Mary Beth Edelson Biography: Wack! Art of the Feminist Revolution

by Linda Theung

MoCA, LA, MIT Press, 2007

Mary Beth Edelson
b. 1933, East Chicago, Indiana
Lives in New York

Mary Beth Edelson graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, in 1955. When faculty members removed her paintings from her senior-year exhibition on the ground that they were “degrading and an affront to ministers and small children,” a campus-wide protest ensued. Since that time, Edelson has continued to challenge the status quo. In her work, which involves diverse mediums, including painting, installation, photography, sculpture, performance, and collage, she frequently harvests images of women artists, goddesses, actresses, and her own body to challenge patriarchal culture. During the 1970s, she has remarked, her main interests were in “claiming the right to control, define, and enjoy my own body, . . . delving into the sacred . . . , [and] working toward social change in an asymmetrical culture making the political aspects of identity and the female body visible.”1

In the early 1970s, Edelson became an integral member of the feminist art movement and an active participant in feminist organizations such as A.I.R. Gallery and the Heresies Collective, both in New York. In 1971, she organized the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in Washington, D.C. She built on this work by producing a collage reproduced as a poster entitled Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1972), which would become one of the most iconic images of the feminist art movement. This work derived from a conceptual project entitled 22 Others, in which she invited other individuals to propose works for her to produce. The artist Ed McGowin proposed that she make a work on organized religion. For this work, she modified a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper by superimposing over the head of Christ a photograph of the head of Georgia O’Keeffe and over the heads of his disciples photographs of the heads of other living women artists, including Lee Krasner, Nancy Graves, and Louise Nevelson. She framed this central image with a border consisting of photographs of sixty-nine additional living women artists. Of this work, Edelson has written: “My intentions in publishing this poster [were] to identify and commemorate women artists, who were getting little recognition at the time, by presenting them as the grand subject—while spoofing the patriarchy for cutting women out of positions of power and authority. Even though the Last Supper is a Christian image, the point was to challenge all organized religion[s] to prove that they are no longer a major cultural force that subordinates women.”2 Widely reproduced and distributed, this work has inspired debate on the persistence of patriarchal conceptions of artistic creativity in art historical discourse.

In the mid-1970s, Edelson continued these investigations with the Trickster’s Body, Monstre Sacré, Exercising the Demons, and Transport series, in which she sought to create a sacred feminist practice by transforming her own self into goddesses, demons, and other mythical beings by drawing, painting, and collaging images over black-and-white photographs of her nude body.

Edelson resumed the production of posters in 1976 with a series on the death of the patriarchy. In Death of the Patriarchy/AIR (1976), she modified a reproduction of Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomical Lecture of Professor Nicolaes Tulp (1632) by giving its all-male figures new identities as A.I.R. members. She herself took the role of Tulp dissecting the corpse of the patriarchy, while other then-current A.I.R. members surround and view the dissection (an image of a framed picture in the upper-right corner includes photographs of former A.I.R. members). In Happy Birthday America (1976), originally commissioned to commemorate the publication of the first issue of the feminist magazine Chrysalis in Los Angeles, she reconfigured a reproduction of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Turkish Bath (1863) by superimposing over the heads of Ingres’ nude harem women the faces of contemporary women “art workers.” Surrounding this image is a collaborative text by Edelson and the art critic Arlene Raven that expresses the desire to create a women’s culture on its own terms. And in Bringing Home the Evolution (1978), based on the Swedish artist Gustaf Cederström’s history painting Bringing Home the Dead King Charles XII (1878), she portrayed a procession of women artists and critics led by Louise Bourgeois, who are carrying the corpse of the patriarchy in support of issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to antiracism.

By appropriating and then transforming iconic images from the history of art in her works of the 1970s, Edelson exposed the injustices experienced by women in both the art world and the sphere of the everyday. Since that decade, she has continued to explore these issues by producing a diverse variety of works, including a series in which she reconfigured images of Hollywood actresses to explore issues of female power, and by remaining active in collective groups such as WAC (Women’s Action Coalition) and CODAI (Committee on Diversity and Inclusion).

Linda Theung

1. Mary Beth Edelson, “Conversation With Carolee Schneemann,” in The Art of Mary Beth Edelson, exh. cat. (New York: Seven Cycles, 2002), 170–71.
2. Mary Beth Edelson, “Direct Access: Edelson Comments on the Last Supper,” in The Art of Mary Beth Edelson, 32e.

Selected Bibliography
Edelson, Mary Beth. Seven Cycles: Public Rituals. New York: A.I.R. Gallery, 1980. Introduction by Lucy R. Lippard.
———. Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums. New York: M. B. Edelson, 1990.
———. Mary Beth Edelson: Firsthand, Photographs by Mary Beth Edelson, 1973– 1993, and Shooter Series. New York: M. B. Edelson, 1993.
———, A. M. Trevelyan, A. R. Friedman, and E. A. Kaplan, eds. The Art of Mary Beth
Edelson. New York: Seven Cycles, 2002.
Mary Beth Edelson. New York: A.I.R. Gallery, 1975.
Mary Beth Edelson, New Work: An Ancient Thirst and a Future Vision. Pittsburgh: Hewlett Gallery, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1983.