Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Stereotypes and Women Artists

5:09 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser No comments
Originally published as "Art Criticism and Women Artists" in Feminist Art Journal in April 1972, this article is about the stereotypes that women artists have faced and demolishes the idea that there were no great women artists-- they've just been hidden from history! For this article, I did extensive research and discovered that great women artists have been denigrated or written out of art history.

Monday, February 01, 2016

My memories of Eva Hesse

4:08 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 17 comments
Earlier today I saw a lovely tweet from a young art history student:

It brought back memories of Eva Hesse, so I wanted to share the article I wrote along with that interview, first published in Feminist Art Journal and included in my memoir Firebrand:

My Memories of Eva Hesse

After my women artists’ forum was done, I had cast about for a new subject to interview for Artforum. I asked the dealer Abe Sachs if he could recommend an up-and -coming artist. He mentioned the name of Eva Hesse who did soft sculpture. I was intrigued. I had met the artist briefly in 1968 when she was in a having a one woman show at the Fischbach Gallery, which, though not at the top of the art world matrix, was still considered a good place to find, budding art stars. Eva Hesse was a pixyish, vivacious young woman in her early thirties. She had a yielding tender face, a melting smile, and bright dark eyes that could be mischievous one moment and heart wrenchingly sad the next. Her work was made up of both pieces hanging from the walls and of freestanding cylinder shapes made of fiberglass, latex rubber, cord, and other materials. The sculptures were completely abstract, but they had an emotional quality, an aspect of reaching out for attention and love that drew me in. 
I didn’t follow up on her then, but I did meet her several times: once a at warehouse where her work appeared in a group exhibition, sponsored by the Castelli Gallery and curated by the ubiquitous Robert Morris. We spoke a while and she showed me her steely ambitions side when she gave me her shrewd assessment of the art scene. “There are only a handful gallery worth visiting or to be shown at,” she confided. I guessed she meant to be in one of them. She had gone to Yale Art School where she had not been happy, and afterwards arrived at New York and became friends with Minimalists like Sol Lewit, Donald Judd, Al Held and Sylvia Stone. Later on she also developed relationships with Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Jackie Winsor, who were flouting Minimalist dogma. She longed to be accepted and taken seriously by leaders of the group who were fast getting art world attention. 
Eva had been married to a sculptor named Tom Doyle who had gotten recognition, while she went unnoticed. In those days being married to a male artist meant being looked upon as a helpmate there to help propel the husband’s career upward. Even Lucy Lippard, who, though married to the painter Robert Ryman, was an independent and respected art critic, ignored Hesse until the late 60’s, and focused on Doyle. Women’s art, for the most part, was looked upon as trivial. The marriage was not a happy one as the sculptor was a notorious womanizer and Eva was prone to depression and self-depreciation. Soon they divorced. 
The next time I saw Eva was at a museum opening She had a bandage covering the whole top part of her head, as if she had just come out of surgery, and looked bloated and ghostly pale. I spoke to her, and she told me that she had had a brain tumor that was malignant, but it had been operated on and she would be all right. She smiled wanly as she said it, but there was a look of determination in her luminous dark eyes. I decided I would come and see her work at her studio that was on the Bowery. 
When I got to the small, spare loft where she lived and worked, she welcomed me eagerly with the sweetest of smiles. She began to show me her current works, and I was touched by their beauty and uniqueness. Her forms were abstract; however they were not cold and pristine. Rather there was a tender, yearning quality they pervaded them like a woman longing for her lover. Some hung from the wall with cords plunging out of them, others used the wall as a support. The works were also sensuous and the rounded shapes that jutted off the wall suggested breasts, while the boxes with tubes growing out of the bottom and the sides evoked images of hairy vaginas. However, all the sculptures only hinted of a sexuality seeking to be expressed; none of them were literal depictions. There was nothing graphic. 
I greatly admired the gouache and ink drawings that were hung on her walls. Many of them were either of round shapes or rectangles. They were all in black drawn with a light delicate touch and the subtle shading of the forms was exquisite. I wanted to buy one of the small drawings that were composed of two dainty meticulously delineated circles. She told me it would cost one hundred dollars, but she was loath to sell it. “ Let me think about it” she said, grinning in an almost coquettish way as if she were flirting with me. I let it go much to my regret, since it spoke to something in my psyche. Later on when Eva became an art world icon, the drawing appreciated greatly in value. 
