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Anita Steckel

Diane Arbus, untitled black-and-white photograph of Anita Steckel, New York, ca. 1970.

RICHARD MEYER

I’VE MET ONLY ONE ARTIST who wrote dirty limericks, founded an anticensorship collective, dated Marlon Brando, worked on a cargo ship, and won the Mambo Queen of Southern California contest. Her name was Anita Steckel—and she was a pip.

IN HER WORK of the early 1960s, Steckel overpainted vintage photographs to summon wildly unexpected associations and narrative possibilities. The Impostor, 1963, is a revamped portrait of a priest in a church, outfitted by Steckel in sunglasses, panty hose, and high heels. The lower half of the father’s white satin robes have been cut away to reveal the legs of a Hollywood showgirl. The cross-dressing cleric pretends to the piety of the priesthood while secretly stepping to the beat of the most flamboyantly sexualized femininity. In The Librarian, 1963, the titular young lady, with her spectacles and sober mien, would project the rectitude associated with her profession, except for the fringed black bra and G-string that Steckel has supplied.

Both The Impostor and The Librarian were included in Steckel’s one-person exhibition at the Hacker Gallery in 1963. Steckel titled the show “Mom Art” because, as she put it, with characteristic irreverence, “I didn’t want to be called a Pop.” By interpreting Pop art as paternal rather than popular and by reimagining turn-of-the-century photographs through the lens of sexual secrecy, Steckel launched a protofeminist satire of American culture in the early ’60s.

COMMUTING BETWEEN her Brooklyn home and Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art in the late 1940s, Steckel saw more than her share of flashers. Years later, she would recall the experience in a limerick:

Riding subways to school wearing socks
I developed a knowledge of cocks
Every week I’d see four
Sometime five, sometime more
Sometimes one every two or three blocks

The public exposure of men on the train was a source of both sexual knowledge and trauma, as is made clear in the next stanza of her poem:

Those sexual shocks every day
Turned me into a difficult lay
For there it remained
That thing from the train
Stood before me the very same way

As in this bit of verse, the penis as depicted in Steckel’s art is at once an image of sexual spectacle and a sign of male privilege, an object of desire and one of imposition.

This overdetermined status is writ large (so to speak) in a late-’60s work in which a fraternity of men share a long, loopy, hydra-headed phallus that snakes out of the pants of one guy and coils around the necks and into the mouths of several others. Titled Secret Members, the picture simultaneously pokes fun at and sexualizes the workings of patriarchal power. Long before the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick described the homosocial bonds that lubricate power relations among heterosexual men, Steckel rendered male privilege into a “secret member.”

IN THE 1970S, Steckel’s work became increasingly audacious. At the opening of her 1972 exhibition “The Feminist Art of Sexual Politics,” at Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York, Steckel distributed copies of a collaged drawing in which the dollar bill bears the silhouette of an erect penis. She titled the work Legal Gender to draw attention to the fact that “women don’t receive an equal amount of pay, or legal tender, for the same jobs [as men].”

IN 1973, Steckel founded the Fight Censorship group in her New York apartment. Members included Louise Bourgeois, Martha Edelheit, Joan Semmel, and Hannah Wilke. Steckel read a “statement on censorship” she’d written that laid out the group’s mission. “We demand that sexual subject matter—as it is part of life—no longer be prevented from being part of art.” She concluded with this unforgettable argument:

“If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums—it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women. And if the erect penis is wholesome enough to go into women, then it is more than wholesome enough to go into the greatest art museums.”

IN HER LAST SERIES OF WORKS before her death this past March, Steckel returned to the overdrawing of photographs that was the hallmark of “Mom Art.” This time, the photographs were not found images of anonymous librarians and priests but the artist’s own snapshots of family and friends. In one, Steckel has reworked a picture that, in its original form, found her and her then husband, artist Jordan Steckel, posing for the camera at a formal occasion, he in a white dinner jacket and black bow tie and she in a cocktail dress. In the updated version, Steckel retains her handbag, earrings, makeup, high heels, and cigarette but has, as it were, retroactively unzipped her dress and stepped out of it.

This 2011 picture undermines the appearance of marital concord and draws out the air of slight detachment that was there all along, especially as registered on Steckel’s face. In a 1963 article on “Mom Art,” Steckel told Esquire magazine, “I assume the image has a life of its own, powerful enough to get up, walk off the canvas, and sit beside us on the living-room couch.” Here, it is Steckel’s unbidden nakedness that makes her seem ready to walk out of the picture (if not the marriage) altogether and set off for other destinations in both art and life.

STECKEL WAS A GIFTED RACONTEUR, and her stories—about dating Marlon Brando while he was starring in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway; about the day Diane Arbus rang her doorbell and asked whether she could test out some new film on her; about her one-sentence letter of recommendation (“Give this girl a Guggenheim!”) from Ray Johnson—are priceless. But I, for one, had never heard any stories about Steckel until a few years ago, when I learned about the Fight Censorship group and arranged to meet her in person.

Steckel never got major attention or high-profile one-person exhibitions in the art world. But she did forge a lifelong career as an artist. She taught at the Art Students League. She showed at the Mitchell Algus Gallery. She worked every day at her apartment-studio in the Westbeth Artists’ Housing complex, where a memorial exhibition of her art, alongside that of her students from the league, will be mounted in July. Rather than marginal or overlooked, Steckel told me she preferred the term underknown. Underknown places the burden on viewers rather than the artist by suggesting that their knowledge is inadequate to her achievement.

When she was well into her seventies, Steckel created a group of works titled Anita of New York Meets Tom of Finland, in which a female nude engages with bulgingly homoerotic men. With perfect incongruity, she framed the pictures within decorative, even flowery borders. Steckel may have been “underknown” during her lifetime. But those who become acquainted with the artist and her work posthumously are unlikely to forget either anytime soon.

Richard Meyer is associate professor of art history at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.