In Dialogue with curator Aliza Edelman
The excellent current exhibition Eunice Golden: Metamorphosis at SAPAR Contemporary, rigorously curated by scholar and curator Aliza Edelman, Ph.D., features paintings and photographs by the 93 years old prolific artist from 1979 to 2009. Based in the West Village and in East Hampton, New York, Eunice Golden has made throughout five decades an outstanding and bold body of work with consistent commitment to her artistic vision and to feminism, while keeping her work admirably fresh and urgent all the way. In her later paintings the body is fragmented and anthropomorphized into a landscape, described by the artist as a philosophical and spiritual outgrowth of her earlier radical oeuvre of sexual body landscapes. Golden says on these recent works, “I am concerned with tactility and the sensation of touch, but also of thought on a primal level, where there are no boundaries and where natural phenomenon are blurred by processes of metamorphosis.” In this interview Aliza Edelman elaborates on the genesis of this show and the ideas behind Eunice Golden’s work.
AS: Let’s start with the genesis of this exhibition at Sapar Contemporary
AE: I had the pleasure of interviewing Eunice Golden at her studios in New York City and the Springs, East Hampton, while conducting research for an essay recently published in Woman’s Art Journal (2020). Golden’s (b. 1927, New York) career spans more than five decades and, in fact, has important connections to the journal’s feminist roots. In Woman’s Art Journal’s first-ever issue, in 1980, Joan Semmel and April Kingsley discussed the sexual imagery of Golden’s early drawings as departing from “traditional figuration in their deliberate ‘exposure’ of excited male organs.” Semmel and Kingsley reinforced connections between Golden’s investigations of the male body and genitals—the penis or ‘phallus’—and abstract landscapes, expressing how the extension of the “male pelvic region” across the surface of the canvas is analogous to a “total world.” This was an apt description of Golden’s abstract visualization of the male nude presented in her early series Male Landscapes (1968-73) and Body Landscapes (1975). Two years later, in 1982, Golden contributed her own short essay to Woman’s Art Journal on the topic of sexuality in art from a feminist perspective, touching upon the fierce debates surrounding the broad definitions of “feminist art,” what it meant in the 1970s and early 1980s to be a “liberated woman,” and, specifically, the evolution of her own body of works on male sexual imagery.
From the beginning, Golden understood that her erotic studies of male and female corporeality were a radical departure from the images and interests of many other women artists, such as Judy Chicago, Eleanor Antin, or Martha Edelheit, for instance. Recently, Golden was included in a major international exhibition called In the Cut: The Male Body in Feminist Art, organized by Dr. Andrea Jahn at the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Germany. Golden’s formative male landscapes, Purple Sky (1969) for example, were shown in the company of New York contemporaries, such as Carolee Schneemann, Betty Tompkins, Louise Bourgeois, and Semmel. In the Cut also provided a global arena to expand the discussion of eroticism, sexuality, and censorship to a younger generation of women artists emerging at the turn of the millennium, as well as those artists from the 1980s, such as Susan Silas, Tracey Emin, and ORLAN. In many ways, the exhibition at SAPAR Contemporary was drawing upon this momentum by recognizing the controversial and scintillating nature of this topic at-large, and highlighting the need to educate viewers about Golden’s remarkably radical and long career. Further, it is an important opportunity to reassess these formative art historical discourses on sexuality through the lens of Golden’s later production by analyzing the series Metamorphosis (2003-2007) and Flora (2009) as an outgrowth and commentary on her earlier oeuvre of male body landscapes.
AS: Eunice Golden wrote in her essay in Heresies in 1981, that “ For women to take control of their own image-making processes, they must become aware of the dialectics of eroticism on power and why such imagery is taboo.” From this, and from her earlier article in 1975, “On the Censorship of News”, It seems that Eunice Golden has grappled with censorship since early on, perhaps even up to today. Why do you think the core of her imagery has been perceived as excessively provocative, even pornographic, since the 1970s?
AE: It should be made clear that Golden was, from the beginning, distinguishing eroticism from pornography, a hotly contested subject and debate of second wave feminism. Like many of her feminist colleagues in Fight Censorship group—a collective of women artists founded in 1973 by Anita Steckel that included Bourgeois, Edelheit, Joan Glueckman, Juanita McNeely, Anne Sharp, and Hannah Wilke—Golden was exposing the nuances of female sexuality and eroticism as opposed to pornography, and making appearances at colleges and universities, and presenting on panels, at conferences, and on television.
For Golden, erotic art, as discussed in her pioneering article in the ‘Sex’ issue of Heresies, was about demystifying sexuality, a self-determination to re-define the psycho-social dynamics of male and female sexuality. Yet imagine what courage and candor it took for Golden, who was also a mother, to vocalize her own erotic fantasies and carnal needs (also confessed in her writings), and then visualize these desires not through her own autoerotic performances, or in the photography or film of her own body in action, but through the corporeal embodiment and morphology of the male organ—shown in different orientations, whether or not abstractly.