It wasn’t until January 1970 that I decided that Eva Hesse would be the next interviewee that I would suggest to Artforum. Phil Leider, the acerbic editor, gave me the go ahead. I called Eva at her the loft, but there was no answer. Someone suggested that I call Richard Serra who might know where she was. His response to my question after I told him I would be interviewing her for Artforum was, “She’s got another brain tumor—she’s dying. You’re like a vulture.” I was shocked by his response, but I was also insulted, since I had had no idea of how bad her physical condition was, and only thought that getting attention from a top art magazine would please her. But I persisted, so Serra told me she was staying at the loft of the painter Al Held and his wife the sculptor Sylvia Stone. This was not the last time Richard Serra was overtly hostile toward me. Later on I had an idea about doing an article on process art. I called him to get an interview and he demanded who else would be in the piece. I mentioned some of the artists I intended to include. He said, 
“I don’t think I want to be in the same article as those people.”
His response got my hackles up. I said, “You are a public figure and I don’t have to get your permission to write about you.” 
“Fuck off,” he yelled into the phone and then slammed the phone down.
I was furious, but now I realize it wasn’t personal. I found out Serra was rude to practically everyone. He was maintaining his savage artist persona that has helped to make him into a legend of the baleful, temperamental genius á la Michelangelo and had the rich collectors eating out of his hand, (the hand which would smack them in the face.) His sculpture was outsized and threatening and his behavior was an extension of it. Meanwhile he got and continues to get huge commissions and has been anointed the world’s most important contemporary sculptor. 
I set up a date to meet Eva at her friend’s loft. When I told her I wanted to tape her on cassettes, she sounded hesitant since she had never before been recorded, but she agreed to do it. It was on a bright wintry day with an intense blue sky and a few cotton candy white clouds sailing on high that I met with Eva. It was a good day to be alive. The building where she was staying had two different entrances and we kept missing each other, but we laughed about it as we entered the beautiful loft. The white walled rooms were spacious, the living floors were a burnished light brown wood; the tiled floored kitchen was state of the art, and the furniture modern but comfortable. The walls displayed Al Held’s geometric paintings and simple pedestals showed off Sylvia Stone’s abstract sculptures. 
Eva settled me onto a comfortable couch with a coffee table in front of me where I could place the tape recorder, and she cuddled up, with her bare feet tucked under her, in a large cushioned armchair. I looked at her closely and I felt sad for her. Her shinning aura of dark hair was almost gone and her exposed scalp, with its covering of fuzz, gave her the look of a newly born chick. The large doses of cortisone she was being given had caused her to swell and her lovely gamin face resembled that of an overly large moon faced young child. But, her large dark eyes were as arresting as ever, and as we began to talk, they sparkled when she laughed. She told me she had just come home from the hospital after having had more chemotherapy. I asked her if she was up to doing the interview. She said, 
“I’m very nervous about speaking into a tape. Maybe you could hide it so I won’t see it.”
Then she asked, “Could I talk about myself and my background before we start talking about the work?" 
I put the recorder out of sight and she began to outline her incredible history as a German Jewish refugee from a troubled background who escaped from the Nazis just in time. She felt that nothing in her life had ever been normal and that the only time she ever felt secure was when she was doing her art. It was a moving story. 
After Eva finished giving me her personal history, she became much more relaxed. We took a break and began to chat about other aspects of her life. She told me that all the patients at Sloan Kettering were so optimistic. They all believed they were going to get well. Giggling, her eyes twinkling, she shyly told me she had a crush on a gorgeous orderly. I marveled that even with the specter of death bearing down on her, she still could extract joy from her existence. She asked me about my background. I gave her a brief sketch, and then I told her about how I had become a feminist and how I thought every woman should be one. Eva was skeptical even when I informed her how much women faced sexual discrimination in the art world. When I asked her if she had experienced sexism, she was ambivalent, 
“Maybe but I don’t know. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough. Maybe I’m not as smart as the men, not intellectual enough. But maybe emotion is just as good as intellect. There ought to be a place for it. Richard Serra came to me. I think he took some of my ideas. But I’m so insecure, yet I know I can make great art. All my life I’ve been either the cockroach or the queen.” 
I totally empathized with Eva. I too had agonized all the time that I wasn’t smart enough, that I wasn’t a true intellectual. Yet when I completed a piece of writing that pleased me, I too felt that my ideas mattered and that I was meant to have a position of power. I also believed I could make a contribution to the history of art. 
I asked Eva if she thought there were sexual elements in her art, allusions to female or male genitalia. With a wave of her small, determined hand, she denied it, and the statement that she gave me for woman artist’s article also disappointed me. She wrote “Excellence has no sex” and “The way to beat discrimination is by art.” Eva was sitting on the fence, afraid of antagonizing the male powers-that-be just when they were about to bestow their gifts on her. 
We decided to continue the interview on another day because Eva was getting tired. So I came back to see her two other times. She was more confident about speaking on tape for the rest of the interview and was extremely articulate and knowledgeable about her work. She agreed that there was an obsessive quality to her sculpture, in her need to repeat some forms over and over to exaggerate. She found her creations to be absurd saying they reflected the absurdity of her life. She had made insightful comments about other artists from Goddard to Andy Warhol. 
