Pick any day in the 72 years of Judith Bernstein's life to walk in her shoes and you'll find yourself in world that's so unique and inspiring, and definitely not for the faint of heart. From a young artist dealing with discrimination against women in the 1960s, to not showing her work for 25 years due to that infamous "censorship" incident, Judith is a woman who finally is getting the recognition she deserves. It was an honor to sit with Judith in her Chinatown studio and hear her story.
I came from a very small town in New Jersey. It’s maybe two hours from New York, but it could have been in Australia. It was that far away in many ways. My parents had a very bourgeois life, and I knew I didn’t want that. I wanted to get the hell out of that place.
My ambition was greater than a small town.
I went to Penn State in 1960 as an undergraduate student. It was very much a football school and there were three men to every woman. That shows you how long ago that was. The school took me to another place.
After I left Penn State, I went to Yale as a graduate student. They only allowed women to attend as graduate students because it was an all male school for undergraduates. I was already in the male heirachy without even realizing it. The head of the art school said "we can’t place women", meaning in teaching roles because many people went to the art school at Yale to teach in academia. It was a venue where you could do your artwork and still teach.
When I left Yale, I was like a lot of women. We got degrees, but then what the hell do we do with them? We didn’t have access to the system. In 1972, there was a group of 4 women who got together and started the first all women’s gallery. It was a co-op, not a regular commercial gallery. Lucy Lippard, who is a famous art critic had a file of a lot of women artists working at the time. Twenty women were picked from the group. I was taken on right away because I was doing work they hadn’t seen before.
At the time, we couldn’t figure out what to name the gallery. I suggested ‘TWAT’ - twenty women artists together. I was ahead of my time! At the time I wasn’t really serious about that terminology but it was great in hindsight.
When you’re young, you think that anything is possible. We were very naive, but all these women got together and we wanted to show our work. The critics were very sympathetic to the woman artist, and a lot of critics were women, so they knew all of the impediments we had. We got a lot of press. New York is the best place for press. That’s how I started in 1972. Then I had the first one person show at A.I.R. Gallery in 1973.
Can we go back a bit … why did you choose art as a career?
My father was a Sunday painter. He was a teacher. I got a lot of kudos as a kid because I could draw. My father said ‘go to college and take art education’, because you have to be in education to make a living. The idea was also that I was a girl so I didn’t really have to worry about getting too much education or making money because I would get married. This was the 1960s. I never got married. It wasn’t something my parents could understand at the time, they thought I would live the life that they had.
I find it fascinating that you recognized that your family was from this bourgeois background, but that life wasn’t for you …
I had an enormous amount of energy as a child. You can see how much I have now at 72! I didn’t know anything about the larger world, but still I knew I didn’t want to be in this small town. I didn’t want my parents' life. My mother was very angry about her life. She knew she didn’t want to be the wife that she was, and she felt that she was put upon cleaning the house and doing all those things. I guess I took on some of that, you integrate stuff you don’t even realize.
It’s funny where life takes you if you just go with it. My parents wanted me to go home after Penn State because I had gotten a Masters of Art Education. I had taken twice the credit load as an undergraduate, so I had 2 degrees in 4 years. They said ‘why do you need another Masters?’
I wanted a bigger life, but I never really thought that I would get it to be quite honest. I always taught. I’ve taught for over 30 years. I made a living teaching at the College of Purchase, and I also taught for the last 15 years at Queen’s College. I worked a couple of days a week.
What did your mom think of your work?
When I told her my work was censored she said ‘is that because it looks like something else?’ I said ‘mom, you got it’. My mother was a very puritanical woman, and even she got the work.
What about your dad?
My father was alive only part of the time, he died when I was 26. I was doing raw graffiti work when I was a student at Yale and he thought it was just a phase. He didn’t realize what it was about, or what art was about.
But my father was very supportive of me and what I wanted to do. He loved my humor, so I got an enormous amount of kudos for my humor, and my work deals with a lot of that. It takes out the onus of what you’re saying by being funny.
