Judith Bernstein Makes a Name for Herself

Feminist artist Judith Bernstein was hours from completing her signature piece–literally a massive rendition of her own name charcoaled on the walls of Manhattan’s Alex Zachary Gallery–when the nine-foot-tall “B” nearly caused her downfall.

“I was going over the railing to work on the letters “B” and “E” when I slipped, fell backwards and broke my elbow,” says Bernstein, whom I spoke with at the gallery.

Had she fallen sideways, the spill would have been worthy of a Greek tragedy: an artist tumbling off a ledge while scrawling her name in hubristic proportions.

Luckily, Bernstein’s career is better staged as a Shakespearean comedy filled with the requisite gender play, puns and a happy ending.

A radical Second-Wave American feminist artist, Bernstein is currently experiencing a resurgence, and “Signature Piece 2010” is, as she explains, “a subtext of stardom, fame and ego that mirrors the artist and my own trajectory.”

The resurrection of her work began in 2008 when she held her first solo exhibition in more than two decades at New York City’s Mitchell Algus Gallery. On its heels came a solo exhibition at The Box in Los Angeles in 2009, the Signature Piece show and an upcoming exhibit of her anti-Vietnam graffiti in Los Angeles in April.

As Village Voice art critic John Perreault wrote in Artsjournal, “Judith Bernstein’s outrageously penile screw drawings continue to be anti-war, anti-sexist statements that rise above simplistic agitprop. Her show [in 2008] at the Mitchell Algus Gallery in Chelsea garnered considerable attention.”

Speaking of penile screws, that’s exactly what Bernstein has long been known for: her exceptionally large, phallic imagery that has aroused—no pun intended—anger and censorship from the art world. “Horizontal,” Bernstein’s massive charcoal drawing of a hairy screw was kicked out of the exhibition “Women’s Work: American Art 1974” at the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center for lacking “redeeming social value.”

Ironically for these male naysayers, Bernstein’s early inspirations were the private thoughts of men.

Bernstein was an MFA and BFA student at the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University before the campus went co-ed, yet she penetrated an even stricter clubhouse to gain material: the men’s bathrooms. “It was like delving into the male subconscious,” said Bernstein of the graffitied walls. “It was very crude and fun.”

Filtered through Bernstein’s feminist lens, this graffiti became art that was sexual, political, radical and often hilarious. Subsequent works titled “Supercock,” “Balls Over Landscape” and “Jack Off On U.S. Policy in Vietnam” demonstrate her ability to distort sophomoric bathroom humor into tools of political and sexual warfare.

For “Signature Piece 2010,” Bernstein stepped away from explicit phallic imagery (although New York Magazine couldn’t help but note that her initials backwards spell BJ). Instead, the piece meditates on the precarious role of the artist–and her ego–within the art world and society. The second element of the piece, a projection of the 1958 film The Horse’s Mouth, feels somewhat tenuously connected to the signature, although Bernstein explains that the movie is a metaphor for giving oneself over to her work. It’s an apt metaphor, as the signature’s charcoal shows not only smudges of Bernstein’s thumb and palm prints, but also a sneaker mark from her nearly tragic fall.

And as for the happy-ending return of Bernstein to art world prominence?

“It was all a long time coming–pardon the pun,” she says.

See Judith Bernstein’s upcoming solo exhibit at The Box, 977 Chung King Road in Los Angeles from April 2 – May 7, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Judith Bernstein.


Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She is a former Ms. editorial intern who is enjoying exploring and writing in the Big Apple.