Fade To Blue / 3 Short Films for Sutor Mantelassi
CHITCHAT (unfinished): A strange meditation on gossip.
Kids Of America a series of ID spots for MTV (1998). The first films I directed. Verite portraits of music fans. Shot across the country on beautiful Super 8 by Tobin Yelland.
By Aaron Rose for ANP Quarterly
Dorothy Ianonne passed away this week. Here’s a piece I wrote about her a few years ago. She was one of my favorite artists. May we all be so brave.
On a recent trip to Berlin I had the pleasure of encountering, This Sweetness Outside of Time, a retrospective survey of the work of Dorothy Iannone at the Berlinische Gallery. A fantastic exhibition, it traces her work through various stages of what I consider a most profound journey. Since she started painting in 1959, Iannone has challenged contemporary culture through her singular artistic voice as well as her radical sensibility. She has occupied herself with the attempt to represent what she calls ecstatic love: “the union of gender, feeling and pleasure”. Today, her oeuvre encompasses paintings, drawings, collages, videos, sculptures, objects and publications. While she is considered a contemporary of early feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Sylvia Sleigh who sought to counter sexism with a distinctly feminine aesthetic, Iannone has charted a different path. Her work is deeply personal and unmistakably feminine yet seems blissfully unconcerned with dismantling the trappings of patriarchy. In her world, women and men are both governed by the dictates of erotic passion. Walking though the museum I couldn’t help thinking of how I had seen examples of Iannone’s work before, but never in such broad context, and I would most certainly consider this new discovery life-changing. While still in Berlin, I immediately got on the phone and attempted to secure an interview with her, however due to her increasing age, she politely declined my request. Of course, this was a major blow. It is not often that I feel such a need to meet a person directly and pick their brain. However, undeterred, I decided to do the research myself. Nearing deadline on this issue, I knew her work was the missing piece in this magazine. The words following here contain a somewhat abridged account of the wonderful life and work of Dorothy Iannone. This is only the beginning. I did the best that I could, but I highly suggest you research further.
Dorothy Iannone was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1933. She is the only child of an Italian-immigrant widowed mother, who worked in a chocolate factory when Dorothy was young. In the early 1950’s, she attended both Boston University and Brandeis University, choosing to study English Literature. In 1958, she married the Abstract Expressionist painter James Upham and the couple moved to New York City. The following year, when she was 26, she began to paint alongside her him. She has described her early works as “finger paintings”, and she did not necessarily take the works very seriously, yet something was born in her during that time. Even then, she was no stranger to controversy. In 1961, Iannone was arrested by US Customs for importing the banned novels of Henry Miller, and subsequently won a court case against the authorities. Her actions led to the government lifting the ban on all his novels in the USA, and overturning the censorship of many other authors.
In 1963, Iannone and Upham opened the Stryke Gallery, an exhibition space on 10th Street. At the time, 10th Street was the center for avant garde galleries in New York City. Together, they ran the gallery when they were not traveling and working on projects in Europe and Asia. It was during one of these travels, in 1967, after a cruise to Reykjavik, Iceland, that she met the German artist Dieter Roth. She claims that Roth was “waiting for them on a pier, holding a fish.” Iannone and Roth quickly became lovers, and after a brief return to New York, she and her husband separated. She quickly moved to Dusseldorf to be with him. They remained companions until 1974, and lifelong friends until his death in 1998. During their time together they were immersed in the vibrant Fluxus scene, although she would later inscribe on a piece: ‘I am she who is not Fluxus.’ Iannone often painted Roth, her self-declared muse, depicting both him and herself as active lovers, comfortable with their desires and pleasures. She removed self-consciousness from these works, and in doing this, dispelled the taboo that so often surrounds sexuality. The works becoming elevated to an act of both bodily and spiritual union. Between 1968-1969 Dorothy Iannone made a series of 27 drawings depicting her life with Dieter Roth. Dorothy described this period as “always immersed in the beloved.” She called this series of drawings Ta(Rot). In them, Dieter Roth was also known as Dieter Rot. The drawings are beautiful, romantic, and personal.
