Marjorie Strider (1931–2014)

Arthur Mones, Marjorie Strider, 2001, gelatin silver photograph, 10 1/2 x 13 1/2", Photo: Estate of Arthur Mones.

It took me several viewings (and getting over my aversion to reading wall text) before I realized that it wasn’t a cherry in the mouth of Marjorie Strider’s 1963 Girl with Radish—that’s how indoctrinated I was in the fine visual tradition of Hot Chicks Mouthing Fruit. But when the radish finally broke through my colonized vision, everything about it—from the puny phallus of its root extension to the promised violence of its crunch—disrupted the flat femininity on which so much contemporaneous Pop art had relied. In the work of her male contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann, women’s mouths were pretty much vehicles for lipstick and compliance; Strider gave Girl a bit more bite. Like the onion that Bette Davis famously chomped as a means of deflating her enemies in All About Eve, that radish was the perfect kiss off.

When Strider died last August, she left behind a body of work that was varied in form but unified in strategy: With a stealthy sense of humor her art pushed back against visual, material, and political confinement. Her painted reliefs of busty bikini models and ripe vegetables put pressure on the boundary between painting and sculpture, but they also pushed against decorum by brazenly shoving themselves into viewers’ spaces. In the process, Strider’s sculpted boobs and fruiting bodies called the bluff of scopic privilege; they dared viewers (usually in the presence of other viewers) to touch, to implicate themselves tactilely in bodies that they thought they already dominated through vision.

Strider intensified her fascination with salience when she began working with colorful polyurethane foam—a substance that appealed to her because of its monstrous capacity to expand and develop on its own. She whipped up concupiscent mounds of it and made it bubble out of domestic consumables: brooms and bags and boxes of stuff, all gushing with toxic weirdness. She sometimes chose products whose packaging featured images of men wielding tools: a box of Arm & Hammer baking soda, for example, or a bag of Kingsford “hardwood” charcoal briquettes, on whose label a man works a steak with a fork. Such works made clear that muscles and metal prostheses (be they hammers, forks, or, for that matter, sculpture’s precious welding irons) would be useless against her Ooze. When Strider led colored foam through the openings of dilapidated buildings in the early 1970s, it was like discharge from a wound. When she foamed up museums’ staircases and facades, it seemed more like a demonstration of strategies for political takeover: In dealing with institutions, the Ooze seemed to show that resistance to power need not be explosive; it can be soft, decentered, slow, and implacable—like a slime mold. For an artist who learned the hard way that working with certain kinds of plastic can damage a body (at one point she had to change foam formulas because of the debilitating rashes she was getting), it makes sense that Strider would connect her viscous structures more legibly to ecological catastrophe, as with Flying Boat, 2003, in which dollops of tar-black foam cover a speedboat and entrap sculpted seagulls.

Strider was one of several women artists—like Pauline Boty, Rosalyn Drexler, and Elaine Sturtevant—who first gained prominence in the era of Pop, only to be pushed aside as male artists were given center stage. That she managed, over the last ten years, to press back into art history’s eye is cause for celebration. That she passed away so soon after her reemergence is cause for lamentation, not least because her insights and experiences—many of which had yet to be mined by art historians—passed with her. It is thus also a call for action, for us art historians to think much more carefully about the artists and opportunities that we ignore for all the wrong reasons. The longer we wait to recover them, the less time we will have to learn from them.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University and a regular contributor to Artforum.