Interview with Judith Bernstein

Since 1967, Judith Bernstein has provided a swift undercurrent to painting in New York. Until recently, despite her storied history in the scene, the grit, tenacity, and technically precise rebel yell of Bernstein’s work has largely gone under-recognized. On the occasion of her current show at Mary Boone Gallery, I sat down with the artist to discuss her newest work, the fantastic threat of the looming vagina, feminist recourse to power, and perseverance.

Judith Bernstein. Voyeur, 2015; installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: John Reynolds. 

Judith Bernstein. Voyeur, 2015; installation view, Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: John Reynolds.

Elspeth Walker: When I first saw your actual paintings, I realized that I hope they upset men.

Judith Bernstein: Well, I do the work that I have to do. If the men are upset, if they’re not upset, if they love it, if they don’t love it—whatever. I don’t think about the reactions of other people. I am on my own trajectory. There are a lot of very angry women, but my work is about the continually changing dialogue between men and women and about women being much stronger, now.

EW: I feel the abrasiveness of your work is welcome and necessary.

JB: I think one has to be very direct, in all kinds of ways—in my case, genitalia and everything right in your face. I’ve found that directness is a metaphor for my life. My background was quite dysfunctional; I had to scream and yell to be heard. And for a long time I was not heard; I was not given a show in the New York gallery system for many years. I’m thrilled that now I can talk about what I want to say.

QUATTRO CUNTS 2015 Oil on Canvas 84 x 84 Inches

Judith Bernstein. Quattro Cunts, 2015; oil on canvas; 84 x 84 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: John Reynolds.

In the past, the rawness was not accepted within an art context, but now it is. I sense the zeitgeist at this time, and it’s extraordinary. I was in a lot of women’s groups, like A.I.R. (the first feminist gallery), Guerrilla Girls, and Fight Censorship. I saw how enraged women were. They were angry because they didn’t get what they wanted.  My mother didn’t know what she wanted, but she didn’t like the life she had. I saw all that rage and anger. Many artists have used female genitalia in a very romanticized way. That’s fine for them but not for me. I have anger, too.

EW: The title Birth of the Universe alludes to art-historical depictions of the vagina, for instance Courbet’s L’origine du Monde. Your work makes that old painting seem benign. Courbet’s painting positions women as the butt of a joke: as either an erotic object or a utilitarian object.

JB: It’s saying, “Woman is a cunt.” I’m using cunt in a very aggressive way, so it has a whole different meaning. But Courbet’s painting was done in a different time; it’s very sexist. I also think of my own work as like Munch’s painting of the scream because it conveys enormous aggression and the anxiety of the times—a lot of sexual anxiety.

EW: What draws you to use ultraviolet black light and your colors?

JB: I was thinking about how the fluorescent color would look next to the oil paint; it changes the color of the oil paint tremendously. For example, if you put a pretty pink next to the fluorescent color, it looks like a neutral skin color. My show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise was under black light. There was a little ambient light, and you could see some of the oil paint. But this show at Mary Boone has a different context: Everything is a combination of fluorescent as well as black light, so it brings out the fluorescent and the oil paint.

EW: To me, lighting a painting with black light was revolutionary because you were obscuring parts of it, but other parts became really vivid…

JB: …and one saw the calligraphy, and the painting faded into the background. Gavin Brown’s is a great space, and I had some extremely large paintings there. The show was like going into my mind, like creating a whole environment—a kind of hallucinatory effect.

EW: Considering your extended time in the New York scene and what it’s like to be an “art-world survivor,” or what it’s like to have maintained a practice for many years, do you feel like there’s a difference between what you’re saying now and what you’ve said before and how you feel people have responded?

JB: I’ve been in New York since 1967, when I graduated from Yale School of Art. When I came here, women had no access to the very small art world, and I was outside of it. I was part of this feminist movement, but I wasn’t embraced by women. You have to have enormous drive: This is the only thing you really want to do. Because I didn’t show my work for a long time, I wasn’t making any money from it, and it was very depressing.