Never go with what your parents want. You’re an individual, go somewhere else. I didn’t have any help to do this, I just knew my parents had a bad marriage. They screamed and yelled all the time, as a result I scream and yell through my work to be heard. There is so much that you take away from whatever background you come from, whether you’re fighting it or you’re going with it.
It can be very hard to do, it’s brave what you did.
At the time I just couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand where I was at, or my parents' home. I did the only thing I could do. They say that the first child is more adventuresome, that may or may not be the case. I’m the oldest child and my younger brother is a Judge in New Jersey. I just wanted to be away from my parents, and from my background.
I came from a very conservative and fearful home. My personality... I think there’s an enormous amount of raw and explosiveness in my own personality that couldn’t be contained. It didn’t appear for me to be an option to stay. I felt strangled in my own background.
Do you feel like you’re living that big life now?
Look around, does this look like the big life? [Laughs]
I think that I lived the life I wanted. I never took a job outside of New York, except on a very temporary basis. I’ve lived in New York since 1967. I think that I had a life that I wanted as an artist doing the work I wanted. I always taught part time, I never worked full time because no one would give me a job!
In the 1970s you could live on nothing, you could live on air, water and flowers. At the time I paid $175 a month to live in this loft. It was a different time. New York was in a depression and the art world was a much smaller place.
In the art world then it was all about minimal art and a lot of other sensibilities that weren’t my own. I went into one gallery and said ‘I want to show you my slides, I’m doing this sexual and political work’. The man there said ‘I’m not the gallery dealer, but I’d love to see your slides’.
What’s been extraordinary now, is there’s been a validation of my work. When I first started I was censored in Philadelphia from a show that was called ‘Women’s Work’. Horrible title. I was censored by Mayor Rizzo who was very conservative. They were all aghast at the subject matter, my work was large scale drawings that were a mixture of a screw and a phallus. They were my idea of feminism, observing the men … mine is bigger than yours … it was about war, sexuality, and feminism.
How did you feel when you were censored from the show? Was it at least good in terms of publicity?
It was a double-edged sword. You get publicity but you’re like a pariah. No-one wants the bad girl … they want the bad guy! Only recently do they want the bad girl. I wasn’t getting any galleries interested, because they couldn’t sell my work. It also didn’t help in terms of me getting a job, I was teaching part time so I couldn’t get tenure.
After that big incident in Philadelphia I didn’t show my work in New York for almost 25 years. It was very depressing because I was spending my time and energy teaching and I was not valued in my work as a teacher or my work as an artist. It was a depressing time for me.
What made you keep going?
I knew my work was good. After a while though I did think ‘hey, maybe I’m delusional’, because so many people think their work is good and the fact is that’s not always the case. I saved all my work because I’m a pack rat which worked in my favor. In 2008 Mitchell Algus Gallery in New York gave me a show. His mission was to show artists that didn’t get their due and that's when things started really happening for me.
However, I was still a pariah in terms of many feminists who felt that if the work is not self referential then it’s not feminism. It’s a very limited idea of what feminist art could be.
I got a lot of traction with the Mitchell Algus show. Paul McCarthy came to New York because he was interested in an artist named Robert Mallary that Mitchell Algus had shown, so they went up to see the work. In the process he saw my show and wanted to buy some pieces. It turned out his daughter was running a gallery that is backed by Paul in California called The Box. When she came to New York she offered me a show. It was extraordinary. She said ‘I’d like to come to your studio tomorrow’, which was my birthday but I had to teach at this high school in the Bronx. I said ‘I don’t think I can do it tomorrow, maybe another time’. Then I thought, what am I talking about, am I crazy? I called her back immediately, and we had a deal. I had a show at The Box, a lot of things happened as a result of that. I got shows at the New Museum, the ICA in London, Studio Voltaire in London, Gaven Brown New York, PS1, The Whitney, and of course, a three month long exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery … it was mind boggling.
Did you feel vindicated?