It was a terrific interview and instinctively I knew I had recorded material that was really valuable. I also felt that Eva and I had become friends. She was easy to like since she was charming and open and had a wry sense of humor. We talked about the difficulties women artists had being included in serious male artists’ conversations at artists’ hangouts. “If you go to an artists’ bar, you’re supposed to sit quietly in awe of the male speaker like a good little groupie,” I said. Eva nodded her head. Then we decided that we would go together to St. Adrian’s the current artist’s hot spot and enjoy each other’s conversation, ignoring the men. 
St. Adrian’s was on lower Broadway. It was a dark nondescript working class style bar with John Clem Clarke’s murals on the wall behind the bar. When we walked in a few heads turned, but no one spoke to us. I think Eva was a little letdown, as she loved to flirt. She knew no one and neither did I. I was hoping to find John Clem Clarke seated at the bar, but he wasn’t there. However we carried out our mission, sat at the bar and pretended we were having a good time. Neither of us admitted it was annoying not to receive any male attention. I was a feminist, but I was also a woman, and I liked to be admired by men. Masculine adulation shored up my confidence and made me believe that I was physically attractive and desirable. I always suffered from doubts my attraction for men even though I had won a handsome husband. It was a hold over from being a rejected by the boys when I was a youngster when we played Post Office and Spin the Bottle. That need never went away even after I read all the feminist literature and started going to consciousness raising groups. Eva too felt insecure in her womanhood, especially, I supposed, because her husband had left her. She too needed to be reassured. This mutual need cemented our friendship. 
After the interview, I didn’t see Eva again until I had the tape transcribed and I called her to let her know that it was done. She asked me to come over with it, as she wanted to read it. I brought a copy I had xeroxed to her at her own studio. The place was in disarray and I found her in bed under the covers looking small and vulnerable as an ailing little animal. “I’m not feeling well at all. I can hardly get out of bed. My sister is taking care of me,” she told me in a low voice. I studied her pasty, puffed-out face and lusterless eyes and I knew she was very sick. “I brought the transcript for you to read. It‘s terrific.” I spoke in as cheery tone as I could muster, feeling like phony. She took it from me, and looked at it in a lackadaisical fashion as if it were a pile of unimportant mail. Before she had finished the first page, she put it down. “I can’t read it now. Please let me keep it and I look at it as soon as I can”
I wanted to do anything that would give Eva some pleasure, but I was leery. Instinctively, I knew that it was not a good idea to leave a rough transcript, or a finished, but unpublished interview with my interviewee. But she was so helpless, so beaten down by her illness that I did not have the heart to deny her any request.
When the interview came out in early May, 1970, Eva was back at Sloan Kettering after having a third operation. I went to see her there and found her in bed under a white sheet looking pale and fragile with a white bandage again encasing her head. It struck me that her last great sculpture “Untitled,” consisted of freestanding forms that looked like they had been bandaged. When she saw me she managed to give me a smile and her eyes brightened a little. Phil Leider had given her the cover of Artforum, and the magazine was on the table next to her bed. She sat up a bit and boasted in barely discernible voice, “I’ve got the cover. I’m so happy.” Then she pointed to a beautiful bouquet of spring flowers next to the magazine, and said, “Do you see these? They’re from a big collector. I finally made it didn’t I?” I took her hand, and I was glad for her. I knew then and there that Richard Serra had been wrong. I wasn’t an exploiter. Not even setting out to do so, I had helped to bring a dying woman some of the acclaim that she so desperately wanted and deserved. The world had affirmed her importance as an artist; a goal had been reached. She had been validated. 
Plucking at her covers absentmindedly, Eva chatted with me for a while about her gorgeous orderly, who had welcomed her back, and how she would be doing new pieces when she got back to her loft. She was amazing, and I even half believed she would be home creating again. 
Two weeks later, I called the hospital and was told she had lapsed into a coma. I decided to go see her anyway. As soon as I entered her room, I knew this was the end. She was lying stone still on the narrow bed, totally unaware that I had come in and there was silence all around her. Small and expressionless under the blanched white bedding she was only a shell of her true vivacious self. I took her hand in mine and squeezed it and said my good-byes. As I walked out into a warm sunny spring day, with its puffy white clouds moving majestically across the deep blue sky, and felt a lovely gentle breeze brush my cheeks, I experienced a terrible sadness. Eva Hesse was only 33. What a waste of a fine talent coupled with youth and loveliness. I went to her funeral and met several women artists I knew. Nancy Grossman told me she didn’t know Eva personally, but she felt as if she was at one with her. “She speaks for all of us,” Nancy said.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Women in this culture often become male chauvinists, thinking that if they combine with the men, they may be pardoned for being a hole rather than a club" -Alice Neel, born today in 1900