In her 1972 work, “Think You There Was...”, a woman bends over backward as a man penetrates her. The woman’s bright red nipples, which jut upward, are the same shape as the man’s penis and almost as long. As the two bodies fuse in an indeterminate space, the man appears to be behind the woman, but his genitals float flatly on top of the painting. It’s hard to say who is penetrating who. Additionally, in an early series of small wooden cutouts from 1966, which she simply titled “People”, Iannone featured a cast of famous names and mythological beings including among them Charlie Chaplin and JFK, Henry VIII and Jackie O Kennedy. In the works, genitals poke through their clothes and the men look like they’re wearing strap-ons. The figures, rendered crudely with felt tip pens on cut out cardboard, were cheeky, funny, comical and thereby critical of the subjects they portrayed.
In 1968, Iannone was invited to exhibit alongside Deiter Roth in an exhibition called “Friends” at the Kunsthalle Bern. Harry Szeemann, the curator of the exhibition, along with some of the other artists in the exhibition found the clearly identifiable images in Iannone’s paintings a bit too drastic. In response to this, before the opening, the artist covered the genitals with brown tape. This is quite amazing considering this was the age of the sexual revolution. After some argument though, the artists realized that they were foolish and decided to remove the tape, but the museum held firm. They requested that the offending paintings be removed from the exhibition. This led both Iannone and Roth to remove all of their works from the exhibition, creating a controversy throughout the art world at the time, and eventually causing Szeemann his job. While some could consider her works crude, even pornographic, she is simply portraying the basic facts of life. A body reduced to sexuality, whose intimate parts and actions have been made public. A portrayal of a simple, naked, sexual being, doing the things that take place in private, away from the public eye, the stuff of her bare life. Sex.
In Iannone’s works, erect penises wave, buttocks burst from the surface and breasts bulge, vaginas are proffered and everyone’s at it. They reflect the life and loves of the artist in all its glory. If these works were being created by a young artist today, you might call them post-feminist. But she made them in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the first wave of feminism was cresting. Interestingly, Iannone maintained a respectful distance from emergent Feminist theory and its protagonists. In a fascinating way, they combine apparent submission on the part of the woman and obvious self-objectification on her part, but with a clear sense that this artist is firmly in control of her story. In fact, she painted herself having intercourse decades before Jeff Koons documented his sex life with his porn-star wife, La Cicciolina, and in 1967, Dorothy Iannone made an artist’s book naming all the men she’d ever slept with, decades before artists like Tracy Emin made similar works. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Iannone continued to create works with even more graphic subject matter well into the 1970’s. In a work titled, “Let me Squeeze Your Fat Cunt” from 1971, the sexual attributes of her subjects are reversed. The female character in the painting says, “Let me touch your fat cunt” as she touches the crotch of the male character. Pushing it even further, it seems as though the female character, not the man, has the big, heavy balls in the picture.
In her well-known multi-media installation, “I Was Thinking of You”, a video monitor is contained in a painted box. Inside, we watch Iannone’s face in close up as she giddily masturbates. When it was exhibited in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, it was considered on of the most transgressive works in the show. Not bad for a woman in her 70’s at the time. The extravagantly decorative video-sculpture was originally made in 1975 and updated in 2006. On its exterior, the hand-painted wooden box depicts a man and woman in flagrant sexual positions. A cutout where the woman’s face should be holds a video monitor displaying a loop of Ms. Iannone’s face, where she proceeds to pleasure herself. On the sides of the box, a cryptic text urges men to surrender. While it is obvious that she is masturbating, there is something subtle about the work. It does not feel pornographic. The artist has said that in this work she tried to capture the “soul passing over the face,” and as her eyes flash at the climactic moment you can almost see it happen. Another video work, Follow Me (1977), takes the form of a three-panel black and white work with a video monitor built into it. The video shows the artist’s face as she sings one of her texts, which is also drawn out on the panels. The front is ornamented with her self-portrait as a naked, opulent goddess beside her lover. In another from 1980, titled, The Heroic Performance of Pastor Erik Bock, the artist fixed her camera on her then lover, a sexy preacher man, who awkwardly delivers an hour-long sermon on Christian love and community. The painting on the box looks like a free-love nudist colony.
