Updated: Feb 8, 2019
“If you want to get anything done, form a group.”
Mary Beth Edelson: Art and Activism
by Kathleen Wentrack, Ph.D. Art History Professor at City University of New York, Queensborough
Recognized internationally for her multi-dimensional art work using diverse media, Mary Beth Edelson has been active in feminist groups and actions since the 1960s. Edelson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1968 where she organized the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in 1972. She became more involved in performance, participatory art, and performative photographic work after settling in New York in 1975. Early works include the group performance Proposals for Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era (1977) at A.I.R. Gallery and private performance photographic works such as Grapceva Neolithic Cave Series: See for Yourself (1977). Edelson was invited to join A.I.R. Gallery and later became a founding member of the Heresies Collective in 1977. For Edelson’s public and private performance rituals she frequently used her studio as a space for such work inviting others there to collaborate, especially on the various activist causes in which she was involved such as the Women’s Action Coalition (founded in 1992) and Combat Zone: Campaign HQ Against Domestic Violence (1994). Edelson almost always carried her Hasselblad or Nikon camera shooting images of these events, but also taking headshots of women artists who were active in the community. These photographs were resources, most notably for the series of five collaged posters from the 1970s that began with Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1971-72) and the numerous wall collages that covered her studio walls and were included in her exhibitions in the United States and abroad. The themes found in the wall collages that Edelson created since the 1970s parallel with those in her prolific body of work including ancient goddesses, Sheela-Na-Gig, Baubo, Medusa, Venus, snakes, movie stars, stereotypes, beauty, mythology, humor, and a celebration of her feminist colleagues. Throughout her career, Edelson created drawings, paintings, collages, performances, photographic works, installations, and interactive works as she remained committed to activist causes.
Photo series studio
The wall and table display several series of photographs begun in 1977, each group consisting of three or four images of Edelson in nature. For these private rituals the artist chose remote locations in Long Island, North Carolina, Maine, and California; covered herself with a cloth; and photographed with long exposure settings on her camera resulting in blurred images that suggest movement or flight. The photo series on the wall include Cliff Hanger (1978), Rising Firebird Energy (1978), Shaking the Grass (1980), and The Sacred Manic Goddess Makes Tracks (1978).