4:33 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 15 comments
Being Painted by Alice Neel
Cindy Nemser and Chuck (1975), oil on canvas, 105.41 cm x 75.565 cm

In 1975, at the age of 38, I was decided it was time for me to let Alice Neel paint my portrait. She had asked to do it when I first met her years earlier but I declined fearing I would like Frankenstein’s daughter. However, now I believed she was the foremost portrait painter of the twentieth century, and I considered it an honor to sit for her even if my portrayal didn’t turn out to be flattering. I was joining a select group of art critics like John Perreault, David Bourdon, Gregory Battcock and John Gruen who had already volunteered to be part of Alice’s mesmerizing body of work.

When I asked her to paint me she surprised me by saying, “You know what! I’ll paint you and your saintly husband.”

Chuck, who loved Alice’s paintings and enjoyed her always original barb-filled conversation, immediately agreed, so, on a cold day in February, we made our way to Alice’s labyrinth of an apartment located in a decaying Victorian building on the corner of Broadway and 107th street. I wore my perfectly fitting stunning size 12 suede suit, which my husband had impulsively bought without me as a gift, and he had on a brand new outfit. Alice took one look at us, and frowned.

“All those clothes,” she wailed, as she looked me over. “You look so fussy with all those layers of clothes and all that Mickey Mouse jewelry.”

“You look so bourgeois in that pin-striped suit,” she admonished my husband. “I just painted a dentist and he had all those clothes on too.”

I was taken aback by Alice’s disappointment in our appearance, but felt at a loss as to how to appease her. As I sat there mulling it over, she continued to express her dissatisfaction and to look us over with her sharp little eyes. Then her eyes glittered and she let out one of her preposterous high pitched “tee hees,” and, said, “You know what? I’ll paint you both in the nude.”

I stiffened in horror and I saw a similar reaction in my husband.

“No way, Alice!” I said with conviction. “The editors of the Feminist Art Journal are not going to be painted as sex objects. Besides I don’t like the way I look in the nude.”

“All right,” she said mildly, “Let me look at you. She eyed us intently again. “But I can’t see how to paint you. Well let me think about it. Couldn’t you just take off your jacket? You’ve got so much on.”

“All right, I’ll take off the jacket if it will make you happy but that’s all. I removed my stylish jacket while my husband concurrently removed the jacket and vest of his three-piece suit.

“Well, I don’t know,” Alice, murmured plaintively, “I still don’t see how to paint you. Well, just sit there.”

Then the phone rang and she left the room; when she came back she still could not find a pose that pleased her.

“Well take off that sweater,” she begged me. (I had worn an extra sweater as it was an ice-cold day and her apartment was never well heated.) “Perhaps I’ll like the color of your blouse better.”

I had misgivings, I felt like a laboratory animal that was part of an experiment, but I accommodated her, and again the phone rang and she left the room. Time was passing. When she returned she had no use for my pretty, patterned blue blouse.

Couldn’t you just take off that blouse,” she cajoled. “I bet you look great in your bra.”

I resisted firmly, “No. I can’t. I won’t. I see where this is leading and I won’t do it.”

“Well, all right. Let me look at you again—maybe I’ll see something I haven’t seen before. I know I’ll paint you in your underwear and Chuck in his clothes.”

“ Forget that,” I cried, “I’ll look like a hooker in a bordello.” I thought to myself, better be a classic nude than painted as a whore.