Today, Dorothy Iannone’s œuvre, which now spans more than fifty years, includes paintings, drawings, comics, sculpture, autobiographical texts and films. Since the 1960s she has been seen as a pioneering spirit against censorship, for free love and autonomous female sexuality. The paintings, visual narratives, texts and books by this pioneer of women’s sexual and intellectual emancipation draw uncompromisingly on autobiographical themes. They are for the most part delightfully direct celebrations of women’s sexual power. As the result of that, Iannone’s art has been frequently censored because of allegedly pornographic content. Yet her depictions of the sexual union between man and woman have an unmistakably mystical dimension rooted in the spiritual and physical balance of opposites. This anchors her visual universe within cultural history and lends a modern, personal interpretation to Eastern religions, including Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Tantrism and Christian ecstatic traditions like those of the seventeenth- century Baroque.
She has been described as a priestess, matriarch, and sex goddess. As a self-taught painter, her works are as disconcerting for their shrill blend of the both the naive and the hippyish. She creates scenarios in symbolic settings, in which she also consistently celebrates a playful handling of her subject matter. One can also certainly see influences of Gustav Klimt, tantric art, comic books and pop, all packaged with a certain revere for folk art. However all of her work defies falling into any of these direct trappings. The first thing you notice when viewing her works is that there are words everywhere. In a drawing about her sexual rites of passage, she writes: “Domesticity is dull and deadly, the thing to realize is that everyone knows this.” She goes on: “Try living mostly alone. Maybe you will learn to be more connected to people.” Often, to really appreciate her work, you have to get up close, to squint and peer, and read more than you look. There’s a nice plainness to the calligraphy and the way everything is drawn. In Iannone’s idiosyncratic visual language, breasts are usually represented as circles within circles, genitalia often appear atop people’s clothing and a woman’s swollen labia can be as large and round as testicles. The depictions of sex organs come in all shapes and sizes, yet somehow, all this sex neither arouses nor titillates. It is repetitive, I suppose in the way most sex is. I don’t think she intends her work to turn us on. Unlike other artists whose works have fallen into the “feminist” realm, Iannone’s work celebrates matriarchy and men as well as solitude and togetherness. She believes art and living should be considered exercises of freedom. In a turn that’s quite difficult for any visual artist to pull off, and she depicts herself in her work as both powerful and submissive, the goddess and the whore. Her art is more childlike and innocent than forceful or dogmatic.
Now living in Berlin, the artist’s work is still as raunchy as ever it was. She is still a poster woman for the depths and possibilities of erotic art. By all accounts something of a bohemian “grande dame,” Iannone has a colorful and varied biography peppered with intense friendships with male artists and writers, all of which are integral to an appreciation of her art, particularly because her personal mythology, experiences, feelings and relationships are often the subjects of her work. One can only applaud. But we should celebrate these works for more than just an artist’s stamina. There are lots of other ways one wants to celebrate a woman like this. Most importantly, she has been fearless in her pursuit of personal freedom. She has devoted her life to unconditional love. Even though she is perhaps most well known for her works depicting her relationship with Dieter Roth, in the context of her oeuvre, this becomes only an episode. Even though she sacrificed her marriage for him, they did not hesitate for a moment to break up and let go of one another for each to follow their own creative path. For both, their life design, which was their art practice, always came first.
For more than half a century, Dorothy Iannone’s work has illuminated a journey of ever-increasing sexual, political and spiritual awareness and a life perpetually in search of union with the beloved, the viewer, her listeners and the world. But the real spirit at work is her infectious blend of playful seduction, iconoclasm and a particular brand of sexual liberation. Something that, even though we’re now decades later, in this writer’s opinion, is still very much needed. One could say that the intention in most of her works, and she’s maybe even speaking for all women, is to liberate men and lead them back to a somehow lost version of love. She aims to free them, through her works, from a sad, earthly existence. These words taken from her work “Follow Me” should be read and considered closely, “Follow me, it’s not too late to remember who I am.”