As one of the founders of New York City's A.I.R. Gallery, the first-ever all-female art gallery in the United States, artist Judith Bernstein had a career that seemed to be on the rise in the early 1970s. The Newark-born, Yale-educated artist made bold, erotic large-scale charcoal drawings of phalluses that stood apart from the clean, conceptual minimalist works that populated galleries at the time. But when one of these pieces, a scratchy, mural-size illustration of a screw-shaped phallus titled Horizontal , was censored from the 1974 show "Women's Work" in Philadelphia, Bernstein had trouble getting her graphic art into galleries.
It wasn't until decades later, in 2008, that gallerist Mitchell Algus gave Bernstein a solo show in New York and Paul McCarthy fell in love with her work and exhibited her at his West Coast gallery the Box. Suddenly, Bernstein's long-underrated art was being given positive reviews at contemporary galleries, and from there, her textured penises, anti-war paintings, and vaginal icons made their way into the collections of the Whitney, MoMA, and the Jewish Museum, among others. Today, the art world is just beginning to recognize Bernstein as a trailblazer in erotic art, and her work that was once relegated to storage has a newfound audience.
Bernstein has a new exhibition titled "Dicks of Death" at Mary Boone Gallery in January. We sat down in her cluttered, dick-drawing-filled Chinatown loft to discuss how the meaning and acceptance of her work has changed over time.
Hazel Cills: What sort of work can people expect to see in your new show?
Judith Bernstein: I had a show in the spring called "Birth of the Universe." All the paintings were about women being the center, where they should be! [ Laughs .] It was about depicting how the universe started using, frankly, big cunts. I use that word because it has a sort of shock value, but it's also something when, if used many times, it becomes less shocking. It was about the birth process and the Big Bang, so there were a lot of sexual metaphors.
The show that's opening on the 9th of January is actually much more geared toward another time frame. It's tied to my "Fuck Vietnam" work but also includes work that addresses the present. It's called "Dicks of Death," which is actually a slang term the army uses for "franks and beans." There are works like my 1968 piece Union Jack-Off Policy on Vietnam , which was about a lot of rage and the draft, using a lot of sexual metaphors and castrated penises. But I also have new pieces that address the political situation currently. It's a show that's very geared toward warfare.