By now an hour had gone by with Alice running in and out of the room answering the phone and talking to various people working in her apartment, including her ever faithful, put-upon daughter-in-law Nancy. I began to suspect that if we did not disrobe there would be no portrait. I was petrified at the idea of being painted naked with my far from perfect body on display, but I had set my heart on Alice doing our portrait. At the same time I also started to feel challenged by the whole situation. It was as if I were being tested. I decided to take the dare and risk exposing myself. I told Chuck, who despite his middle-class trappings has an adventurous soul, that we might as well do what she wanted since she was going to wear us down in the end.

And so after an hour and a half of deliberation, dread, and doubts, there I was sitting naked on Alice’s green silk-covered Empire style couch next to my almost undressed husband, who had only stripped to his briefs. It looked as if he were naked because in the pose we had taken I completely covered his genitalia. Had she tricked us into it? Bullied us to get her way? Or had she known that deep inside of us was a desire to discard the facade and pretense created by clothing of any variety.

How characteristic it was of Alice to penetrate the social mask, to move through the barriers of class and position in order to reveal the essential traits that the sitter adds to the ongoing human comedy. When my image was done it disclosed an unexpected sensuousness coupled with a sadness and vulnerability, while my husband’s portrait underscored his healthy sensuality and basic generosity of spirit. These traits were not only delineated by the rendering of our facial expressions, but were also to be read in the pose we had chosen for ourselves which Alice then transferred to the canvas. We sat close together, holding hands in an attitude of mutual support. My body concealed Chuck’s sexual parts while his hand rested on my waist in a gesture of affectionate protectiveness. In this double portrait, the artist had psyched us out as individuals and had also arrived at the essence of our relationship. I was happy that we shared this experience together. I wasn’t pleased, however, that she titled the picture “Cindy Nemser and Chuck.” But my husband didn’t mind as he accepted himself as a less important actor on the stage of art history.

Once I had accepted the reality of my nakedness and vulnerability, I began to relax and observe how Alice behaved as she transmuted her subjects or “victims,” as she called them, into paint. She selected a 42-inch by 60-inch canvas and was determined to fit us onto it. Seated in front of the canvas, this snow-white haired elderly woman in her loose-fitting blue smock, her bright blue eyes squinting and blinking behind her glasses, her plump legs spread forcefully apart, and her space-shoed feet planted solidly on the floor, she picked up her brush gingerly and wailed, “I’m just scared to death—I’m petrified.”

But she summoned up her courage and began without any preliminary sketch to make our outlines on the canvas. Starting from my leg and working upward Alice spread our images, along with her silk-covered couch, over the surface. Our bodies were compressed and a small portion of Chuck’s hair was cut off, but for all intents and purposes, Alice Neel had captured us in our entirety.

The process took six sittings of about four hours each, and she was a stern taskmaster allowing only a few ten-minutes breaks. The sparsely furnished room looked out on Broadway, a dreary garbage strewn street in those years, and it was chilly all the time. I was glad Chuck and I were huddling together as it kept us warmer. It was both amusing and amazing to watch Alice at work. While she formed our torsos and arms and legs, she chattered incessantly telling rambling tales and making pungent comments—but when it came to our faces, she became transformed; her face looked ecstatic, her mouth hung open, her eyes were glazed, as if she were undergoing some religious trance, and she never uttered a word. I recalled what she had told me about her approach to portraiture in our conversation in Art Talk:

“Sometimes I feel awful after I paint because I go back to an untenanted house. I go back to a place where there isn’t anything. I leave myself and go out to that person and when I come back there’s a desert. You know what it is for me? It’s an esthetic trip like an LSD trip.”

But though the artist was somehow expanding her consciousness into mine, her brush moved on with the utmost surety for contradicting her first statement, she also told me in the same conversation that “though I participate a lot, I do not leave myself completely because you have to be in control of the situation or no painting comes out at all.”

I thought of buying the painting. But Alice wanted $6,000, which back then was a lot of money, more than I could afford. Recently I found out she had a drawings of me, after the double portrait was finished. If I had known about it at the time I certainly would have bought it

Our nude portraits were on display in 1976 when Alice had a show at the Graham Gallery. To my slight embarrassment, it was reproduced in New York Magazine and the reviewer, the art critic Thomas Hess called it quite connubial which was unusual in an Alice Neel representation of married people. It also reproduced in the Village Voice, in the newsletter of the radio station WBAI, and it appeared on the cover of several little magazines. Liz Smith made a mention of it in her column in the Daily News, as did Amei Wallach in Newsday, Vivian Raynor in the Times and John Perreault in theSoho Weekly News.

