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Martha Rosler: The Body Beautiful by Jovana Stokic

This essay explores Martha Rosler’s crucial engagement with media and consumer focused a critique of representations of female beauty since the late 1960s and early 70s and is published in-part from Jovana Stokic’s New York University Ph.D. dissertation Body Beautiful: Feminine Self-Representation 1970–2007. Body Beautiful situates Rosler’s photocollage of female naked bodies, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem, (1966-1972) in context with the 2007 exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. In addition, the essay presents an analysis of the different contexts in which this work was exhibited, and discusses its creation and consequent interpretations with regard to feminist theories of representation. Finally, a shift in Rosler’s representations—from two-dimensional to performative works both live and in video—trace her change in modes of self-representation.

From Body Beautiful: Feminine Self-Representation 1970–2007

In March 2007 the exhibition Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It as accompanied by an exhibition catalogue and dust jacket cover with a detail of Martha Rosler’s iconic photocollage of female naked bodies from Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem, (1966-1972). It created a huge outburst of critical responses.[1] Summing up the plethora of critical reactions in different mass media – from the exhibition website’s online forum to art magazines and daily papers – art historian Richard Meyer noted that the debate over the Wack! cover has become a prime site of interpretive conflict and controversy.[2] In effect, the ambitious exhibition that provided insight into the art made by more than one hundred and twenty international women artists from 1965 to 1980 received less controversial critical response, getting largely positive reviews in the art press. The Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition was the first large-scale international museum exhibition to showcase feminist art from this revolutionary era. It set at least a twofold goal: first, to function as a sort of cultural excavation project showcasing works that had not been seen within museum’s context in decades, arguing for the revision of the recent art history; second, to have a decisive impact on the present, (2007), a period in which women artists were under-represented in gallery and museum exhibitions. The controversies surrounding Rosler’s collage on the cover of the exhibition catalogue also serve as a point of departure for the analysis of Rosler’s critical practices vis-à-vis art institutions.

Martha Rosler's Body Beautiful, Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem (1966-72), on the cover of the catalogue for "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Martha Rosler’s Body Beautiful, Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem (1966-72), on the cover of the catalogue for “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Critics claimed that the collage, composed of photographs of naked women from Playboy magazines, undermined the exhibition’s feminist message and did not manage to “defetishize” the object quality of the photographed nude models. Their point was that Rosler’s collage Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem was made in the Vietnam era as a critique of contemporary pornographic display, and politics of representation in general, and, in this context, it became yet another slick commodification of the radical past.[3] Dozens of participants in an online forum hosted by the MoCA’a WACK! exhibition’s official website objected to this changed status of Rosler’s representation of naked female bodies. The crux of the problem was formulated in the following question: Is it possible, that the placement of the image – on the cover of a substantially priced exhibition catalogue that needed to be sold–deleted Rosler’s inherent critique of image consumerism and female objectification in mass media representations of the 1960s? Rather than attempt to answer the questions, let’s look closer at the different contexts in which this work was exhibited, its creation and its consequent incarnations.

As a young artist living first in New York and then San Diego, Rosler had started working on several groups of photocollages in the mid to late 1960s. She never considered these images a ‘series’, nor did they initially have titles. These groups later acquired the following titles: Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain (1966-72), Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful and Bringing the War Home: In Vietnam (both 1967-72). Meyer noted that these collages were never displayed or sold as art objects in the late 1960s or early 1970s: the original Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem photocollage “hung for several years above a couch in the artist’s San Diego studio and surfaced in reproduction in some of her slide lectures of the 1970s.”[4] The work’s creation and subsequent early existence outside of art institutions can be interpreted as a conscious strategy of resistance against these same institutions. These images among others, which reemerged as editioned photographs, are not securely dated, and evade an historicizing grasp. However, Rosler evoked a specific moment in North American popular culture since the women displayed contemporary beauty standards of the late 1960s: silicone-free breasts, big hairdos, and heavy eye make-up.

Martha Rosler, Hot House ou Harem, 1966-1972, dans la série : Beauty Knows No Pain ou Body Beautiful, 1966-1972

Martha Rosler, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem, 1966–72,
collage on paper, 20 x 48 1/2″

The crowding of the naked female bodies in the representational field of Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem became analogous with the mass production of monthly porn magazines such as Playboy in which bodies are made disposable with every new issue. Rosler made absurd the abundance of female flesh by creating an over-all composition in which the bodies are decontextualized from their supposed staged media created environments. In Rosler’s collage, women are stripped from their enforced narrative and/or pictorial contexts (in the magazine) and their female act of submission to an audience is overproduced. Instead, by the compositional space with an abundance of overlapping female nudes, Rosler opposed the inflection of the male gaze and awakened a wave of naked female defiance.

