To fully appreciate the importance of a feminist archive, one has to remember the loneliness of the first generation of feminist artists: absence of role-models and art on museum walls that they could embrace as theirs. When looking at subsequent generations, the issue of artistic lineage emerges as quintessential. Young artists today have models to follow, but they still do not have easy access to collective wisdom of women. When Linda Nochlin mentions women thanking her for organizing the groundbreaking exhibition Women Artists: 1550 – 1950 (1976), she notes: “Nothing, I think, is more interesting, more poignant, and more difficult to seize than the intersection of the self and history.”1 Classical paintings based on Greek and Roman myths are in most cases expressions of the male gaze, objectification, subordination, or even oppression of women. In the quest for a woman’s tale, a female equivalent of the “hero’s journey,” some younger artists—like Natalie Frank or Angela Fraleigh—reach for the unsanitized, original fairy tales created by women. But how does one take on the other foundation of the Western civilization, and much of its art: the Bible?
In January 2019, an exhibition of Helène Aylon’s earliest body of work opened at Leslie Tonkonow in Chelsea, the artist’s first gallery show in New York since her last with Betty Parsons in 1979. I sat with Aylon (b. 1931) to talk about her lineage. She has contested women’s omission in the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition, famously highlighting all words that disturbed her in the Torah (The Liberation of G-d, 1990 – 96), or reinstating mothers’ names in the ketubah (My Marriage Contract, 2000). “This small act of correcting an ancient text was the beginning: putting in the asterisks meant something was left out and I was correcting the omission.”2 Her becoming a feminist artist—or an artist at all—meant leaving the Orthodoxy and its expectations of what a young widow of a Rabbi should do. The life-long artistic career that followed meant accepting the paradox of wanting to be out of the tradition and wanting to be in.
Monika Fabijanska (Rail): The Bible is thousands of years old. Can we really change our culture?
Helène Aylon: I thought that if I highlighted all the misogyny and the militarism and the cruelty, etc., in the Old Testament and said G-d could not have said that… But Robin Morgan advised, “Helène, you think if you do that you’ll find something, but there is a patriarchal thread that runs through it and it’s just in the fabric of it.” I thought she was right, and that’s why I created The Book That Will Not Close. Every single page was covered with a parchment so the book was stiff and it couldn’t open or close. And so I sort of gave up. It cannot open and it cannot close but it is still a sacred object. There is no point in opening it and looking at that misogyny. But it is there, and it is quite beautiful.
In 1958, while still a rabbi’s wife, Aylon enrolled secretly at the Brooklyn College when her second child started kindergarten. There she took a class with Ad Reinhardt who introduced her to Mark Rothko.
Rail: When you talk about your education as an artist, you mention Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. Were there important women who were influential for you?
Aylon: Yes, my dealer Betty Parsons always talked about the invisible presence and that was inspiring to me. The longer she looked at Reinhardt’s black paintings, the more out of the blackness, emerged red-black, blue-black—as if an invisible presence.
[In her book, Aylon wrote: “Reinhardt remained an important influence on my way of looking at art, seeking a revelation. I later would seek a revelation in my own work, painting partially on layers of glass, so that depending on the position of the viewer, an elusive shine of the metal backing might peep through.”3]
Aylon: Creating the elusive silver paintings [1969 – 73, shown at Tonkonow], I was still in my religious mode looking for an invisible presence, a mystical female presence. Silver paintings were changeable but they were elusive—they only change with the position of the viewer. Reinhardt’s notion of change probably had influence on me, but I wanted to make the work with real change. In 1973 when I went to California I created the Paintings That Change in Time—painting on the back of the paper and allowing oil to seep through naturally. I wanted the paintings to actually change like the earth changes, like we change, like everything does change. I didn’t want to be a master producing a masterpiece but I sought the work to be created outside of my doing.
Another woman who was influential to my art was Agnes Martin. She wrote: “Helplessness is the most important state of mind of an artist.” I instinctively resented men being masters, making masterpieces; I’d rather be helpless because I didn’t know what I was going to do and that’s how I created the elusive silver paintings. I thanked Martin for telling me that I didn’t have to follow any assignment or formula. And that stayed with me. That gave mecourage to be helpless and vulnerable. Also I felt that the work would tell me something rather than I tell the work. I thought that the work could teach me something.
Rail: Were there any women teachers at the Brooklyn College when you studied?
Aylon: No, absolutely not. Later, at San Francisco State I was a radical teacher (and one of only two women). I quoted Agnes Martin and followed the advice of Louise Nevelson, who said the first thing she did when she taught art was “not to teach art.”
Rail: How useful was looking to women artists as role models? I remember a passage from your book, where you wrote that Nevelson, Hartigan, Krasner, O’Keeffe, Martin “had no children and were just fine about it. Unlike these artists, I loved being a mother.”4
Aylon: Feminism did not embrace motherhood, it rather ran away from it. My series The Breakings was all about bursting.
Rail: When you became an artist, were you immediately aware that you were a feminist artist or was it a process?
Aylon: My feminism was tied to finding my own critical voice within the tradition. I became aware of G-d language being male. In all my years of schooling in Judaism never did I have a comment by a female scholar. As it progressed, I wanted my voice to deal with the issues of the day.
Rail: You wrote about being inspired by Maya Angelou, Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich, and Mary Daly: “I realized that these role models did not tremble in their lives the way I did. They threatened to turn it upside down and inside out. To me, this meant that feminist art was not some tiny creek running off the great river of real art…”5
Aylon: When I came to Berkeley in 1973, I enrolled in an MFA in Women’s Studies at Antioch College Wes—there I read these authors. Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature changed my life.
Rail: So it was moving to Berkeley that was crucial for your development as a feminist artist?
- Nochlin, Linda. “Starting from Scratch: The Beginnings of Feminist Art History” (1994), The Power of Feminist Art. eds. Norma Broude, Mary D. Garrad, Judith Brodsky. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1994, p. 137.
- Aylon, Helène. Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, my life as a Feminist Artist. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2012, p. 223
- Ibid, p. 131
- Ibid, p. 129
- Ibid, p. 131
Monika Fabijanska is an art historian and independent art curator. Most recently, she curated a critically acclaimed exhibition, "The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Women's Contemporary Art in the U.S." at Shiva Gallery, John Jay College, NYC (accompanied by a catalog and symposium), named the fifth best NYC art show in 2018 by Hyperallergic. More information at www.monikafabijanska.com