my artistic practice and oddly, the occurrence of the self-portrait. In fact, the piece was included in an exhibition at the Espace Lyonnais d’Art Contemporain in Lyon in 1993 called Autoportraits Contemporains; Here’s Looking at Me. I will say that my encounter with Kiefer helped me embrace material that was important to me, first, at a distance through a commentary on him and a critique of his claims and later, as a direct intervention into the material, distanced by time, as a first generation American whose parents survived the war in Eastern Europe.
The development of Helmbrechts walk, 1998-2003 (www.helmbrechtswalk.com), a project for which I retraced on foot the steps of 580 Jewish women who were forced to march 225 miles under brutal conditions at the close of World War II is part performance, part memorial and part monument. I think of We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet as a crucial developmental step toward this later work. Helmbrechts walk is a moveable non-monumental memorial to the 95 women who perished on this march and a quiet celebration of those women who miraculously survived. It is a historical interrogation but also an artwork, and as such it is connected to a lineage of artists that include Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. And looking back, I can also see in it a bridge between my earliest and my most recent self-portraits.
It is not always easy to understand the legacy of single work but We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet travelled extensively and was in great demand. It was written about in books and is now the subject of several undergraduate papers and Masters theses. It is generally discussed when scholars analyse my more recent work and all of this speaks to its longevity as part of a conversation it first entered in 1990.