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Martha Rosler Artworks

American Painter, Photomontage, Installation, Video, Performance Artist

Martha Rosler Photo
Movements and Styles: Pop Art, Feminist Art, Video Art, Performance Art

Born: July 29, 1943 - Brooklyn, New York

Artworks by Martha Rosler

The below artworks are the most important by Martha Rosler - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Cleaning the Drapes (c. 1967-72)

In this photomontage, Rosler uses pieces cut from magazine advertisements. A black-and-white image of a woman, with haircut and dress typical of the late-1960s, cleans heavily brocaded gold drapes with a cream paisley design. A vacuum is slung over her left shoulder as her hand pulls out the drape to make it taut. Her right hand drags the long hose attachment vertically down the fabric as she works. The far right depicts the other side of the drapes, framing a window in which we see a black-and-white scene of war. Large boulders fill the space in the center where two fully outfitted soldiers stand wearing helmets. Caught in a moment of rest, one smokes a cigarette while the other looks out at something in the distance. Their machine guns rest behind them and a gray ominous sky weighs oppressively above.

This work is one of twenty pieces from Rosler's House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c.1967-72) series created during, and influenced by, the Vietnam War. It was the first war in history that was literally brought into the homes of American people through the revolutionary new television set from which its horrors could be witnessed daily. It was often described as a "living room war" - a description loaded with strange poignancy as it shined a light on the eeriness of a nation living their everyday lives, ripe with consumerist concerns like keeping the stylish home drapes clean, all the while gruesome political realities took place elsewhere, becoming just another form of nightly entertainment in front of the tube.

This work is an important example of Rosler's role in multiple art historical movements. Her presence in the Pop art scene is clear here through the repurposing and reinterpretation of images from popular culture, news, home decorating, and housekeeping magazines. She also showcases her aggressive Activist vein. Because the typical American family's view of the war was shaped by media images, Rosler's compositions ask the viewer to consider the power that the media has in shaping one's view of politics. Rosler often purposely published these images in anti-war magazines and distributed copies of the work to like-minded individuals.

Simultaneously, there is a feminist element to the work as it comments on the robotic mundaneness of female domestic work in the midst of global unrest. The idea of women striving to keep the house beautiful while war's tragedies are omnipresent becomes almost comical, and presents a surreal picture about what we deem important. Recognizing the potential for manipulation in the photographic medium, Rosler once stated, "Any familiarity with photographic history shows that manipulation is integral to photography."

Woman With Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art (c.1966-72)

Woman With Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art is another work of photomontage. Fragments of images from magazines and advertisements depict a long narrow corridor with cream-colored walls on which hang colorful Pop art works and exhibition posters. Overhead is a red ceiling from which hang white globe lights. In the center of the work, a woman stands vacuuming a dark brown-carpeted floor. She is young and on trend with short hair, a white short-sleeve blouse, a calf-length dark green skirt, and black pumps. She holds the hose to the vacuum (positioned opposite and slightly behind her) in her left hand as she vacuums with her right. She confronts the viewer with a big smile on her red lips.

This work, while part of the larger Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain series (c. 1967-72), differs from many of Rosler's other works. Although it does indeed weave her common theme of addressing how women were recognized solely as housekeeping beauties in media at the time, it also takes it a step further by questioning women's underrepresented role as viable artists in the art world. Surrounded by works of Pop art, the woman smiles, happy to care for the space in which the art is hung. This figure is seemingly content in her domesticity and would never think to move beyond this task, accepting of her gender's fate of non-inclusion within the sphere of art, she exists merely to clean.

In a visually ironic way, Rosler uses the already ironically playful nature of Pop art to make this searing indictment on the way that women were treated in the art world of the 1960s and early 1970s. Despite the fact that there were many important female contributors to the genre such as Rosler, they were largely unrecognized. Male artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann (whose work is recreated on the corridor wall) were the ones most associated with the movement and whose work was most frequently exhibited.

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Cold Meat I (c.1966-72)

Furthering her use of appropriated imagery in Cold Meat I, Rosler presents a picture of a refrigerator formed from the naked torso of a female. The top door is open to reveal a freezer stocked with food. In front of the refrigerator are four long strips, of what appear to be flesh, lying flat on a blue background. The piece is one of a series of works in which the perfect naked female form, often exploited and objectified in popular culture, is reconfigured into the structures of everyday kitchen items such as a dishwasher, oven, or, as here, a refrigerator.

This work is an important example of how Rosler was able to use Pop art to make strong feminist statements about female objectification by society, which laid the foundation for the important role that she would eventually play in the Feminist art movement. With a jarring visual metaphor, she links the female body, often found in pornographic magazines, to food-related items like pieces of meat, mere commodity for male pleasure and consumption. In addition, the connection of the female body to the domestic realm of the kitchen serves to reinforce the narrow view that was still prevalent in the 1960s of woman as housekeeper, defined only by her role as mother, nurturer, and home provider. In describing this aspect of the series, she stated, "I should think that the reading of 'woman = good mother = food' is apparent in the kitchen set; you might say its theme is 'consumption'."

Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)

Semiotics of the Kitchen demonstrates Rosler's skill working in the newly developing video art field of the time. It is a black and white video, six minutes and nine seconds in duration. In it, we see the artist walk into a kitchen, don an apron, and proceed to vocally identify kitchen objects in alphabetical order: a for apron, b for bowl, c for chopper, d for dish, etc. As she goes down the roster, she quickly demonstrates each object's use. For the last few letters u through z she simply makes the shape of the letter with broad sweeping gestures of her arms while holding a utensil in each hand. There is a violent force in the manner in which Rosler presents many of the objects, such as slamming down the meat tenderizer or jabbing violently with the ice pick, which contradicts society's image of the happy homemaker in a decidedly passive-aggressive fashion.

