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1966 was a hard time to be a woman at Yale. There were perhaps three women students in a class of men, and no female professors. It was very easy to be pissed off most of the time in this environment. Then in 1968 came Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the Jewish bad boys of the Chicago Seven. In this age of Vietnam protests, the guys could act out but girls were still supposed to be nice, especially Jewish and Catholic girls. Judith Bernstein was the first Jewish bad girl I ever knew about, long before the Tampax hit the floor of the Whitney or Judy Chicago posed in her boxing shorts. Hannah Wilke was as early, but her elegant eroticism was something quite different. Bernstein was always in a class by herself.

Judith Bernstein, “Fun-Gun,” 1967. Bullets and Acrylic on Distressed Canvas, 57 x 60”. Collection Karen & Paul McCarthy.

“Fun-Gun” was revolutionary for 1967. In fact it still is revolutionary. The cock of the gun and the painted cock are joined by real bullets that are pasted into the scrotum in an elegant coil. Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gun Guys, Judith Bernstein connected the dots between the phallic projectile, sexuality, and gun violence and diagrammed it for us. With the current round of slaughter both abroad and at Sandy Hook the problem is more problematic than ever; now teen testosterone pumps from automatic weaponry. This is what our culture of militarism has spawned. In her “Union Jack-Off on Vietnam Policy” (1967) the flag is draped with the phallus. Patriotism and violence are one.  These are among the most powerful anti-war works of that period by women, along with Carolee Schneemann’s “War Mop” and Nancy Spero’s female bombs.

In an era when big drawings were made by big guys, Bernstein broke the mold once more. Only guys like Richard Serra with his hairy Neanderthal physique and oil crayons did big, gritty drawings. Judith Bernstein beat the guys at their own game; her dick was not only bigger, but better drawn to boot. The draftsmanship was superb, not a line wasted and every stroke full of energy. When I saw her A.I.R. show in 1973, works like “Horizontal” (1973) were etched into my memory. They are as powerful and fresh today as they were then.

Feminist protest art still could be ladylike; think Miriam Schapiro’s quilts and the ironing boards at Womanhouse. Here was a singular woman, not a Womanhouse acolyte or member of a feminist program. She was a poster girl for the Guerrilla Girls before they were born. Bernstein got there first and by herself.  As a fan of Hellenism and bold form I found these phallic battering rams amazing. They banged at the doors of male art citadels like DIA and the Dwan Gallery where women were not admitted in the ’70s. Bernstein scared the hell out of everyone. This was shocking stuff. She was tossed out of the FOCUS exhibition in Philadelphia for having “no redeeming social value.”  When Lynda Benglis did her Artforum dildo photo even Annette Michelson got the vapors. Who would have thought that an October lady could be so chastising and Victorian?  Unlike Benglis, Bernstein had no dealer to pay for an ad and paid a big price for her transgressions by being ostracized and excluded from success.

I love big dicks—my Priapic cult library spans a shelf. The ancient Greek ladies of the Halloa and Phallophoria festivals hoisted big penises, cradled them in baskets, and even watered them. For the Greeks and later Roman Priapeia, the phallus was associated with fertility. In her recent works, such as “Birth of the Universe #4 (Space, Time and Infinity)”(2012), the penis grows like hair and sprouts from figures with galaxy mouths. In her later life Bernstein is connecting with some of the wisdom of the ladies of the Phallophoria and their processions of renewal and fecundity. When a culture is out of whack, creation myths are reenacted to bring the universe back into kilter.

Bernstein’s early, giant drawings claim the phallus as female property. This goes way beyond penis envy into penis possession. Unlike the Benglis piece, which is also an in your face “my dick is bigger than yours” statement, Bernstein works on a monumental scale, similar to that of Claes Oldenburg’s lipstick on a tank, but without the pop or kitsch message. Like the lingam and yoni, Bernstein’s penis drawings are archetypal. They are the matching pair to Lee Bontecou’s canvas vaginas, both in scale and period (the 1960s). The universal symbolic power and masterful execution of the work keeps both Bernstein and Bontecou’s work in a timeless realm with multiple dimensions.

What was life like in the trenches? Bernstein survived without family money, dealer support, critical recognition and with few exhibitions. She took dozens of low paying adjunct teaching jobs and at 70 still climbs five flights to a Chinatown loft. Her endurance and grit in this struggle for survival is a testament to the human spirit. When asked how she kept going, Bernstein said “It’s the dialogue with the work. I can always engage in the conversation.”  Joyce Kozloff recently told me, “Judith had been so generous to artists. Everyone was glad to see her succeed.”  This is rare in an art world riddled with envy. Everyone I know said,  “it is about fucking time,” and yes, it is. Congratulations, Judith Bernstein!

235 Bowery // NY, NY


Ann McCoy

ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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