Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie, Habitus, 2010, laser-cut cast acrylic, mirror, wood, 48 x 96 x 96". Installation view.

Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie, Habitus, 2010, laser-cut cast acrylic, mirror, wood, 48 x 96 x 96". Installation view.

Mary Kelly

Moderna Museet | Stockholm

Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie, Habitus, 2010, laser-cut cast acrylic, mirror, wood, 48 x 96 x 96". Installation view.

In the New York Times of October 17, 1980, Hilton Kramer maligned Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974–79—an installation of thirty-nine place settings for historically significant and mythical women—as “art so mired in the pieties of a political cause that it quite fails to acquire any independent artistic life of its own.” His parry against Chicago, and by extension the women’s movement, was as reckless as Clement Greenberg’s dismissal of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work as “pseudo-modern art . . . little more than tinted photography.” Such chauvinism would have been familiar to Mary Kelly, whose Post-Partum Document, 1973–79, materialized in the same period. Kelly’s project became a cause célèbre for the movement, but with more than thirty years’ perspective, its subject, then alien to the art world, feels ever more poignant: motherhood’s psychological and social paradox—holding on while letting go. Why poignant? Because it was a pioneering artistic analysis of the subjective experiences of motherhood, based on Kelly’s son’s purchase on masculine identity. And what the likes of Kelly, Chicago, and others accomplished—the wholesale annexation of unclaimed artistic territory—made room for the likes of Laurie Simmons and Louise Lawler, whose achievements in turn made room for Andrea Zittel and Kara Walker. The cause had its effect, Hilton, wherever you are.

As activism and consciousness-raising helped achieve a degree of equity young women today may take for granted, Kelly’s attention shifted, though always with a concern to show the internalization of patriarchal ideology. This exhibition, “Four Works in Dialogue 1973–2010,” offers the occasion to trace her adaptations, starting with Post-Partum Document. The pun in the title Multi-Story House, 2007—the work is a collaboration between Kelly and Ray Barrie—is a reminder that no narrative of wrongs redressed should be allowed to obscure other injustices just as deserving of being righted. Texts, laser-cut into cast acrylic panels on the interior of a model house, acknowledge the achievements of the women’s movement: EVERYONE HAD A VOICE. YOU DIDN’T SPEAK FOR OTHERS. But on the exterior we discover voices of a different register: I GREW UP DODGING BULLETS IN ANGOLA. SO THE TERM FEMINIST DIDN’T MEAN MUCH. Kelly takes a key moral position: There have been and will be prejudices that do far greater harm than even sexism. This sense of relativism is underlined again in The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi, 2001; a woman recounts the story of a boy abandoned during the Balkan war (he survives and is returned to his loving family), and thereby makes a case for the political justice of Kosovo’s war for independence. In conjunction with Post-Partum Document, we have two stories of love for a son wherein Kelly leaves us to weigh up the differing destructive consequences of the various subspecies of bigotry, whether prejudice against women or prejudices based on race or religion.

Habitus, 2010, also in collaboration with Barrie, is a model of the Quonset hut–like Anderson shelter that provided housing during World War II in Britain. Various wartime family remembrances, laser-cut into the structure’s curving roof, can be read in its mirrored floor. MY FATHER WAS STUDYING LAW IN VIENNA UNTIL THE DIRECTOR GAVE HIM AN ULTIMATUM: EITHER JEW OR JUDGE. AFTER THAT, THEY LEFT FOR ENGLAND AND NEVER TALKED ABOUT IT. WELL, NO, THERE WAS ONE THING MY MOTHER REPEATED OVER AND OVER. “YOUR UNCLE WENT OUT ONE DAY AND NEVER CAME BACK. HE WAS A DENTIST. I STILL HAVE HIS TOOLS.” Shadowing the intimacy of her earliest narratives, these accounts, quietly gruesome, cut to the bone of collective memory. Far from being mired in a cause, Kelly—because she experienced the hard-won gains of the women’s movement—has kept the faith that substantive transformation, beginning with activism and consciousness-raising, remains within reach.

Ronald Jones