This work is an important, and seminal, example of early Feminist art and visually asserts the importance of Rosler in this movement. While on one level, it can be viewed as a simple review of household objects, the way that they are presented makes the statement that women were not always happy in their assigned roles as housewife. The viewer is forced to consider that for many women there was a repressive, constraining force, beneath the surface of domestic bliss.

Point and Shoot (2008)

In the early 2000s, Rosler returned to her House Beautiful series from the 1960s to further her investigation of war. In this work, Point and Shoot, she continues her use of photomontage. It features a backdrop scene where a tank and troops enter a crowded street in Baghdad, their guns pointed at citizens. One soldier is in a heated confrontation with a woman dressed all in black holding the hand of a small male child while others look on in concern. In sharp contrast at the left forefront of the work, a glamorous bride (or a model for one) is pictured from behind in a long white strapless dress, her blond hair pulled up in a knot. She looks merrily over her shoulder, holding an old-fashioned camera, as she poses coyly for an unseen audience, perhaps gathered around a runway.

This new piece in her seminal series was created in response to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and remains an important example of Rosler's ability to make powerful political statements through her art. Here the frivolousness of society with social concerns such as planning a wedding seem insignificant and ridiculous in comparison to the horrors that are taking place in the Middle East. On another level, there is a strong feminist element to this work and the viewer is asked to consider the stark differences in realities for women in various parts of the world - in particular, the free white American woman versus the repressively veiled Iraqi female.

As with the original series, Rosler is asking the viewer to consider the power of the media and advertising to shape what we know of world events. One is asked to question the fact that there are images of bridal gowns filling fashion magazines while parts of the world are at war. For Rosler this hasn't changed much since the time of her first series. In discussing her return to this series after nearly four decades, she stated, "The downside was that people could say, 'She's revisiting something she did 30 years ago.' [...] But I thought that actually was a plus, because I wanted to make the point that with all the differences, this is exactly the same scenario. We haven't advanced at all in the way we go to war."

Related Artists and Major Works

Drowning Girl (1963)

Drowning Girl (1963)

Artist: Roy Lichtenstein (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein gained renown as a leading Pop artist for paintings sourced from comic books, specifically DC Comics. Although artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had previously integrated popular imagery into their works, no one hitherto had focused on cartoon imagery as exclusively as Lichtenstein. His work, along with that of Andy Warhol, heralded the beginning of the Pop art movement, and, essentially, the end of Abstract Expressionism as the dominant style. Lichtenstein did not simply copy comic pages directly, he employed a complex technique that involved cropping images to create entirely new, dramatic compositions, as in Drowning Girl, whose source image included the woman's boyfriend standing on a boat above her. Lichtenstein also condensed the text of the comic book panels, locating language as another, crucial visual element; re-appropriating this emblematic aspect of commercial art for his paintings further challenged existing views about definitions of "high" art.

Interior Scroll (1975)

Artist: Carolee Schneemann (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

For her performance at the Women Here and Now conference in East Hampton, Long Island, Schneemann entered the room covered in a sheet with only an apron beneath. She disrobed in the center of the space, climbed onto a table where she outlined her body in mud and struck "action poses" as if for a life-drawing class. She read from her book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter, and then slowly extracted a paper scroll from her vagina and read from it. Schneemann drew upon ritualism while using her whole body as an integral part of the art; she stated, "I thought of the vagina in many ways - physically, conceptually, as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation." According to art critic Robert C. Morgan, Interior Scroll must be understood within the contemporary context of the 1970s and feminist art in particular: by locating the root of artistic creativity at her genitals, Schneemann shifted away from the masculine precedent in art toward a feminist exploration of her body.

The Dinner Party (1979)

The Dinner Party (1979)

Artist: Judy Chicago (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

The Dinner Party is a monumental installation celebrating forgotten achievements in female history. Chicago described it as, "as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table." The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine "guests of honor"—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization. Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement. Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva. By incorporating elements of a contemporary social event with the status and appearance of a banquet, Chicago elevates her guests to the role of heroes, a traditionally male epithet. In essence, Chicago states, the work "takes us on a tour of Western civilization, a tour that bypasses what we have been taught to think of as the main road." The floor is inscribed with the names of 999 additional women worthy of recognition, while acknowledgment panels on the walls honor the 129 collaborators who worked with Chicago on the piece.

Regarded as an icon of 20th-century art, The Dinner Party is arguably the most significant and recognized piece of feminist art ever made, notable in its incorporation of collaborative working process, political symbolism, the sheer scale of the media response, and the unprecedented worldwide grassroots movement it prompted in reaction to the work's condemnation. The piece's lasting importance lies in its defiance of fine-art tradition by representing a feminine history suppressed by patriarchal society, as well as its celebration of the traditional "feminine" crafts: textile arts (weaving, embroidery, and sewing) and ceramic decoration. Featured in sixteen exhibitions in six different countries, The Dinner Party has been seen by millions of viewers.

Response to the work has been mixed. Many have praised the work, including art historian Susan Caldwell, who wrote that "it produces the sort of chill that comes only from beautiful works of strong conviction and conception." American curator and art critic Lucy Lippard said of the work, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional... The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings". Some critics, however, hold negative opinions of the work, with American art critic Hilton Kramer calling the work "vulgar" and "crass", and artist Cornelia Parker stating "we're all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It's almost like the biggest piece of victim art you've ever seen. And it takes up so much space! I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don't think the piece is either." The work has also been criticized for having a racial bias. Writer Esther Allen notes that the work excludes Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, and author Alice Walker notes that Sojourner Truth's plate is the only one that has three faces instead of a vagina, possibly, she proposes, because "white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas".

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