Kate Millett: Terminal Piece
On ViewHessel Museum Of Art, CCS Bard College
April 3 – May 30, 2021
A palpable feeling of suspense suffuses the space of Kate Millett’s Terminal Piece (1972). 46 wooden chairs are installed in two long rows behind a parallel series of vertical wooden bars that span the length of the gallery. The lighting is dramatic, with seven light bulbs suspended from the ceiling illuminating the space within the cage-like structure, while the territory of the viewer remains dimmed. At the end of the back row, four chairs from the right, sits a mannequin. She is wearing a navy-blue dress, and her long dark hair is parted in the middle. Her pose is stiff yet relaxed: one hand rests in her lap while the other seems to float beside her, and one foot is positioned in front of the other. Bearing traces of make-up, her eyes are directed downward, with a faint smile visible across her face. She appears to be entirely absorbed in her own world.
Few are familiar with the extent and depth of Millett’s artistic practice—myself included. Best known as a writer, Millett’s career took off when she published Sexual Politics (her Columbia dissertation) in 1970 and became an icon of the feminist movement. That same August, Millett was featured on the cover of Time magazine in the form of a portrait painted by Alice Neel (this, unfortunately, is not on view in the otherwise comprehensive retrospective of Neel’s work currently at the MET). Neel, however, had to paint the portrait from a photograph, as Millett refused to pose for the artist. An avid civil rights activist who spoke up against various forms of oppression, Millett felt uncomfortable being singled out and put in the spotlight. She would have preferred to give that platform to the collective movement in which she was just one participant. She also must’ve already felt that her aspirations as an artist were being overshadowed by her success as an author.
Alongside her prolific writing, Millett maintained a dedicated studio practice. Her early sculptures often centered around furniture and demonstrated a poignant, surrealist sensibility, both interests she had likely developed when studying sculpture at Waseda University in Tokyo. An important shift took place in 1967, when Millett moved away from a relatively playful approach to the domestic sphere, and began to evoke the cage as a metaphor for systems of power that hold us captive. The trigger was a disturbing news article that Millett read in 1966 about Sylvia Likens. She would later refer to this as “a lifechanging experience.”1 The article discussed how Likens, a 16-year-old girl temporarily put under the care of single mother Gertrude Baniszewski, had been held captive in a basement, where she was brutally tortured and murdered by Baniszewski and her children. Millett produced several works in 1967 and 1968 that incorporated the cage, most notably her performance No (1967). Staged at Judson Gallery (located in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church), Millett literally trapped the audience in her construction, and observed their escape.
Terminal Piece was first installed in 1972 at the Women’s Interart Center in New York City. Never exhibited again until now, the piece has been in storage at the farm and art colony in Poughkeepsie that the artist—who passed away in 2017—shared with her wife, Sophie Keir. While the mannequin and the wooden bars are those from the original piece, the folding chairs for this 2021 installation were borrowed from Artists Space, the dress belongs to Millett but is different from the one worn by the mannequin in 1972, and the shoes were provided by the curator. While these modifications reflect the conceptual nature of the piece, Millett’s own hand is still visible: on a bottom segment of the wooden bars, the artist has scribbled “Terminal Piece. #3 Cage. Bottoms up.” The year 1972 also marked Millett’s own institutionalization due to, in her words, “misguided family intervention.”2 Suffering from manic depression throughout her life, Millett had first-hand experience of the twisted ways in which structures that are supposedly created to protect us end up hurting instead. Chosen and modified to resemble Millett’s likeness, the mannequin thus comes to stand in for the artist: trapped, spotlighted, withdrawn, and utterly alone.
In an accompanying text, curator Jenni Crain writes that “the representation of a white, encaged woman gives rise to a very different set of readings today than it would have in 1972, [as] the structures, ideologies, and mainstream discussions surrounding incarceration have also dramatically shifted.” It is true that much has changed, and a white woman behind bars might today seem incongruous as a gesture of resistance, given our awareness of the unequal harm that the prison-industrial complex inflicts on communities of color. But our common enemy is still the same: social structures that are created to hurt and control rather than protect. They must be dismantled.
- Kate Millett, et al, Kate Millett, sculptor: the first 38 years (University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1997), 19.
- Heresies 7, no. 1 (1990), 96.