The Spiritual Dynamic In Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

Charlene Spretnak

excerpted from the book, pp.164-165

Working in multiple media, Mary Beth Edelson (b. 1933) was a pioneer in the feminist art of the 1970s that challenged the modern severance of female subjectivity from its deep connections with the origins of religion and the roots of culture. As the art critic Donald Kuspit noted in an essay for an exhibition of her paintings, "The result is a synergistic art-an efflorescence of ritual acts, primitivizing drawings with secret intellectual intention and sophistication, and 'grand machines,' not always in scale but in the ambition of their message." In addition to site-specific outdoor sculptural works and installation works in galleries, Edelson's photographic works include several collages; the Body Works series; The Nature of Balancing series shot on the coast of Maine; several photographs of woman-in-nature that were shot in Montauk, Long Island; and Grapceva Neolithic Cave, shot in a cave on the Croatian island of Hvar in which neolithic Goddess figurines had been excavated. According to the The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, "By helping to create a new feminist aesthetic, Edelson has contributed to the transformation of art history .... In an extensive photographic series, her cloaked body is staged in nature and negotiates both spiritual and political aims in these surroundings."51 In the late 1980s, Edelson's work was targeted by young feminist art critics schooled during the most aggressive days of deconstructionist postmodernism. They considered her interest in spirituality to be repugnant, but they focused mainly on castigating her during public panel discussions in New York for choosing to make art about the subject of women-and-nature, which, according to their dualistic ideology of extreme social determinism, removes women from the possibility of being agents of culture. During a talk given in fall 1988 in Chicago, the art critic Thomas McEvilley surprisingly accepted these ideological charges-asserting that Edelson's and others' "Goddess-related feminist art of the '70s had unintentionally been complicit" with the "male conspiracy" to keep women out of culture. Edelson happened to be in the audience and responded with an informative article in New Art Examiner about the art and artists under discussion, ''An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley."52 In recent years, retrospective exhibitions of Edelson's work have been mounted in European art museums.

51. Sandra Sider, "Mary Beth Edelson," in Joan M. Marter, ed. , The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, I (New York: oXford University Press, 2011), 136-137.

52. Edelson, "An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley," New Art Examiner, April 1989.