I loved it! Yes! You know something, people always say you have to have that validation within yourself, and it’s true. But I will tell you though, it does make a big difference to get that validation from others. It also changes the way people treat you, they treat you a hell of a lot better when you’re more well known, they take your calls, they call you up and don’t waste your time, they put you in shows, and they give you opportunities to show your work. That’s the greatest thing. For example I had a show at Studio Voltaire, they offered me the opportunity to show in a repurposed church, and without that I would never had made those pieces.
John Reynolds (Judith's assistant): It was an onsite installation. Everything was made there.
So it was a catalyst for new work?
What about feminism? Has it changed in terms of what it means to you from when you started?
Oh god, 50 years is a hell of a long time.
It’s been such a big conversation again recently, and there are so many negative connotations that seem to have been put onto it. You start to think, has the public misunderstood what feminism is if it’s so negative?
When the first wave came out in the 1970s, everyone said ‘I’m not a feminist’. What? You’re not for equal pay for equal work? You don’t think women should have equal access to the system? It had such a bad connotation, the thought that you can’t get anything on your own moxie, you can only get things by saying I’m a feminist and you beat the drum with that. It was that attitude that so many people have taken with them. As opposed to the whole system is against you and you can’t fight the whole system.
When I finished Yale I went to Connecticut College for Women for a job interview. They said the only reason they would hire a woman is because in the classroom they wanted women to model nude and they didn’t want a male in the class.
At a women's’ college?
Yes, and of course they also said ‘we’ll have to pay you $1000 less than the men’. At that time it was not against the law.
The times have changed. Obama is the President of the United States and he is a black man. That is extraordinary. It doesn’t mean there isn’t prejudice against black people but it means we’ve come a long way.
My work is not just about feminism, it’s about my observations. Now I’m exploring the psyche of women. The rage that women have as well as my own rage.
Corbet’s ‘The Origin of the World’ is a very passive image. I also did the birth of the universe but it’s explosive and dynamic … it’s the center, it’s the black hole, it’s the big bang. I’m also dealing how things have changed. It’s a continuum, nothing remains the same. When I was a child in the 1950s, I thought that life would be all fixed up by the time I would be an adult. That is not the case. Things keep changing. Your work is different in the context of what it was in that period of time.
When you look back at your life, what are the most important things in it? Your relationships? your work? What stands out?
The biggest relationship I’ve had is with my work, that’s the reality, but I’ve had a lot of good friendships, people who mean a lot to me. I’ve also had people who work with me, like John who has been extraordinary. I love him, it’s very familial.
It’s also been great to have a lot of feminist support, in terms of my friends who are feminists who love my work and love me and helped me.
Even when I was working two days a week I was living the life I wanted. I have a rent stabilized loft, and that has allowed me to be in New York and have a career here.
Do you think you could have had this career anywhere else?
Forget about it. You have to realize that you have to be in the right place at the right time. Now I have the zeitgeist, it’s a time when it’s raw. People say fuck, and cockface and cuntface. Cunt is the last bastion! Never the less, I could not have had what I had without having been in New York. It’s not just about being in New York in terms of my career, it’s about the dialogue. The kind of things that you see all the time … the best artwork, museums and galleries. It’s the visual stimulation as well as what you read. I like the energy, and the street life. I like the chaos here in Chinatown.
You don’t realize how much everything adds up to what you do. Life adds up. My own work goes into the subconscious, the graffiti is much deeper than you would think. When men and women are in bathrooms writing graffiti, they are defecating and it’s letting go of their head. They’re writing anonymous things that no one will ever judge them on. There is a lot of subconscious stuff that goes on. That’s why the work sticks so much, because of that impact and that humor. Humor to me is like an ejaculation. Not quite the same but it’s not bad. [Laughs]
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Don’t hold back! If you want to do something, do it. You assume that you’ll get rewarded for it but that’s not always the case. But if you want do it, don’t hold back. You have to take that risk. Do it now. Don’t wait.
Also, there’s a right time for everything. When I was younger, I thought time would expand to my needs, I was clueless. That doesn’t happen.
View more of Judith's work at The Mary Boone Gallery.