Arguably, Golden was also calling out other male artists in the late 1960s and ‘70s, such as Robert Morris or Vito Acconci, who understood the power and ritualistic play of the penis’s phallic status as a ‘cultural fantasy,’ amplified in their body art performances or installations. For women’s own sexual art, it’s much harder to “wield” this phallic power and simultaneously expose phallic masculinity’s artificial constructions. Golden was acutely aware of this paradoxical divide, and what it meant to transgress the parameters of sexual desire while not being perceived as vulgar.
In paintings such as Triptych for the Bicentennial (1975) or Study for a Flag (1975), she was also strategically claiming the male body as a site for cultural and political networks because she was, as she said, quite exhausted by “living within a ‘male landscape.’” On the one hand, she was frustrated because she felt that her works were not critically accepted and included in institutional exhibitions or museum collections due to their radical subject matter—in particular the 1975 Queens Museum show titled Sons and Others: Women Artists See Men; on the other hand, she wanted to respond to this anger from within this patriarchal and technological male environment. Ultimately, Golden concluded that her work was marginalized and lost visibility due to its radicality, which was a loss equated with the greatest form of censorship, one of the mind and the soul, and what she recalled to me as an “erasure and suppression of a woman’s voice.”
AS: I am going back to Eunice Golden’s essay, where she says:
“There should be a place in women’s art where intimacy can be defined in terms that are very broadly sexual: a prophetic art whose richness of fantasy may unleash a healthy appetite for a greater sense awareness as well as unmask the fallacies of male power. —Eunice Golden, from an essay in Heresies, 1981.
Can you elaborate on her notion of intimacy as reflected in a couple of the paintings in this exhibition in comparison to some of her earlier work? For example, her Metamorphosis #20 from 2007?
AE: In many ways, Golden’s broad notions of intimacy and eroticism stem from her earliest anatomical bodily observations that utilized real models, an artistic experience that was in many ways pivotal, especially as she was denied nude models in life drawing classes at the Art Students League where drapery cloaked the genitals. This extended somewhat naturally to an understanding of sexuality’s fluidity, a social construct but also a principle of living that she understood as integral to humanity’s Gestalt. The connective surge of embrace demonstrated in her seminal charcoal drawings from the late 1960s and early ‘70s, such as Figures in the Labyrinth #7 (1970), formally express a protean androgynous physicality that move beyond heteronormative gender binaries. Her large pastels from 1973, also called Metamorphosis—for example Metamorphosis #10—explore biomorphic passages that resemble corporeal orifices and protrusions but are never resolved anatomically.
Throughout her career, Golden wanted to examine these sexual tensions of corporeal irresolution, an embodiment that exists in the spaces between vulnerability and erotic power. She often speaks about this process of embodiment as an active process of “deconstructing the figure and reconstructing it.” At SAPAR, her later painting series, also titled Metamorphosis, reveals, once again, an underlying anthropomorphism. Like her earlier works, they are sensorial exercises that map the body’s subtle fragmentation in nature and evoke physical ambiguities more concerned with tactility and sensations of touch. Metamorphosis #20, the culmination of this series from 2007, echoes the formal trope of pelvic bifurcation displayed in her earlier male landscapes, but now the bodily presences appear caught in a metallic web. In this respect, these works appear more like earthly entanglements, an accumulation and consummation of knowledge, experience, and memories after a long outstanding career, and therefore they elicit a philosophical and spiritual shift in sensibility.
AS: I am very drawn to Eunice Golden’s rigorous exploration of body and landscape throughout the years. Her paintings, drawings, and photographs make me think of body as landscape and landscape as body – perhaps as metamorphosis but perhaps even more as entangled inter-connected equal forces that are fluid, perpetually changing. Can you elaborate on how she navigates the two– landscape and figure? Maybe we can look at a drawing such as Dreamscape #6 or Study for Garden of Delights #1 and a painting such as Metamorphosis #14 or #15?
AE: Golden’s visualization of the male nude as an abstracted landscape was a formal and conceptual approach to challenge centuries of mythological and allegorical depictions of female nudes by male artists. She was also navigating the histories of landscape painting. Her use of the title Male Landscapes for a series of drawings and paintings created between 1968 and 1973 was a brilliant formal response to two major historical aspects of European and American painting—the nude and the landscape—through which she destabilized ways of seeing and controlling the landscape and the spectatorial dynamics of the ‘male gaze.’ When she exhibited Landscape 160 (1972) in the Whitney Museum’s 1977 exhibition Nothing But Nudes, Golden was critically recognized and praised for her strategic conflation of the male anatomy and geology that inversed landscape’s equation with the female body. Here, the male body’s flesh and muscular skeins, oriented to the rising phallus or horizon, was also conceived as a performative act by which Golden permitted herself, in the gestural process of creating it, of psychologically penetrating the surface, surrounding herself in it, and transcending masculine power. This was a feminist reclamation of the sexed male body as a geographical and cultural terrain that gave authoritative agency to the female gaze, yet she was also investing her landscapes—and her artistic relationship with her models—with a liberating freedom to act without inhibition or self-censorship. Thus, a central dialogue is continually negotiated in Golden’s work between eroticism, erogenous pleasure, and the process of ‘rupturing’ phallic masculinities.
