New York

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, video, black-and-white, sound, 6 minutes 13 seconds.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, video, black-and-white, sound, 6 minutes 13 seconds.

Martha Rosler

The Jewish Museum

Martha Rosler doesn’t suffer fools. Pointedly and with blunt humor, the artist has delivered biting critiques of the misogyny, racism, and exploitative economics that characterize American capitalism and its hypocrisies. Yet the sheer volume of works in “Irrespective,” the Jewish Museum’s potent survey covering roughly fifty years of Rosler’s artmaking, resists any attempt to pigeonhole her art as purely “about” feminism or gentrification. The museum’s cramped first-floor galleries—in which photographs, videos, installations, and sculptures had been wrangled into unruly sections—work to reinforce the sense that the profusion of her production underscores her intersectional approach, in both form and content.

“Irrespective” makes clear that video remains Rosler’s most powerful medium. Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, the artist’s aggressive demonstration of a domestic alphabet (from A as in apron to T as in tenderizer), which deftly mocks both TV cooking shows and Conceptual art, is among the most important video works of the twentieth century. But several of the others on view—for example, The East Is Red, the West Is Bending, 1977, a wry infomercial in which the artist, wearing sunglasses and a Chinese-style jacket, reads directly from a manual for the West Bend electric wok, calling painful attention to the orientalizing impulse of American manufacturing; and the Brechtian romp Pencicle of Praise, 2018, in which the burlesque spectacle of Trump’s cabinet members professing their gratitude to the president with increasingly ornate language is interrupted by red Xs the artist superimposes over the underlings who have since been dismissed—were equally arresting. The exhibition also highlighted Rosler’s prescient interest in food production and consumption, and in the gender, class, and cultural roles that cooking has, in her words, “naturalized and normalized.” Indeed, it was this work that most caught my attention.

Because Rosler is an expert wit when pointing out our culture’s bromides and deficiencies, I was surprised to have been roused by a quieter piece: a modest, five-shelf bookcase flanked by two chairs and filled with well-thumbed publications on cuisine, table decoration, and food history. These items were taken from her 1974 installation and performance A Gourmet Experience, in which a lavishly set dining table awaits the sumptuously prepared platters that are projected on the wall behind it. As in her much larger installation Martha Rosler Library, 2005–2008, consisting of more than seven thousand volumes from her personal collection, visitors are invited to handle the books, which include The Settlement Cookbook (1901), Larousse Gastronomique (1938), a twenty-seven-volume set published by Time Life Books called Foods of the World (1968–71), paperbacks by Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan, and anthologies such as Edible Ideologies (2008), and Food and Philosophy (2009). Looking through them, I overheard museumgoers reminisce about the cookbooks they had grown up with and even watched them flip to their favorite dishes. These “decoys,” as Rosler calls them, are devices meant to trigger the memory, providing an affective shortcut for engagement. But the volumes function as more than a lure; they also offer a glimpse of the artist’s idiosyncrasies that pierce the seeming invulnerability of her political critiques. In many of the texts, pages have been marked with bits of torn junk mail, slightly soiled napkins, lozenge wrappers, or other trash. In one (the delightfully titled Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee [2008], a hardcover that the artist seems to have used to research her 2000 performance Romances of the Meal), a Band-Aid serves as a place marker, as if to foreground the potential danger of her topic. The suggestion that, for Rosler, this reading was urgent enough that any nearby scrap could be used to mark her place was unexpectedly touching, and the use of bandages as bookmarks serve as a metaphor—for this viewer at least—for Rosler’s project. While inveighing against misogyny and racism, her project also affirms “that there’s a future, not just dystopia,” as she tells Molly Nesbit in the exhibition catalogue. We will need to use everything within our grasp to build it.

Rachel Churner