Judith Bernstein is a feminist artist and activist who was born in New Jersey in 1942. Known for her bold depiction of genitalia in her art as well as her unwavering commitment to the anti-war and feminist movements, Bernstein has earned a reputation for being one of the most provocative visual artists of her generation.
Born into a Jewish family, Bernstein spent her early life in Newark, New Jersey. Although she did not come from an overtly artistic family – though her father used to paint in their basement with his friends – Bernstein had wanted to be an artist since childhood. After attending Pennsylvania State University, Bernstein entered a Master of Fine Arts programme at the Yale School of Art, where she was in a minority of women studying the arts.
While at Yale, Bernstein read in The New York Times that playwright Edward Albee had seen ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ graffitied in a bathroom and taken it for the title of his play. Intrigued by this idea, two of Bernstein’s male friends – one was playwright John Guare – introduced her to the graffiti in the men’s bathrooms at Yale. Bernstein was artistically and linguistically inspired by the graffiti, finding a raw humour and deep psychological motivation in what she found.
Building on this, Bernstein went on to create a body of aggressive anti-Vietnam War work that utilised graffiti and large scale penises to comment on male aggression and the horror of war. In 1967, Bernstein produced Fun Gun, a painting of a penis which doubled as a gun shooting bullets. Bernstein also painted the Union Jack-Off series, which featured two penises in the shape of an X. Bernstein’s style in these early pieces was fun and irreverent; she used distressed canvasses to mimic the walls of toilet cubicles.
Bernstein graduated from Yale in 1967 and found that although she was talented, and hardworking enough to excel at the university, she struggled to find work in the male-dominated New York gallery system. In response to this, in 1972 Bernstein, along with several others, founded the all-women A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) Gallery, an artistic cooperative in New York. The founding of A.I.R. Gallery is now seen as a key moment for the feminist art movement in the United States. Bernstein continued to be involved with many activist artistic organisations throughout her career, including Guerrilla Girls and Art Workers’ Coalition.
A.I.R. gave Bernstein her first solo exhibition in 1973. The exhibition featured what would become her most well-known series: the screw drawings. Developed out of her work with graffiti and playing on language and sex, the drawings depicted flathead screws transformed into images more overtly phallic.
A year after her first solo show, one of Bernstein’s large-scale screw drawings, Horizontal, was selected for ‘Focus: Women’s Work – American Art in 1974’ at the Philadelphia Civic Centre Museum. However, and despite protests from contemporaries such as Louise Bourgeois, Horizontal was removed from the exhibition by the museum because it was likened to pornography. Supporters of Bernstein wore ‘Where’s Judith Bernstein?’ badges to the exhibition opening.
Following this, Bernstein joined together with Fight Censorship, a collective of women who were similarly facing discrimination in the art world. Founded by visual artist Anita Steckel, who was also criticised for using sexual imagery in her work, Bernstein later said that although the group did get some press coverage, they were not taken seriously.
In recent years, Bernstein has also reflected on the fractious nature of the feminist movement during these years. Her work was not wholly embraced by the feminist movement, as some believed that representations of penises could not be feminist. Bernstein argued that her version of feminism included observing male culture and commenting on it through her art.
Following her expulsion from ‘Focus’, Bernstein struggled to find galleries that would exhibit her work, and her career took nearly 25 years to recover. During this period, she taught in high schools across New York and continued her daily practice of painting and drawing. During this period, Bernstein feared that “I would die and everything would be thrown out.”
In 2007, Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the first major retrospective of early feminist art, omitted Bernstein’s work. The oversight was noted by critic Richard Meyer. The following year, Bernstein found champions in fellow artist Paul McCarthy, similarly famed for his use of sexual imagery in his art, and gallerist Mitchell Algus, who gave her a solo show. Following this, the New Museum gave Bernstein a mini-retrospective in 2012 titled ‘Judith Bernstein: Hard’. For this, Bernstein scrawled her name from ceiling to floor on a glass wall as a discussion on ego and male posturing. The new Whitney Museum of American Art also put her piece Vietnam Garden in its inaugural exhibition in 2015. The same year, Bernstein was also named Art Basel’s Feature curated selector.
Today, Bernstein continues to make work which is political and urgent, using sexuality and images of genitalia to explore human psychology and power structures. In 2014 she created her Birth of the Universe series, which addressed themes of aggression, sexuality and humour and placed the vagina at the centre of the canvas. With these paintings, Bernstein aimed to demystify the romantic vision of the vagina in art history while also representing the anger which she feels is an integral part of her background and artistic output.
In 2016, Bernstein opened two solo shows, one at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York and the other at Kunsthall Stavanger in Stavanger, Norway, both of which were critically acclaimed. In February 2018, Bernstein exhibited Money Shot at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. These were a series of large-scale paintings about the Trump presidency.
The length of Bernstein’s career is testament to her work’s importance and endurance. Still committed to the feminist cause, when recently asked her thoughts on 21st century feminism Bernstein stated that although the world has come a long way, there is still work to be done so women and artists of colour have equal access to the system.