Moreover, in later examples, such as Dreamscape #6 and Study for Gardens of Delight #1 (1980), Golden now brings the landscape into an ‘interior’ realm, a flat spatial terrain of vibrant surface patterns. The male body’s languorous physique bisects the canvas against a sea of abstracted kilns and textiles, which become a decorative and ornamental armature to the supine male. What I love most about these later series, Dreamscapes and Gardens of Delight, is how the male body is now confined to the boundaries of the domestic and habitable landscape, an emphasis on ritual adornment and embellishment that contrasts dynamically with her earlier male body landscapes but equally draws the viewer into a seductive play and exchange. In Dreamscape #6, Golden disembodies the male figure altogether in its decorative matrix.
AS: In several of her later paintings, such as Metamorphosis #16 and #17 – the fragmented splayed pelvis still appears but the figure is genderless. Depicting the phallus seems to be central in Eunice Golden’s overall work. How do you see the evolution, or perhaps shift in her approach, from a painting like Landscape #160 from 1972 to Metamorphosis # 16? And perhaps you can put it in some art history context of landscape and figure painting?
AE: The paintings Metamorphosis #16 and #17 (2006) certainly engage bodily experiences at a visceral level. Against a vibrant blue palette, we find woody roots in nature growing in dendroid patterns, foreshortened branches extend across the surface, conjuring vessel systems and cocoons, or intercellular matrices and cosmic fields. A protean physicality strongly exists, but there is now a more nuanced balance between the intimate and the colossal. But Golden was always concerned with reorienting our perception of human sexuality, and these works are an extension of her primary research on the morphology of the male organ. Golden has often utilized nature or worked outdoors, especially in her films and photographic series from 1973 to 1976, produced along the beaches in Montauk Island, which offered a more playful and ritualistic decoration of both male and female bodies and genitalia. In her film Blue Bananas and Other Meats of 1973, Golden literally serves up the penis as a delectable feast, cinematically framed around the splayed pelvis and a woman’s hand’s ornamenting the penis with food. Golden was also responding to Linda Nochlin’s rousing photograph Buy Some Bananas (1972), the art historian’s parody of a naked man selling his ‘wares.’
Other photographs by Golden from the early seventies are more stylized representations of both male and female bodies mounting rocks or delineated bodies, somewhat indistinguishable in sex, painted with shapes, stripes, or words, such as Bodyworks II #4 (1976). Moreover, we can make a formal art historical link from Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) (1866) to Golden’s early drawings, for instance Yellow Landscape (1968), and note her reversal of female to male genitalia. However, I would also offer that the anatomical ambiguities in her later Metamorphosis series is another developmental shift that unites landscape and gender more fantastically, a virtual space merging dimensions and hybridized sexes, perhaps even artificially augmented, mediated, or post-gender, without the need for biological necessity, once again pushing forward our understanding of geography and corporeality. There has been a sense of visual chronology in her career that begins with sexuality, but she is consistently reorienting and manipulating our perception of the landscape.
AS: This exhibition gives us the flavor of Eunice Golden’s large body of work since the early 70s. In addition, she has recently had some other major exhibitions. Do you think the world is more ready for Eunice Golden’s bold paintings and how do you envision expanding the recognition she so well deserves?
AE: In 2019, Golden received an extraordinary reception in Andrea Jahn’s important show In the Cut: The Male body in Feminist Art at Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Germany, and simultaneously exhibited her Blue Bananas and Other Meats (1973) at the international exhibition Maskulinitäten, organized by the Bonner Kunstverein, Kölnischer Kunstverein, and Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Jahn spoke to me about the institutional and market challenges that still exist when organizing an exhibition that covers the male body in feminist art or from a feminist perspective; she also acknowledged the visibly positive response and reception to many women artists in the show who were historically marginalized for their erotic subjects, including Golden, and how that was probably a reflection of the more open and fluid sexual norms that exist in Europe as opposed to the United States. Yet Golden has always received stellar criticism throughout her career, even as she has suffered from institutional omissions and censorship. As much as Golden was in the vanguard of seventies feminist activism and greatly deserves an institutional-based solo exhibition that surveys her remarkable career, we must now also examine her works in relationship to contemporary artists who have successfully confronted controversial sexual material, such as Jenny Saville, Sarah Lucas, or Tracey Emin, for example. I believe these dialogues are really very exciting and informative for today’s viewers and art historians.
Eunice Golden: Metamorphosis Curated by Aliza Edelman, Ph.D. At SAPAR Contemporary Gallery + Incubator 9N. Moore St New York, NY 10013 Through Novebmer 28th, 2020