Shortly afterward, Chuck’s aunt called to tell us how amazed she was to see us so exposed in popular publications. I was amused by her reaction. At last I had done something outrageous that set me apart from the staid, convention-ridden middle class from which I too always wanted to escape.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Cheers to Vito Acconci

4:48 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 15 comments
As Vito Acconci closes his retrospective at MoMA P.S.1, I am brought back to my encounters with him back in the 1970s. My interview with him was published in Arts Magazine in March 1970 and I wrote about my experiences with him in my memoir Firebrand. 

Here is an excerpt about Vito Acconci that is in my memoir Firebrand and below you can find a scan of the interview from Arts Magazine, March 1970:

I had gone to see an exhibition at the Jewish Museum called “Software,” and while I was examining one of the works that was encased, I noticed that a man was standing much too close to me. He was invading my space, and I felt uncomfortable, so I moved away from him. To my consternation, he followed me, but then he laughed and said,
“Don’t worry, I’m not a masher. I’m an artist and I’m in this show. This is one of my pieces—seeing how close I have to get to make someone uneasy or to move away.”
Much relieved, I turned toward him and eyed him closely. He had a long, sad, basset-hound-like face and light brown hair that hung in limp strands down to his shoulders. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. He wore a khaki army jacket, that I guessed came from a thrift shop, nondescript khaki pants; and laced-up combat boots. He could have almost passed for one of the homeless.
My curiosity was aroused, and I asked him to explain further. He told me his name was Vito Acconci and that he was a sculptor who used his body to explore the reactions to various behavior patterns like the one he had tried out with me. He called it a “Proximity” piece. His action had made me move away, so he considered the piece accomplished. He had explored other types of behavioral interactions such in as a series of “Trust Pieces.” In one such piece, he had himself blindfolded while standing on a pier with his back to the water, and then followed directions from another person to keep moving backward, trusting that the participant would not maneuver him into the Hudson River. I was hooked. I knew Vito Acconci would be my next interviewee.
Vito lived in the top floor of a walk-up in the Village and had a small studio that was barely furnished. When I entered he was wearing the exact same outfit I had seen him in at the Jewish Museum, and his hair was as straggly as ever. He invited me to sit down and placed himself opposite me. As we began to tape the interview, he kept rocking back and forth in his seat as if he were a rabbi reading from the Torah. However, he was very organized and concise in his response to my questions. He told me he had been educated by the Jesuits and learned from them how to be logical and economical in presenting himself. 
Then we discussed his art works that consisted of using himself as sculptural material. He bit himself and then applied printer’s ink to the bite marks to make prints. He pulled the hairs along his naval, so that it gave the illusion of opening further and took on a resemblance to a vagina. This piece called “Openings, allowed him to break out of being a male and experience the possibility of being a female. There were pieces of one entity being absorbed by another such as the one when he rubbed a cockroach into his chest. The image of this activity made the cover of Arts Magazine when they printed the interview. We did not discuss Acconci’s most infamous Installation piece in which he masturbated under a wooden platform made for him at the Sonnabend Gallery since he had not yet done it. As you approached the platform, you heard his ecstatic groans as if he was in the throws of climax, but you could not see him. (It’s fun to note that in April 2004, Acconci mounted a show of his 70’s pieces and presented another platform from which orgasmic groans could be heard throughout the gallery. The artist was not under the platform, but there was a full documentation of the piece with all sorts of notes and diagrams, and most titillating of all, was the black and white video tape of Acconci performing the act itself.) 
Using a low monotone voice he continued to move back and forth in his chair as he told me also he used his physical presence to interact with the world outside him. He had his mail sent to the Museum of Modern Art during the Information Exhibition so that anyone could read it. The artist admitted that his works had both and masochistic and sadistic elements in them since it was sometimes necessary to use shocking actions to break out of society’s structures and limitation. He said, “I use art as an instrument to break through these structures. That’s why I’m always stressing the idea of an artwork as a means to improve, to correct, to open myself up, and to make myself vulnerable. Art is a way to make my life bigger than it is." 
I found myself mesmerized by his bizarre actions and his methodical explication of the motives that had led him to perform them. Though Acconci’s actions assaulted both social and sexual taboos; he used them with the intention that was positive and humanistic. Though it was far from obvious, here was a mind that had much in common with Emerson’s version of transcendentalism that insisted that all humans were interconnected. Acconci was through his own body and presence attempting to break down barriers and connect with others. Though he said, “My immediate purpose is not to reach other people but to reach into myself, I think one essential for this kind of art is for the artist not be in an alienated position any more. He’s not specialized in regard to any craft. He’s not divorced from other people. My work is to get away from walls, not just museum walls. The goal is to break out of spiritual and social confines as well.”
These were rousing ideas and I was galvanized, yet a little part of me was skeptical. Acconci said he wanted out of the art world system but here he was having one man shows and participating in museum exhibitions. And wasn’t performing sexual acts in public a sure fire way to get attention? Yet Acconci was so sincere when he spoke about his ideas and his goals. And he was a decent person with nothing the least pretentious about him. One time when my husband was doing photography development in the basement of our house, Vito, needing photographs developed in a hurry, came out to Park Slope since Chuck offered to do the prints for him. He brought along his companion Kathy Dillon, a pencil thin hollow-cheeked young woman who was dressed all in black. Acconci wore his usual shiny-from wear-army jacket and heavy boots. They both made an odd presence in our conventionally furnished house with its wall-to-wall carpet and flowered wallpaper in the kitchen. We had by then started an art collection, but Acconci took no notice. 
While the men were working on the photographs, I took Kathy to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens that were in glorious bloom, with the pink and white Japanese Cherry Blossom trees at their peak. As we strolled through the Japanese Garden, with its azaleas and peonies, Acconci’s bizarre, taboo busting art seemed far away. When we returned, the photographs were done, so I invited Acconci and Kathy to dinner. They were polite and appreciative, and I detected none of the snobbery so prevalent in the art world in either of them. 
Yet though I was fascinated by the physical and psychological activities that made up Vito’s art, a part of me was disturbed, even repulsed by some of the methods he used to obtain his results. In one case, he had treated two women like rats in a disastrous lab experiment. While teaching at Visual Arts, he told me, he invited a young female art student to come and live with him and his girl friend. Soon the situation evolved into an unhappy ménage à trois. The women disliked each other. They were competitive for Acconci’s attention. He enjoyed their conflict and was able to detach himself from the rather nasty implications of this life style by viewing this situation as one of his pieces. He began to score each woman in terms of her successful attempts to claim his attention and no pasha could have enjoyed himself more with his harem. He kept this situation going until emotions came to a head and the student attempted to commit suicide. Then, Vito realized that his conscience would not let him continue this satisfying ego trip any longer and subsequently he had had to content himself with assaulting his female companion, playing pimp to her prostitute in a piece called “Broad Jump” where she and another girl were to be the prizes awarded to the person making the longest leap. I wondered if he had read about the way Picasso had abused two of his mistresses in the same way but had never thought of it as his artwork. I did not include an account of this sadistic “piece” in the Arts interview.

