Martha Rosler: Irrespective @Jewish Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 73 works made between 1966 and 2018, installed in roughly chronological order in the museum’s first-floor gallery.

The photographic works in the exhibition are:

  • 21 photomontages
  • 1 piece comprising 48 gelatin silver prints mounted on backing boards
  • 1 suite of 14 gelatin silver prints
  • 1 suite of 7 digital prints
  • 1 installation comprising 7 chromogenic prints with wall text
  • 11 chromogenic prints
  • 4 color inkjet prints
  • 2 digital slideshows
  • 5 color photographs
  • 1 color digital print

In addition to the photographic works the exhibition includes:

  • 3 silent Super-8 films
  • 4 mixed-media installations
  • 8 color videos
  • 1 wall work (ink on 30 cloth diapers)
  • 1 black-and-white video
  • 1 installation of vinyl panels printed with quotations by Hannah Arendt in German and English
  • 1 mixed-media sculpture

(Installation views below.)

In conjunction with the show, the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press have published a companion catalogue (here, 256 pages, 582 color illustrations, 10 x 9 ½ inches, $50 hardcover) with an introduction by exhibition curator Darsie Alexander with contributions by Shira Backer; essays by Rosler, Rosalyn Deutsche and Elena Volpato; and a conversation between the artist and Molly Nesbit.

Comments/Context: One of our most incisive political artists, Martha Rosler has worked for more than 50 years across media—including photomontage, film, video, installation art, and critical writing—to expose societal inequities and abuses of power. To this project she has brought an ethos shaped by the feminist movement of the 1970s and a belief in the power of art to inspire action, both leavened of humor.

This selection of works from 1966 to the present—curated by Darsie Alexander, the Jewish Museum’s Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator, with Shira Backer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator, in collaboration with the artist, and her studio—traces the enduring themes, concerns, and approaches that have characterized Rosler’s work from the beginning of her career. What emerges is an artist who refuses to generalize, mythologize, or aestheticize, but sticks to telling details, hard facts, and commonplace images to expose what Rosler, in a recent conversation with Molly Nesbit has called “roles and procedures that have become naturalized or normalized.”

This is not to say that Rosler does not mediate the data she gathers from books, the mass media, and her own experience. In some cases, she interrupts and reframes information taken for granted or passively consumed, as in “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” (ca. 1967–72), a series of photomontages made between 1968 and 1972 in which the artist inserted gruesome news photographs of the Vietnam War into images of upscale interiors clipped from the pages of women’s magazines. In one, a Vietnamese man carries a wounded child across a living room’s white shag rug; in another, G.I.s stalk an immaculate kitchen.

Underscoring the reality of the war and its human cost (copies were originally meant to be handed out as flyers at demonstrations), the works also draw a comparison between domestic and military systems of power and control. Made at the beginning of the second-wave feminist movement, they suggest that these quiet, middle-class homes are war zones of a different kind. Rosler revisited the technique in the 2000s, in response to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and these photomontages—as relevant then as they were 20 years earlier, and still relevant today—are also on view.

By the mid-1970s, Rosler had shifted from Pop- and Dada-inflected collage to conceptual, installation, and video art. She continued, however, to challenge the assumption that social structures and systems might be impervious to change through resistance or struggle. The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974), a grid of photographs of shabby storefronts and bottle-littered streets, interspersed with texts listing various words for “drunk” (“lit,” “squiffy,” “pie-eyed,” and so on) takes on how seemingly objective documentary photographs can actually reinforce certain stereotypes. Flower Fields (Color Field), 1974, a short color film of ranks of flower fields in California zooms in on the stooped bodies of farm laborers, then backs away, turning the fields into an abstraction.

Rosler shines as the protagonist in her 1970s videos delineating society’s embedded racist, classist, and sexist structures and systems. Martha Rosler reads Vogue: wishing, dreaming, winning, spending (1982), features the artist thumbing through the fashion magazine as she provides a running commentary on its suggestive ads and breathless prose. (A related series of photomontages, “Body Beautiful, Or Beauty Knows No Pain” [1966–1972] conflates images of women from porn magazines with images of women from popular media sources.) In her classic black-and-white video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), she enacts, po-faced, increasingly violent demonstrations of common kitchen utensils. And in the ominous Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977), she submits to being measured and questioned by a team of white-coated technicians, conjuring state suppression of undesirables, from Nazi Germany’s targeting of Jews and homosexuals to recent attempts to change the census questionnaire in America.

Food, as an entry into the quotidian and domestic spaces in which societal roles are enacted, is a frequent subject in Rosler’s work, as it is in two installation pieces, presented side-by-side in a large gallery. One, A Gourmet Experience (1974), features a large, fully set banquet table accompanied by cooking videos and photographs of starving children. The other, Objects with No Titles (1973/2018), is a collection of restrictive garments such as girdles and bras stuffed to bursting with polyester batting—a riposte to nearby advertising images of impossibly svelte models posing in lingerie. More successful though, is a smaller and simpler work hanging nearby: a novel in postcards in which an unidentified woman talks about trying to impress her husband’s friends with her cooking—a narrative that exposes both her insecurity and her class attitudes.

Beginning in the 1980s, Rosler increasingly focused on the ideological, economic, and political dimensions of American entanglements abroad. Global Taste: A Meal in Three Courses (1985), a kiosk with three screens, combines clips of American advertisements for food with statistics on the world’s appetite for American products. For those with the stomach for it, one of the most powerful works in the show is the one-hour video A Simple Case for Torture, or How to Sleep at Night (1983), an indictment of America’s 1980s involvement with murderous regimes in Latin America and the Middle East. In it, newspaper clippings pile up as Rosler reads from an Amnesty International report detailing state-sanctioned atrocities.

Taking as their topic more subtle systems of control, Rosler’s photographs of the 1990s explore what public spaces can reveal about power and persuasion in post-capitalist society. “In the Place of the Public: Airport Series” (1983–ongoing) a series of photographs of airport interiors accompanied by snippets of text, is the strongest, both conceptually and formally, of the works from this period. While reflecting subtle ways airports control the movements of those who pass through them, the pictures also eerily anticipate the Web’s monitoring of its visitors and manipulation of their movements.

In the last section of the show, photomontages featuring books from Rosler’s extensive library accompany vinyl wall hangings printed with quotations from Hannah Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism, which seem terrifyingly appropriate to today’s America. Mike Pence, in a video of a press conference from 2016, abases himself to Trump, while Trump himself appears in a large digital print with, behind him, the names of unarmed black men killed by police.

In our present political and cultural moment, Rosler’s work has never seemed more timely or necessary. For half a century, this artist has used her body, her craft, and her formidable intellect to expose the workings of mass media’s seductions, society’s collective delusions, and ideology’s obfuscations. But in this last gallery—even as she bombards us with the writings of others—she seem, for once, lost for words.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Martha Rosler is represented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York (here), Galerie Nagel Draxler in Berlin (here), and Galleria Raffaella Cortese in Milan (here). Very few works by Rosler have found their way to the secondary markets in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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