Anita Steckel

In the NYT on the 27th, an obituary by Paul Vitello:

Anita Steckel, Artist Who Created Erotic Works, Dies at 82

Anita Steckel, whose playful and sometimes unsettling erotic works were little known outside the mostly underground world of feminist art until she was discovered in her 70s and her creations acclaimed as masterly and groundbreaking, died on March 16 in Manhattan.

It’s a great story. I’ll quote at some length from Vitello’s obit:

Ms. Steckel, who lived and worked most of her life in a small studio in Greenwich Village, told interviewers that she had always felt a tension between being a woman who liked men and being an artist who chafed at the limits that men had historically placed on women.

Her ventures in erotica, she said, were in part intended to establish the right of women to make art from the male figure — just as men had for millenniums created art from the nude female figure. Ms. Steckel’s paintings of naked men and women engaged in suggestive or explicit acts of sexual expression — and particularly her depictions of erections — set off a furor in 1973 when she included them in a one-woman show at the arts center of Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y.

… The commotion made her momentarily famous in the pages of art publications (which generally liked her work) and in New York City tabloids (which generally did not). And it led her to form an organization of female artists, known as the Fight Censorship Group, whose membership would include Louise Bourgeois and Hannah Wilke. A mission statement she wrote for the group became a sort of manifesto for many women creating experimental art. “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums,” it said in part, “it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.”

It’s not easy to find good reproductions of Steckel’s work. But here’s an untitled collage that accompanied the Times article:

Vitello continues:

Richard Meyer, an art historian and professor at the University of Southern California, said in an interview that beginning in the early 1960s, Ms. Steckel was ahead of her time in her use of materials, her fusion of art and politics and her feminist audacity.

“Anita Steckel was a visionary artist whose work addressed issues of gender, pleasure and sexual politics well before the founding of the women’s art movement,” he said. “She was fearless.”

… she was immersed in the art scene and bohemian life of Greenwich Village. In her 20s she and Marlon Brando lived together when he was appearing on Broadway in the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Ms. Middleman said.

She later became close to the poet Allen Ginsberg and the singer and musical archivist Herbert Khaury, later known as Tiny Tim. Her marriage to Jordan Steckel, an artist, ended in divorce after about 10 years. Their daughter, Dinah Steckel, is her only survivor.

Ms. Steckel attracted attention in 1963 with a series of painted montages in which she added ghostly figures to scenes of famous paintings and old portrait photos. In one work, “The Wet Nurse,” she draped the large, enveloping figure of a black woman over the shoulders of a prim Southern white woman in a black-and-white photograph. In others she added images of women, black men and tourists in funny hats to reproductions of canonical works by Picasso and Leonardo, as if to suggest worlds beyond the masters’ ken.

To poke fun at male domination in the realm of Pop Art, she called her series Mom Art.

Among her best-known works was “Giant Woman,” a series of paintings produced from 1969 to 1972 depicting a titanic nude woman lounging amid New York City skyscrapers or straddling them. In one, she cheerfully wraps her legs around an Empire State-like building and seems to ride it like a rodeo bull.

(Unfortunately, the only reproduction of this piece I’ve found is small and dark.)

Mr. Meyer, the art historian, had never heard of Ms. Steckel until he was asked to write the text for the catalog of a feminist art exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007. In researching the field, he became intrigued by Ms. Steckel’s work, went to New York to meet her and wrote an essay about her that sparked interest among art writers and critics.

… In a 2007 New York Times review of an unrelated show, the artist was called “the estimable and too-long-overlooked Anita Steckel.” In an apparent confirmation of that description, the exhibition that led Mr. Meyer to discover Ms. Steckel did not include any of her work.

Steckel’s story of feminist protest in art contrasts in interesting ways with Adrienne Rich‘s: Rich’s reputation soared rapidly, but Steckel remained largely in obscurity until the last decade of her life.



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