Istory Of A Girl Pornographer, 1974

“Istory” has been my solution to the History/Herstory tug and pull. Whenever possible I use a neutral noun or pronoun instead of a specific gender. A few years ago Clayton Eshleman asked about my use of “Istory”: did I know Olsen’s reference to “Istorin” in the Greek as “the root of history?” Eshleman explained an ancient conflict. Thucydides defined Istorin as “history as facts”; Herodotus defined Istorin as “the personal search for the real.”

On the poster for the van de Bovenkamp exhibit, “Objects of Five,” the usually “dignified” artists appear naked — four women, one man, hands on their knees as if poised for a skirmish. (The image I had clearly envisioned, to which the other artists gradually became committed as well. The woman on the left holds a sign across her body inviting you to the opening, because her husband had insisted her naked body — only ink on paper — not pass into public domain.)

This was one of the motivating factors in my determination to integrate the nude body in all my work: performance, Kinetic Theater, film, paintings, photo-collage, events. The others:

1. I want to confront the paradox that we deal with in creating images—painted, sculpted, performed—as “reality.” As if paint, plaster, celluloid, stone, paper, exist to convince us of a life force as vital as our own flesh and blood and subject to our social moralities! This is as child-like as spanking our dolls for making imaginary pee-pee; and shelters an unconscious, debased primitivism—surrounding and endowing inanimate objects with projections of our repressed vitality.

2. I want to bridge the conventionally public/private areas of experience.

3. For a painter no part of the body should have been considered taboo, relegated to a subphysical “actuality”! As a student I painted self-portraits using my entire body as one which stood for all or any human shape from which I would learn. I was free to study, perceive my own genital shape and form—as well as my ears and elbows.

My art professor told other students this study was narcissistic. I was dumbfounded. I thought I had “objectified” my own fragile, but concrete reality in a stream of istoric image-making. Further, this small co-ed liberal arts college did not have live models for its art students. The male students doing their endless self-portrait studies were not considered “narcissistic.” But then they did leave out their bodies!

4. In the early sixties when I came to N.Y., a few artists were introducing real and literal materials to an extended canvas (or picture plane). I had been making constructions, lightboxes, collages. In 1962 I began a room environment built of huge panels interlocked with rhythmic color units, glass, mirrors, lights, moving umbrellas and other motorized parts. I worked with my whole body, the scale of the panels incorporating my own physical scale. I decided to be combined with the work as an additional “material”—to let my body be a further dimension of the tactile, plastic character of the construction. I did this by treating myself in a series of “inclusions,” with paint, sand, powder, flour, grease, glue, rope, fur, crayons, etc. I concentrated on moving as an extended part of the structure. These movements were then photographed to become a variation of the environment itself, Eye Body.

Throughout college I was receiving the message: “of course you can / don’t you dare.” My family were interested to know if I had “dates,” not that I was working in a lost encaustic process. My teachers said: “You’re a terrific kid, you could really go far, but don’t set your heart on art, you’re only a girl.” Did all this have any connection with my English teacher insisting I not do a thesis on Virginia Woolf—“trivial and obscure” (but not to me!), but Proust would do instead? Or my philosophy teacher objecting when I wanted to do a paper on de Beauvoir, advising me that Sartre was where my attention should be instead?

Not only were my creative energies constantly under question, subject to issues which contradicted everything the learning situation and my own abilities should have supported, encouraged to flourish, but my “right” to excel was in doubt.

Somehow the tremendously repressive culture around me had not effected a separation between my creative energies and my erotic energies. It came as a great shock when during my second year review, my painting and drawing were given highest honors but a committee told me to leave school for a year, that I had committed “morally offensive acts”: someone accused me of making love with my boyfriend under a tree! (He was not asked to leave, nor did we ever remember such an incident.…) I was on full scholarship; this banishment created an uproar—one of the first that I would unwittingly generate throughout the years.

In the early sixties I felt quite alone in my insistence on the integrity of my own sexuality and creativity. There were many reasons for my use of the naked body in my Kinetic Theater works: to break into the taboos against the vitality of the naked body in movement, to eroticize my guilt-ridden culture and further to confound this culture's sexual rigidities—that the life of the body is more variously expressive than a sex-negative society can admit. I didn‘t stand naked in front of 300 people because I wanted to be fucked; but because my sex and work were harmoniously experienced I could have the audacity, or courage, to show the body as a source of varying emotive power: poignant, funny, beautiful, functional, plastic, concrete, “abstract”; the key to related perceptions of our own nature as well as the organic and constructed worlds with which we surround ourselves. Alienation from our physical joys, constrictions in the scope of our own physical natures, meant endless disasters, acts against our own deepest needs.

In some sense I made a gift of my body to other women: giving our bodies back to ourselves. The haunting images of the Cretan bull dancers—joyful, free, bare-breasted, skilled women leaping precisely from danger to ascendancy—guided my imagination.

The use of my own body as integral to my work was confusing to many people. I was permitted to be an image but not an image-maker creating her own self-image. If I had only been dancing, acting, I would have maintained forms of feminine expression acceptable to the culture: “be the image we want.” But I was directing troupes of performers, technicians; creating lights, sound, electronic systems, environments, costumes—every aspect of production, and then physically moving in the space I had created. Some people wanted to constrain our actions as seductive, provocative, obscene, but the tenderness, boldness, spontaneity and pleasure which the performers communicated forced them to question their own attitudes. After a time ,the audience stopped yelling: “Is this art? Is this sex? Is this some religion?”

Still, I was astounded when in the midst of Meat Joy, a man came out of the audience and began to strangle me. Steeped in the writings of Wilhelm Reich I understood what had affected him but not how to break his hold on my neck! And I was terrified that the audience closest to us would think it part of the performance. No one made a move. Even if I could have squawked, the din of the continuing performance was overwhelming. I was saved by three middle-aged women, who many have had no previous experience of the excesses of the avant-garde; they simply felt I was being assaulted apart from the often violent performance. They threw themselves as one onto the man and dragged him off me.

Again, I had a shock when the Institute of Contemporary Art in London invited me to screen Fuses and talk about how it was made. The space was comfortable, the projection smooth. But the audience sat stony, rigid, as if commonly subject to deadly paralysis. At the conclusion of the film there was silence, no rise of conversation, applause. In the front row, a huge, red-faced man in the uniform of a Colonel, clutched a walking stick in one hand, a portly woman with the other, and boomed “Come my dear! Away from what only a deranged frigid nymphomaniac could make.” So much for the question and answer session. A young critic (close to my own age) rushed up to me and snarled: “Madam, you have assaulted my sexuality.” The critic from the more liberal paper shook my hand saying, “I’m afraid we deserved that film.”

from Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter (1975)