Here is a scan of the interview I did with Vito Acconci for Arts Magazine, published in March 1970:

Friday, June 06, 2014

Letter from Katherine Spencer

10:11 AM Posted by Cindy Nemser 15 comments
February 2014

Hello Cindy,

       I am pleasantly surprised to have found your email address online, and I hope you don't mind my contacting you. I am a thirty year old painter living with my husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts. unfortunately I have never had a significant woman teacher or artistic mentor, although I have plenty of peers who are women artists. I just learned about you two days ago while I was researching Eve Hesse. I checked Art Talk out of the library and I was blown away to see Sonia Delauney, Alice Neel (two of my absolute heros), Louise Nevelson and Eve Hesse (becoming heros as well for me), and Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner all in the same book! I sat down today and read the entire thing, taking many notes. I became impressed with the questions you asked, and the points you argued with these artists.

       The book is so very valuable to our history, and I am so grateful to have the words of these women to cheer me on. As I read I became curious to see what you were up to today. Someone should ask Cindy what she thinks of how things have progressed, regressed, or stayed the same for women artists, I thought. I just now googled you and found your blog. Have you found a publisher for Firebrand yet? Are involved with feminist artists today, like the Gorilla Girls? I would love to hear about what you are up to now. And I think you should have a proper Wikipedia page!

