Wisdom: Artist Judith Bernstein on #MeToo, Female Rage, and Navigating the Art World

"Women have a lot of rage. I have a lot of rage. My mother had a lot of rage. We should own it."

"Women have a lot of rage. I have a lot of rage. My mother had a lot of rage. We should own it."

I’m from a small town called Bradley Beach, in New Jersey. I wanted to get out because I didn’t like the life that my parents had. I didn’t want that life. 

I loved art because I could draw. When you can draw, people say, ‘Oh, isn’t she talented? Isn’t this wonderful?’ There was a lot of [positive] reinforcement. That started me going. But art for me was always about making my own statement. I wanted to make my own work. I felt that I had a lot to say, even as a child. 

My connection to being an artist has been the strongest connection. It’s stronger than any connection I’ve made with anything else. 

I didn’t just become part of the art world. There were many, many steps. You have to put yourself in a place that has an art community, where you have friends who can help you, support you psychologically, and who are like-minded—who are ambitious, who want more for themselves. You can’t think this is being selfish. It’s getting what you want out of your life. You’re the architect of your life. That’s what you have to do.

When I was at Penn State, there were three men for every woman. When I went to Yale, it was an all-male undergraduate school. I knew that the men had the power … I wanted the [Yale] art school to open in the summer, because I needed a studio to paint in. I petitioned. I got the school to be open because I was outspoken. I was always screaming and yelling about what I wanted. I think that lead me to be fearless in other things. 

After graduating, I went to New York. There were a lot of women in my situation. They’d gone to graduate school, they wanted to be artists, but they had no way to show their work. We started [the first all-female cooperative gallery in America], called Artists in Residence—one of the women suggested Jane Eyre, and then we said A.I.R., an acronym. I said, ‘It should be called Twenty Women Artists Together, or T.W.A.T.’   

‘President’ (2017) by Judith Bernstein, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90.25 x 89.50 inches.

When you’re young, you feel like anything is possible. Of course, that’s not actually the case. But we felt that way when I was young, in the 1970s. We were ambitious. We had a lot of energy.

My idea of feminism was [informed by] observing male behavior. I was doing my ‘Screw’ series, these large phalluses, which I started creating [in 1969] as charcoal drawings. They were an amalgamation of antiwar [sentiment], sexuality, and feminism. I nailed male behavior, and also the masochism, the connection to war. The penis is political power—it’s a power weapon. I was a woman, taking on that power, and also saying, ‘Mine is bigger than yours.’ People said, ‘Oh, she wants a penis.’ I want what the phallus stands for. I want all the access to the system, to be heard, to be validated. I want all those things. 

I sold some prints to the Museum of Modern Art. It was such a small amount of money—I think I charged them $125 apiece back then. They asked for a discount. It’s just protocol, you know, to ask. I said, ‘What does the MoMA usually get?’ They said, ‘Oh, twenty percent, twenty-five percent.’ I said, ‘I’ll give them ten percent.’ 

Momentum is a challenge and an opportunity. I found it very hard to make the leap from the Screw drawings, which were very powerful. I wanted to use the vagina, and it was difficult, because I wanted to make it active. Historically, the vaginas had been very passive. They’d mostly been done by men.  

For 25 years, I did not have a show in New York. There was a big lull. That’s a long period of time. It was very depressing for me, but as soon as I started having shows again, the trajectory was extraordinary. I had something to say visually that other people hadn’t said. In 2010, I started my ‘Birth of the Universe’ series. I was making a connection between the Big Bang, birth, and women being at the center of the universe. That’s how I started expanding my oeuvre, so to speak. It was great. 

It’s very hard to make a career with work that is raw, political, sexual. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. 

Right now, I’m doing ‘Death of the Universe.’ I segued when Donald Trump was baiting Kim Jong-un, and I was thinking there might be a nuclear annihilation. But ‘Death of the Universe’ could mean other things. Black holes eating each other, asteroid collision, things like that. It also mirrors my own mortality. I just turned 76 years old. My work is autobiographical in a conceptual way. It’s about what I’m thinking about, what’s on my mind. I visualize it. I go into my subconscious, and find imagery. Sometimes artists think things come to them from another planet, but you’re really going into your subconscious. There’s so much you can mine from your own brain. It’s a great gift. 

Bernstein at the National Academy of Design with 'Death Universe' from 2018.

Women have a lot of rage. I have a lot of rage. My mother had a lot of rage. We should own it. 

Humor is also important. My work has always included humor, because I personally have a sense of humor, but also because it cuts the rawness of what you’re talking about. That’s good. 

The #MeToo movement has been extraordinary. Feminism has gotten into the general vocabulary. People are very happy to be called feminists. They feel that they are entitled to be part of the art world, and to get more money, even if they’re working at McDonald’s. But there’s much less accessibility for women than for men. That will be the case for a long period of time. You see it with Brett Kavanaugh, where everyone said, ‘Oh, [Dr. Christine Blasey Ford] is so believable. She was such a good witness.’ Of course, we didn’t believe her, but nevertheless. And it resurfaced the situation between Clarence Thomas and Dr. Anita Hill. It hasn’t gotten completely better. But it is better. Hopefully things will keep changing. 

My advice to women? If you’re an artist, you have to go to galleries, to museums, read all you can in art magazines. Read the newspaper—so many newspapers have art reviews. Read them, and see where you stand, aesthetically and visually, so that you can place yourself.  

You need to decide what you want. Where you want to be, what you want to do. Then you can figure out how that might be possible. You have to go for it. But a lot of people, when they’re young, they don’t know what they want. It’s like they know they want something, but they don’t know what. 

Whatever you do, keep moving. Nothing remains the same. All this stuff that I’ve done, it isn’t like I planned it out. You do one thing, then it leads to something else. It’s like ‘telephone.’ There wasn’t really even a strategy. That’s where I had to go. So I went.  

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