The Politics of Desire and Oppression in Anita Steckel’s Art

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LOS ANGELES — In 1973 Anita Steckel wrote, “If the erect penis is not ‘wholesome’ enough to go into museums — it should not be considered ‘wholesome’ enough to go into women. And if the erect penis is ‘wholesome’ enough to go into women, then it is more than ‘wholesome’ enough to go into the greatest art museums.”

The statement appeared in the press release for Fight Censorship, a group the artist formed that year to oppose institutional censorship of sexually themed art by women; members included Judith Bernstein, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, and Hannah Wilke.

Nearly 50 years later, art museums, great or small, have few more erect penises than they did in 1973. Meanwhile, images of nude women continue to proliferate. If more artists take the female nude than the erect penis as a subject, it’s in part because the puritanical taboo on exposing and objectifying the male member still haunts art institutions. Yet, the stripped and objectified female body is so intertwined with the history of image making that problematizing it is practically problematizing art itself. 

Installation view of Anita Steckel at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles. Left: “Pierced” (c. 1969-1974), silver gelatin print, gouache, graphite, 49 x 37 inches; right: “Valentine to Brando” (c. 1969-1974), silver gelatin print, 49 x 37 inches

Anita Steckel at Hannah Hoffman, organized with Steckel’s estate, features plenty of penises, and plenty of artworks that ought to be in museums. The exhibition, which spans the late 1960s to the early ’80s, includes selections from four series that integrate collage, drawing and painting, and silkscreened or photocopied images.

With her Giant Women on New York photomontage series (1969–74), Steckel inserts her own image in New York City’s skyline. In “My Town,” a sultry Steckel lies nude across the city, its towers passing through her transparent body. “Pierced” is more blunt in its depiction of the phallic skyscraper’s abuse of the female body: the artist hangs limp above the Chrysler Building, impaled at the waist by its sharp crown.

In the catalogue for the 2018 exhibition Legal Gender: The Irreverent Art of Anita Steckel at California State University, Chico, curator Rachel Middleman notes that the women in the earliest Giant Women works did not have Steckel’s face. Her decision to feature herself imagines her montages as the adventures of “Anita of New York” (as she called herself in her Anita of New York Meets Tom of Finland series) and refuses to further disempower women by presenting a generic image.

Installation view of Anita Steckel at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; works from Untitled (Erotica Drawing Series) (c. 1977), graphite, Xerox print, paper

At the same time, her approach to gender dynamics, and the dialectic of liberation and oppression in Giant Women and other works, is fraught with ambiguity. In another large photomontage, “Subway” (c. 1969–74), she wedges a cartoonish drawing of a woman, superimposed with a photo of her own face, between two men seated in a subway car. Dressed in a black negligee that exposes her breasts and crotch, she reaches a hand into one man’s pants; in the other man’s lap, she has drawn an erect penis that appears to be clutched in his fist. 

Richard Meyer, in his contribution to the Legal Gender catalogue, writes that the work was based on Steckel’s memories of men exposing themselves on the subway when she was a young woman riding from her parents’ home in Brooklyn to school in Manhattan. Here, her exposure lays claim to the men’s implicit assertion of power as it reactivates the trauma of witnessing their acts, which she refers to in a line of a limerick she wrote: “Those sexual shocks every day / Turned me into a difficult lay.” 

Anita Steckel, “Subway” (c. 1969-1974), silver gelatin print, 37 x 49 inches

“Subway” also comments on female sexuality and points to the conflicting roles that men play in her work as both oppressors and objects of sexual desire. Her imagery slips back and forth between the two, resulting in a dynamic tension but complicating any clear-cut distinctions between carnality and abuse.

Two series of small works that combine photocopies and drawing make clear the messy reality of this conflict. In the Erotica Drawing Series (c. 1977), graphite drawings, mainly of male and female faces, overlay Xeroxed photos of heterosexual couples having sex. The antiseptic photos, which could have come from an illustrated manual on sex positions, belie the warm intimacy of the drawings.

Among the show’s most audacious works are a series of untitled photocopies (n.d.) of Steckel’s face and hands pressed against the copier, embellished with drawings of erections, most of them aimed at her mouth. Decorative borders around the images simultaneously evoke the craft traditions that historically frame women in art and the framing and display of passive and dutiful women in museums. 

Installation view of Anita Steckel at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; works from untitled series (n.d.), graphite, Xerox print, wallpaper

That the artist’s face is never as clearly defined as the penis seems less a counterpoint to the absence of the penis in museums than an indictment of the insignificance of individual women in a patriarchal art world. The prints go beyond commenting on systemic sexism to conflate it with the physical violence of sexual assault. In some of the images Steckel seems to accept or desire the disembodied members, while in others she looks trapped as the erections force themselves on her.

The show’s centerpieces are two works from her New York Skylines series. Giant oil-painted men and women lounge atop a screen print of New York City in the 64-by-99-inch “N.Y. Canvas Series #2” (c. 1971). Its combination of decadence and horror looks back to German Weimar-era art, for instance Otto Dix’s triptych “Metropolis” (1927–28). In place of Dix’s cosmopolitan couples and mutilated war veterans in Berlin, Steckel’s nude revelers take over the sky above Manhattan like hulking gods. On the far left, a colossal man sits on an office building as a small woman presses against his massive erection. 

Touches of red and blue on the largely gray canvas suggest an Independence Day bacchanalia masking America’s sexual hypocrisy and misogyny. A Sphinx-like female figure on the right, with waves of red, white, and blue hair, sprays milk from a massive breasts while blood pours from dozens of teats on her underside, pooling in the East River. At the center is a lone, gigantic cock and balls. Like Dix’s painting, the celebratory atmosphere is weighted with violence, but pleasure and pain are inseparable because both are rooted in the same exploitative power structures. 

Anita Steckel, “N.Y. Canvas Series #2” (c. 1971), screenprint and oil on canvas, 64 x 99 inches

Though Anita Steckel provides just a sampling of her work, it’s a tightly curated sampling that gets to the artist’s central concerns. With both her art and activism, Steckel compelled audiences, and institutions, to acknowledge not only uncomfortable realities about systemic sexism — which persist decades later — but also to confront the sticky internal conflict of feeling diminished by the bodies we desire.

Anita Steckel continues at Hannah Hoffman (2504 West 7th Street, 2nd floor, Los Angeles, California) through October 23.

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