Mierle Laderman Ukeles
American Sculptor, Photographer, and Conceptual Artist
Denver, Colorado, USA
Summary of Mierle Laderman Ukeles
For almost half a century, Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been making art across a range of media and processes to challenge our ideas of work, care, and collaborative art practices. In her early work, Ukeles made abstract, messy, bodily sculptures, but it was her entrance into motherhood that provided a catalyst for her most significant and enduring idea of "maintenance art" and the "maintenance artist". Ukeles understood motherhood and domestic labour as a kind of maintenance work, and wanted to make this work visible by framing it as an art practice. Ukeles has documented her encounters with different kinds of care-workers, including sanitation workers and cleaners, and has also undertaken massive environmental care work, in the case of her current long-term project regenerating a landfill site in New York.
- Ukeles' most important and radical contribution to contemporary art is "maintenance art"; the claim that care work is art because it involves creative; challenging; emotional work, just like making art does.
- As part of the feminist movement of the early 1970s, writers like Sylvia Federici and Selma James started the Wages for Housework movement, which demanded wages for childcare and housework, the work that women were doing without getting paid. Mierle Laderman Ukeles also thought it was essential to recognise the hard work of motherhood, including childcare and domestic tasks, and her art remains some of the most important and compelling documents of these common tasks that are integral to keeping humans alive.
- Ukeles expanded on Marcel Duchamp's idea of the readymade, by stating not only that any found object can become art, but also that found actions, habits, and everyday activities, particularly those performed by women and working class people, can be art too.
- Mierle Laderman Ukeles was one of the first artists to work directly with large municipal organisations such as the New York Department of Sanitation and city planning divisions and she believes collaborations with these organisations allow her to make an art that is more accessible and representative of the spaces where she works.
- Accessibility is also important to Ukeles in her Land art, or Earthworks, pieces, in particular her long-term LANDING (1989-present) project reclaiming a landfill in New York. Ukeles felt that Land art artworks by people like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer were too difficult to get to and experience, and so is working to make Earthworks that are in or near major cities and are as accessible as possible for locals.
Biography of Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Ukeles grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighbourhood on the west side of Denver. Her father was a rabbi. She says that growing up in the 1950s was a "really weird time", especially for a woman. She found the culture very constraining, and decided to pursue her post-secondary studies out of state.
Important Art by Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Second Binding is an early sculptural work composed of a mass of wrapped, stuffed, bulbous forms, which are dyed black, red, orange, yellow, and brown to give the appearance of something organic and fleshy.
This work is one of several sculptures that Ukeles made while attending the Pratt Institute. The work caused a lot of controversy at the school, with administration demanding it be removed from the graduate studio as they considered the sculptures "pornography" created by an "oversexed" woman. When Robert Richenberg, her favorite professor, ignored these requests, he was dismissed from his position. Ukeles herself was not expelled as she had feared, however, she was made to feel "extremely unwelcome", which led to her dropping out after one more semester.
Speaking about leaving the school and these early works she says, "I almost fell apart. But I knew I was onto something very important. The work had value because it was my work." She rejected the idea that these visceral abstract works were "pornographic" and considered these "bindings" to be like "energy pods," stuffed to the point of bursting with rags, "like images of energy captured".
The tension she felt between her role as an artist and her role as a mother led Ukeles to write her three-and-a-half page Maintenance Art Manifesto in 1969. The manifesto emphasizes maintenance (domestic, as well as general/public and earth maintenance) as a creative strategy. In the manifesto, she also challenges the domestic role of women, and proclaims herself a "maintenance artist". She explains that the manifesto came about when she "felt like two separate people...the free artist and the mother/maintenance worker.... I was never working so hard in my whole life, trying to keep together the two people I had become. Yet people said to me, when they saw me pushing my baby carriage, 'Do you do anything?'...Then I had an epiphany... I have the freedom to name maintenance as art. I can collide freedom into its supposed opposite and call that art. I name necessity art." She reiterates this view in the manifesto, writing, "I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I 'do' Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art."
One part of the manifesto is a proposal for an exhibition titled Care, a show that "would zero in on pure maintenance, exhibit it as contemporary art." The show would be divided into three sections: personal (with Ukeles performing household chores in an art museum, thereby elevating domestic maintenance to the status of art), general (with Ukeles conducting interviews with members of the public about their relationship to maintenance), and earth (with various sorts of refuse being delivered to the museum, and then "rehabilitated" and "recycled"). The exhibition was never realised, as every institution she proposed it to rejected it. However, the proposal was pivotal in her career, as it laid the groundwork for the themes that would come to define it. The manifesto was one of the first artworks to make the work of the home, and mother, visible and to frame this work as art, and remains one of the most important text-based artworks in feminist and conceptual art histories - where the idea of the work is more important than what it looks like, or even if it was made at all!
The manifesto was published in Artforum in 1971 as part of a Jack Burnham article about the end of the avant-garde. This publication led to a relationship with important feminist curator, Lucy Lippard. Lippard invited Ukeles to be in c. 7,500, an exhibition of female conceptual artists she curated in 1973. The exhibition started at CalArts, and then travelled all over the USA.
Expanding on her Maintenance Art Manifesto, Ukeles began exploring maintenance as art by documenting her labour in the home and as a mother, including everyday, repetitive tasks like cleaning a dirty diaper or dressing her children to leave the house. By elevating domestic tasks to the realm of art, she brought attention to the importance and difficulty of domestic labour and the work of motherhood.
This series of photographs provides a moment-to-moment account of the task of dressing and undressing the artist's children, four-and-a-half year old Yael and two-and-a-half year old Raquel, in shoes, jackets, and scarves. There is a hurried quality to the sequence, which demonstrates the painstaking, repetitive, invisible work of being a mother as well as the intimacy that exists within her family. Art Historian and Cultural Theorist, Andrea List, writes that "the beautiful interplay of bodies touching, intertwining, and moving apart subtly describes the intersubjective knowledge of a mother who is in the act of working out how much of her own presence and support to give to the ever-changing development of her children ."
In this work, Ukeles uses black and white, artistic photography techniques to show us her everyday life as a mother. The careful and creative, but repetitive and exhausting work she does in looking after her children is very similar to the kinds of work that artists do, and these photographs tell us this by using the serious, sombre black and white colors, composition, and display we usually see in galleries and not family photo albums.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Mierle Laderman Ukeles
- Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance ArtBy Patricia C. Phillips, Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, Lucy Lippard, and Laura Raicovich
- Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Seven Work BalletsBy Kari Conte
- An Artist Who Calls the Sanitation Department HomeBy Randy Kennedy / The New York Times / September 21, 2016
- An Artist Redefines Power. With Sanitation EquipmentBy Holland Cotter / The New York Times / September 15, 2016
- 'Maintenance Art' Puts Trash in Full ViewBy Andy Battaglia / The Wall Street Journal / September 22, 2016
- What Mierle Laderman Ukeles's 'Maintenance Art' Can Still Teach Us TodayBy Ben Davis / Artnet news / September 20, 2016
- MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES: A HUMAN BEING IS THE WHOLE WORLDBy Eugenia Lim / 16 November 2017