Everyone thinks her or his work is fabulous, and many times they can’t understand why things haven’t happened for them. I thought I might be as delusional as some of those people. But it is wonderful, after twenty-four years of not having a show in New York, to get a show. I’m getting a lot of opportunities now, but it’s taken a long time for my work to sell at a decent price.

EW: In many ways, the art world has caught up to your material, but your work is still so different from what others are doing. It’s very interesting to compare your work with that of male artists who are showing everywhere and getting rich in six months…

JB: …and making much more money from their work than I am. The difference is unbelievable.

EW: It’s astonishing, this persistent imbalance. In the face of that, I think the subject of your work does so much. Painting a scream, like Munch’s, effectively balances the volume—the impact of work by male artists.

JB: That’s right.

EW: The larger cunt paintings evoke fetish, particularly the submissive male fantasy of this enormous vagina that consumes this tiny cock or even the man himself (which is hilarious). But they do make me think about the power of fantasy. Whether it’s intentional or not, these fantasies stage an alternate reality in which the cunt is the center, and it controls and consumes.

JB: When I showed the work under black light, I thought of it as an alternate reality, an alternate universe.

EW: I think of fetish as an almost uncontrollable restaging of these dominant systems of power—as flipping them.

JB: Yes, and that’s what happened with the screw drawings. Mine’s Bigger Than Yours is like a feminist dig: I can take that image and make it into a feminist power image. On those drawings, I made my signatures gigantic because I wanted to make sure everyone knew a woman did it. The work stands out and resonates because of fantasy. When I go into my subconscious in my work, the image comes out more powerful because it deals with fantasy. It deals with the fears that men have, with what women want. I hone into the fantasy and try to nail it.

EW: When looking at your Signature Piece in the New Museum show, I thought: This is right. Why wouldn’t we know and see this name, this woman’s name, this large, as opposed to….

JB: It’s about male posturing, male stardom, male ego—but it’s also about my ego. To enter the show, the viewer went through my mind, through the self-portrait of my name. It put the woman at the center, where she should be. [Laughs]

EW: I want to talk about the cunt as a floating signifier: The reality that not all women have cunts, or vaginas, and some men do. The cunt is an intense symbol; in your work it seems to be wrested free from connotations with a particular anatomy. These latest paintings have floating anatomical signifiers: a pair of breasts, tiny dicks, cunts that are crying.

JB: In a way, I did that with the male, too. Screws became a combination screw–phallus. The Biblical Judith cut off Holofernes’ head. I fool around with all of that. I like the cunt as a signifier because in one way it takes away the power and in another way it makes you face the power. One piece at Mary Boone has three cunts in a row and three nooses. I was thinking at the time that women often feel, “I gave birth to you; you owe me,” and it’s like strangling. It’s about birth and death. I tried to make these thoughts into a visual image that one could keep as an icon in the mind.

EW: The noose mimics the shape of the cunt, as well. To me, the work is also about not letting the category of woman escape examination. The noose is perhaps an acknowledgement of this idea: that getting hung up on these biological signifiers is a trap or it can thwart you.

JB: Women have their issues, but they haven’t had power as much as men, so they haven’t fucked up as much. [Laughs] We’re now thinking of sexuality on a continuum. People are not only making their own lives but also making their own sexuality and their own fantasies. There’s a greater range in the way that women—and men and the whole human race—can behave. And it’s liberating.

EW: What are your thoughts for women who are working as artists now?

JB: You have to find your own way. If you want to be an artist, you have to keep plugging at it. It’s very hard because you can get a lot of doors slammed on you, which I have gotten. But that’s not always the case. To hang in as long as I did is extraordinary; I don’t think that most people would hang in that long. But it’s important to be true to what you want to say and how you want to handle that. You have to keep moving forward. You can’t just stay where you are. You really have to constantly keep moving in terms of what you want to say, how you are saying it, and reevaluating it. It’s a very tough road.

Judith Bernstein: Voyeur is on view at Mary Boone Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, through June 27, 2015. Bernstein’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger, in Norway, February 4–April 10, 2016.