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Johanna Fateman on Martha Edelheit

by godlove4241
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In Martha Edelheit’s groovy scenes of erotic languor – featuring nudes in oblivious poses with intent or with distant facial expressions, usually basking in the sun – the undercurrent of optimism is most seductive. That, and the THC-Technicolor extravagance of its realistic style. The ninety-one-year-old artist’s exhibition here, “Naked City, Paintings from 1965 to 1980”, which included several works on a monumental scale, covered a period of social upheaval, when the artist worked with visionary feminist vigour. She rendered in detail loose dicks and non-idealized bodies, holding the sexual revolution at its word in the realm of painting.

Edelheit, who lives in both Sweden and New York, makes his egalitarian point of view – vis-à-vis art history, at least – most explicit in his review of the work of Édouard Manet. Lunch on the Grass, 1863. In the painting by the French modernist, two men in conversation have a picnic with an incongruous naked woman, while another woman bathes in the background. The American Painter View of the Empire State Building from meadow of sheep, 1970-1972, shows a parallel group – two men, two women – in Central Park. Yet Edelheit’s subjects are all naked, sitting on a bright blanket, gazing at something out of frame together. Edelheit levels the playing field in the verdant meadow, replacing the traditional feminine passivity of the reclining nude with unisex hippie torpor. She democratically depicts the bare flesh and disengaged look of her subjects – although in reality the men, with their legs apart, are more exposed. The urban skyline appears as a frieze beyond the line of sagging-backed trees of the group.

A nature/culture tension is often at play in the artist’s approach to the figure. New York takes up more compositional space in the grand view of Birds: a view from the terrace of the Lincoln Tower, 1974. The canvas depicts a man and a woman sunbathing – naked and huge in the foreground – lying on a sheet printed with the silhouettes of pigeons. On the terrace of a skyscraper, they seem to float, skyscrapers in soft hues all around them. They each have a bent leg. The man frames a triangle of the metropolis; the woman’s knee points towards us, her shortened thigh directs our gaze to her centered tuft of pubic hair.

There’s something territorial about Edelheit’s casual transposition of those sleazy vignettes and unabashed bodies onto the built environment. Anita Steckel, a contemporary of Edelheit in the women’s artistic movement, was simultaneously producing her “Giant Women” series, ca. 1969–74. She depicts naked women, of a monstrous scale, conquering New York and dominating its buildings, of which she underlines the phallic character. (Steckel founded the Fight Censorship Group, of which Edelheit was a member, alongside such figures as Judith Bernstein and Joan Semmel.) as a backdrop or foil to the release. The pair were also deemed lewd, with their careers reduced, in part, to their insistence on depicting the penis.

But this little body part was only a small part of this show. As important as it was for Edelheit to treat the male nude impartially, she also made radical images of women. The largest piece on display, the triple multiracial portrait Women in the landscape, 1966-1968, upsets the notion of a flexible and static female model in a different way. In each of the three panels of the mural-like work, a different woman is depicted in a range of positions and moods, her active interiority reflected in this time-lapse effect. Edelheit connects the domestic and mythical space with a lush Edenic background. The islet of floral tapestry where the women sit blends into a royal blue sea at dusk, under a peach-sorbet sky.

Then there is flesh cycle, 1969. A naked biker rides a Vespa-ish sex machine made up of pink and tawny curves, its wheels secured by clitoral nuts. She climbs a steep, mirrored ramp, gazing at her reflection, beneath a cleft of fluffy clouds and cerulean sky visible at the dividing diagonal of the image. It’s hard not to imagine the rider as Edelheit herself, carrying her project of feminist figuration. In these radiant paintings, the depiction of bodily reality, carnal fantasy and boundless ambition is where the rubber meets the road.

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