Since it’s original placement on Rosler’s wall above her couch and then the cover of the WACK! exhibition catalog, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem reappeared in a diametrically opposed context — as a part of the grand international exhibition Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007. [5] The work was displayed in one of the oldest exhibition venues, the majestic Schloss Wilhelmshöhe’s somber and dark hall. This curatorial decision seemed to echo a manner in which erotica was discreatly hidden in gentleman’s cabinets of the nineteenth century. Shown among precious old world miniatures on view in vitrines in the semi-darkened Museum, Rosler’s ‘cheap-nudie’ photocollage gained an aura of forbidden fruit, symbolically recalling the strategic placement of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde, 1866) in a domestic or non-institutional setting.[6]

Placed in this context, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem emphasized the irreverent nature of representations of the female nude regarded as taboo or inappropriate in Western art history. Rosler’s work seems to undermine the construction of the female nude as the visual culmination of enlightenment aesthetics. Linda Nead, in her formative study, Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, asserted that the female nude operated through the guise of aesthetics, precisely, as a container to enframe and control the threat of unbridled female sexuality.[7] Feminist art historians argued that aesthetics, in this light, can be viewed precisely as a strategic mode of discourse that operated to cohere the male subject, always anxious about the perceived power of female sexuality and social access. As an object safely contained within guise of representation, and commodified as a painterly or sculpted object, the female nude is presumably made docile, an object of exchange between men (artist, patron, viewer). By showing Rosler’s female nudes within this context of a museum’s dark chamber the curator exaggeratedly mimicked these exchanges. At the same time, the work’s brazen banality and absurd excess of the female flesh has disrupted all of them.

As Rosler’s female nudes exploded from their original contexts—the realm of male fantasy played out on the pages of Playboy—and formed into an unbounded group photo, another feminist artist offered an interesting exit strategy. Mary Beth Edelson, feminist pioneer and an artist represented in the WACK! exhibition responded to this critical controversy by appropriating Rosler’s work. She made a poster in which she pasted head shot images of the artists in the WACK! exhibition over the faces of the women in Rosler’s original photocollage. The hilariously parodic image that Edelson created with Rosler’s image as it’s inspiration dovetails into a look at self-representation in art.

Mary Beth Edelson Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper 1971. "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Mary Beth Edelson, Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper, 1971. “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Rosler’s Self-Representations in Video

In her years at the University of California, San Diego in the early 1970s, Rosler encountered the work of French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard, who visited the art department. His radical approach to deconstructed narrative directly influenced Rosler. Art house film’s defiance of commercial logic in the film industry was another aspect important to Rosler’s thinking about the unorthodox modes of production and circulation of her artworks. Her engagement with the aesthetic, political, psycho-social, and performative aspects of film and video influenced her feminist art practice at a time when establishing a critical use of video rather than television was shifting.[8]

Rosler’s Vital Statistics of a Citizen Simply Obtained (1973) was first conceived as a theatrical-style performance, and then transposed into a video, as an autonomous art work in 1977. The voice-over in the introductory of the forty minute color video introduces the work as “an opera in three acts.” The video, was neither a musical nor a documentary. In the film, men in white medical coats measure a naked woman exhaustively. She explored a specific social aspect of gazing and notions of “measuring up” in society to investigate underlying questions and concerns of female beauty objectification, gender roles in society, and body subjectivity.

Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained

The interpretation of her performative presence is reinforced by the origin of the work as a live performance. Rosler first performed Vital Statistics of a Citizen Simply Obtained at the University of California, San Diego in 1973, where she gradually disrobed at the coaxing of medical functionaries so that they could take measurements in an effort to categorize her body. The performance was a raw, silent strip-tease — a poignant image of a woman being judged by a team of two men and three female assistants in front of an audience. As if the performance were a strip-tease, a room full of spectators watched as a man directed Rosler to remove her clothing. As a video the work had a different affect. The stationary camera, a 20-minute take, as well as various voice-overs, changed the work’s spacio-temporal sensibility. Ultimately, the live performance and video, appeared as opposite poles of presentation: physically close and conceptually removed. Rosler neither represented a character, persona, nor role. Instead, she was performing subjectivity in a manner that attempted to avoided autobiographical representation. Rosler insisted that when a work includes feminist content, and the artist is female, it becomes increasingly important to avoid solipsistic, autobiographical narratives.

Rosler’s critique of female narcissism has been one of the most discussed aspects of her strategy. She had to figure out a way to unleash the power of the first person narrative without resorting to narcissistic self-obsession. To emphasize this Rosler never used first person narration in Vital Statistics of a Citizen Simply Obtained. As the interrogation began off screen (in audio) and she sat with a male (doctor) who asked her questions — sex, (female) age (33), race, (Caucasian) — Rosler was being continuously measured on screen. For Rosler, the most important operation here was dialectical in nature; she enabled herself to be the subject and object simultaneously. She explained this split as the “[d]ifferences between uses of ‘I’ and ‘she…’ When ‘she’ is used in performance, the resulting self-distancing inclines the work toward illustration; it’s not so much an individual story. With ‘I,’ one directly confronts a self, one tends more to quarrel with what is said.”[9] Her interruptive strategy lies within the split between embodied presence and disembodied voiceover (narrator and main on-screen protagonist).

