Entry in "The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Vol. 1" ed. Joan M. Marter

by Sandra Sider (pp. 136-137)

Edelson, Mary Beth
(b. East Chicago, IN, 1933). American feminist artist.

Feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson has created numerous private rituals, as well as installations and performances around the world relating to the “Great Goddess.” Edelson became famous in the early 1970s among members of the Women’s Movement for her collaged poster parodying Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper titled Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, in which she replaced the central figure of Christ with Georgia O'Keeffe, and images of the disciples with women artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, and Yoko Ono. The original poster is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Edelson is also a painter and book artist, with artist’s books featured in several Book as Art exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. Recurring themes throughout her career have been female identity, how women are portrayed in art and the media, and women’s recognition as artists. By helping to create a new feminist aesthetic, Edelson has contributed to the transformation of art history. The artist has been married three times, her last husband being Alfred H. Edelson, CEO of Rytex. She has a son with him and a daughter from her second marriage. After her third marriage ended, the artist Robert Stackhouse lived with Edelson for 27 years. Her honors include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1999 and 2006), grants from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a Yaddo Residency.

Edelson’s opposition to the patriarchal establishment began while she was a senior at DePauw University, where she received her B.A. in 1955. Campus-wide protests erupted after several faculty members criticized the work in her solo exhibition as degrading, and demanded that it be removed. Shortly afterwards Edelson moved to New York, graduating from New York University with a master’s degree in 1958 and becoming involved with the Civil Rights Movement and the nascent Women’s Movement. She moved to Washington, DC, in 1968, where she organized the first national Conference for Women in the Visual Arts. Returning to New York in the seventies, Edelson joined the feminist A.I.R. Gallery and became a founding member of the Heresies Collective. Edelson’s oeuvre includes body art and performances in which she was both the photographer and the performer critiquing and celebrating female identity. In her 1973 photographic grouping titled O’Kevelson, the artist manipulated self-portraits with a China marker until she resembled Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson. In another extensive photographic series her cloaked body is staged in nature, and negotiates both spiritual and political aims in these surroundings.

Private rituals performed by Edelson pioneered the feminist Goddess culture. Edelson introduced rituals of fire circles and fire ladders into New York galleries, notably her 1977 Memorial to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era at A.I.R. Gallery, with the intention of empowering women who attended these events. Similar to photographer Cindy Sherman, Edelson has appropriated themes and imagery from Hollywood’s depictions of women. Edelson has often focused on dramatic images of women, for example in her 2002 artist’s book with a collaged image of The Last Temptation of Lorena Bobbitt in which Bobbitt holds her husband’s bloody penis that she has severed. The same type of powerful, avenging female can be seen in Edelson’s images of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and renewal. Today the artist remains committed to feminist activist groups, and was engaged on several levels with the traveling exhibition curated by Connie Butler, WACK! Art of the Feminist Revolution (2007-2009).

At the beginning of the present century, Edelson began assembling a monumental publication on her life and work, The Art of Mary Beth Edelson, 2002 which includes essays by several colleagues, conversations with artists and reproductions of her drawings, collages, story gathering boxes, installations, chiffons, wall paintings, paintings, unique books, performances, activism and conceptual projects. In her essay “Shifting Signs,” Laura Cottingham summarized Edelson’s contribution as “her engagement in producing images of female representation that seek to disrupt and transform the patriarchal pictorial codes that define and limit female identity.” That disruption extends to patriarchal systems in general, including established religion, from which Edelson has appropriated some of her most effective imagery.

Edelson’s work has been acquired by numerous museums, including the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Malmö Kunstmuseum in Sweden. In 2006 the Malmö mounted A Life Well Lived: A Retrospective of Mary Beth Edelson’s Work which traveled to Migros Museum, Zurich.

(also see http://www.marybethedelson.com)
M.B. Edelson, L. R. Lippard, intro.: Seven Cycles: Public Rituals (New York, 1980)
C. Spretnak, ed.: The Politics of Women's Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (New York, 1982)
G. Battcock and R. Nickas: The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology (New York, 1983)
L. Lippard: Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York, 1983))
E. Heartney: ‘Mary Beth Edelson at A/C Project Room and Nicole Klagsbrun’ (exh. review), Art in America 81 (October 1993), pp. 128-129.
N. Broude and M.D. Garrard, ed.: The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York, 1994)
M.S. Armstrong, A. Conley, K.C.H. Nahum: Original Visions: Shifting the Paradigm, Women’s Art 1970-1996 (exh. cat., Chestnut Hill, MA, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1997)
H. Robinson: Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000 (Malden, MA, 2001) M.B. Edelson and A.M. Trevelyan, eds.: The Art of Mary Beth Edelson ,(New York, 2002)
G. Kimball: Women’s Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution (Lanham, MD, 2005)
J. Wark: Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art (Montreal, 2006) Gender Battles (Santiago da Compostela, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea, 2007)
WACK! Art of the Feminist Revolution (x Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007)
It’s Time for Action (There’s no Option) About Feminism, (Migros Museum, Zurich, 2007)

Sandra Sider