All the best,

Katherine Spencer 


Dear Katherine,

       I was delighted to hear from you. Your enthusiasm for Art Talk is so encouraging to me. Have you heard of the Feminist Art Journal? I was the publisher and editor from 1972-77. I left the art world a at that time as I was burnt out by all the responsibilities of being one of the first feminist art critics. At this time my health is not good, but I still try to keep up with what is going on with women in the arts and women in general. I was there way before the Gorilla Girls. I was there at the inception of feminist art movement. If you want to know all about me go to my archive at the Getty Research Institute. I'm not sure, but I think it may be up on line by now. In any case a complete copy of my unpublished memoir will be up after February 25,when the person handling it, John Tain, returns to his post there. I have no idea how to find a publisher for the memoir as it is both an historical account of the period and my personal experience being there. I agree I should have a Wikipedia page for myself and a Wikipedia page for The Feminist Art Journal which I could not get the Art Index to list at that time. As for now, I need an intern who can help me organize my digital files and help me distribute the FAJ to other archives which handle various arts, as the magazine covered theater, music, film, crafts and literature by women. As for the progress of women in the arts, we still have a very long way to go. Gloria Steinem nails it in the latest issue of Ms. Women are still under represented in all forms of work including art work. We still have a star system with only a few like Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic getting all the attention and the rest still ignored. I think the art of today is, for the most part made up of junk. It has appropriated its ideas from the much more interesting innovators, both male and female of the 70's. By the way Abramovic was not even on the scene when I wrote a seminal piece on body art. However, after all the other male body artists have moved on, she is happy to parade her naked self as a sex object. No wonder the folks at MOMA love her. Cindy Sherman who built her ideas on those of Eleanor Antin, is also not threatening to the status quo. Why has Alice Neel been completely ignored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum? How is it that everyone in the art world knows of Henry Moore, but not Barbara Hepworth? Only a few people know how important and innovative Sonia Delaunay was. Even Louise Nevelson has been ignored for many years. Only Judy Chicago reins as queen bee at the Brooklyn Museum. To me she deserves the dubious distinction of insisting that women of achievement should be remembered for their vaginas (or cunts as she would say). As in all the other political and economic movements that are stirring today, women in the arts must take a strong stand. Picket the museums again, have demonstrations, don't beg. Demand. It is important to start organizing women artists groups again and even, more important don't waste time and energy in petty bickering. or working to make yourself more important than any one else. If we work against each other, regressive forces are sure to pull us apart and dissipate the threat of action. I wish you lived in Brooklyn where I live. I really need help to get the message out once again.

Keep in touch,

Cindy Nemser


Dear Cindy,

       I am so happy to have heard back from you! I have to say I agree with your take on the art world today. There are some great women artists out there, but we have a long way to go. When I learned about an incredible black woman performance artist, Senga Nengudi, who in the 1970's was an important influence on David Hammons (now a prominent New York artist and a MacArthur Fellow), I was saddened that I had never heard a peep about her before, although I was very familiar with Abramovic. Why is it that women performance artists of today so often use the Abramovic tactic of baring their bodies? I can't help but observe that performance artists who perform nude or in provocative clothes happen to also be white, thin, and in general, stereotypically attractive. I do understand how important the body is as a tool to communicate, but I don't buy it that these women need to be so beautifully naked for their art. There's an unspoken pressure in the culture to be a "sexy female artist;" it's desirable-and marketable.
       When I first learned about the Dinner Party as a young woman I was so excited that it existed, but I feel Chicago's rhetoric is more divisive than productive, to say the least. And on and on! I feel that the power of big money in the galleries, museums, and auctions is responsible for stifling good art or exploiting young artists and thereby hampering their potential. The structures that cater to wealthy collectors or donors tidy things up so that it's difficult to really put a finger on the discrimination against women. But it's there! And the schools are certainly not immune to the pressures of the money in the art world. Reading your interview with Sophia Delaunay, I was struck by what she kept saying about art's relationship with money having changed. I had just read an interview with Duchamp from the sixties and he said the exact same thing. Although I couldn't come into town more than once every four or five weeks, I would gladly offer you what help I can with digital file organization and spreading the word about the Feminist Art Journal. In exchange I'd love to hear your memories of the beginnings of the feminist movement in art, and your thoughts about what can be done today. I've attached my resume to this email. I could also try to find an intern for you who lives closer to where you are. If you would like to meet up and discuss this idea, let me know, and we could figure out a weekend when I could come into Brooklyn. I'm curious about the Getty Research Institute archive. I'll have to take a look at it!

 All the best,

 Katherine Spencer