Rosler’s video remains much more complex than simply a denunciation of female narcissism. In addition to its implications of patriarchal societies’ role in creating women’s narcissistic self-scrutiny, the video also highlights Rosler’s methods of representation. By using her own body Rosler explores the links between the performative and the personal. Rosler demonstrated the artist’s control over her representation. In doing so, she emphasized self-representation’s transcendence from a portrayal of female narcissism to self and societal criticism.[10]

Rosler never escaped the use of her own voice and persona, and therefore, these works show her own susceptibility to ubiquitous media images. Her self-portrait achieves a double goal – that of showing she is not immune to formative fashion and lifestyle magazines, but is one to resist it by acknowledging their powers. Her ironic gesture of using her own image is her way of smashing stereotypes. Her strategy was to represent the inextricable relationship between personal and political and to use this to obliterate idealized conceptions that harbored both realms.

Women Artists at the Millennium

The resurgence of interest in Feminist art is, according to Rosler, “Nice, but we still haven’t solved the problem.”[11] At the core of her contemporary analytic work there are still issues of exploitation, oppression, gender, and class, as she documents a “social landscape” developed to promote endless consumption, particularly on the part of women. In the early 2000s, Rosler revisited her famous group of photocollages from the late 1960s, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967–72), where she reassembled images from Life, House Beautiful, and other mainstream American magazines— inserting found images of U. S. military involvement in Vietnam—and then re-photographed them. The results were collaged images of mutilated Vietnamese war victims amid models surrounded by the luxury designer furniture. Cut out, displaced, glued, and photographed to be reintroduced, the collaged elements reveal what underlies the imagery of consumption. Between 2000–2008, a U. S. “Gilded Age” of both consumerist and imperial misadventure, Rosler purposely used a similar representational strategy to emphasize that many things have not changed since the 1960s and 70s. Her photocollage Point and Shoot (2008), juxtaposes documentary photos from Iraq with a model from an upscale glamorous fashion magazine. In the foreground of the composition the fashion model is shown carrying a camera that is pointed at the viewer, while the U. S. soldier points toward an Iraqi woman and her infant son in the background; presumably she is also a target. The photocollages produced open spaces that offer themselves to recipients as places for finding their own meaning. Rosler’s work consistently exhibits hopefulness that her efforts will reach their audience and raise a new critical consciousness.

Jovana Stokic is a Belgrade-born, New York-based art historian and critic. She holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Her dissertation, titled “The Body Beautiful: Feminine Self-Representations 1970 – 2007,” analyzes  works of several women artists – Marina Abramovic, Martha Rosler, Joan Jonas — since the 1970s, particularly focusing on the notions of self-representation and beauty.  Jovana has been writing art criticism for several years, and has curated several thematic exhibitions and performance events in the US, Italy, Spain and Serbia. Jovana was a fellow at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, a researcher at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the curator of the Kimmel Center Galleries, New York University.  She has most recently written an essay for Marina Abramovic’s MoMA exhibition catalog.

[1] The Wack! Art and Feminist Revolution exhibition at the The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (March 4–July 16, 2007). The catalogue, edited by Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, was co-published by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the MIT Press.

[2] Richard Meyer, “Feminism Uncovered: Richard Meyer on the “WACK!” Catalogue,” Artforum, Summer 2007.

[3] Holland Cotter, in the review of the WACK! exhibition in the New York Times, commented that the catalogue jacket “needs rethinking,” noting that “Martha Rosler’s sardonic collage of Playboy centerfolds loses its point out of context and turns into just another sex-sells pitch.” Holland Cotter, “The Art of Feminism as It First Took Shape,” The New York Times, March 9, 2007.

[4]R. Meyer, op.cit.

[5] The Documenta 12 exhibition was held in Kassel (June 16–September 23, 2007) under artistic direction of
Roger M. Buergel, and Ruth Noack. Their concept included the strategy of “excavation”: they presented several women artists’ works from the 1960s and 70s: Tanaka Atsuko, Mary Kelly, Zofia Kulik, Lee Lozano, Eleanor Antin, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Martha Rosler.

[6]The first owner of The Origin of the World, who it was likely commission by, was the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey (183–1879). It also famously belonged to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The Origin of the World epitomized the paradox of a famous painting that was seldom seen.

[7] Linda Nead , Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, (London: Routledge, 1992).

[8] Rosler’s close friend, David Antin published an article in Artforum on the relationship between video art and television. “Television, Video’s Frightful Parent.” Along with Antin, Rosler was interested in dispelling institutionalization of the video – as a bona fide art object – single channel projected image in the gallery.

[9] Martha Rosler, Interview with Jane Weinstock, pp.91-92.

[10] Rosler was aware of many different representational strategies that undermined female narcissism by women artists in the 1970s. One is Vital statistics – in relation to iconic Eleanor Antin’s representation of her own body: Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which Antin photographed her naked body at successive stages during a month of crash-dieting.

[11] Martha Rosler, transcript.



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This entry was posted on July 21, 2013 by in Volume 2, Issue 1: Women and tagged , , .
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