Los Angeles

Anita Steckel, My Town, ca. 1969–74, gelatin silver print, 37 × 49".

Anita Steckel, My Town, ca. 1969–74, gelatin silver print, 37 × 49".

Anita Steckel

In the late Anita Steckel’s large-scale gelatin silver print My Town, ca. 1969–74, a busty recumbent nude stretches out across several city blocks on Manhattan’s East Side, resting her elbow on a squat little building just to the right of the United Nations. Nonchalantly making the skyline her own chaise longue, the woman possesses a body transparent enough to reveal the architecture behind her. Pictured with Steckel’s own face, the figure collapses images of private and public during the same time that “The personal is political” became a feminist rallying cry. In an emphatic assertion of artistic authorship, Steckel (1930–2012) signed her name on the print twice—once in thick black letters in the upper-left corner and again at the bottom right in a message that reads original collage steckel ’73. The work, however, isn’t strictly a collage: The artist constructed this piece by painting on top of a found color illustration of Manhattan, photographing it in black-and-white and then enlarging and printing it at roughly three feet high and four feet wide. What Steckel has done in My Town is superimpose: She has added something to an existing image without concealing what is underneath, performing the formal equivalent of insisting on the interrelatedness of supposedly incompatible things. This notion is perhaps the conceptual linchpin of Steckel’s practice.

My Town, along with other works from Steckel’s series “Giant Women,”ca. 1969–74, (six of which were on view in this exhibition), pictures the city as a site of both violence and pleasure for women. For example, in another work from the series, Steckel depicts herself getting impaled by the Chrysler Building’s lightning rod. In the “Giant Women” works, the phallic nature of Manhattan’s skyscrapers is more a subtext, but in the artist’s “New York Landscape” series, ca. 1971, the association between cock and the Chrysler edifice is bawdier in tone. Steckel leans into the double meaning of erection in N.Y. Canvas Series #2, ca. 1971, in which one giant boner shoots red, white, and blue cum over New York’s skyline, while another dick doubles as a cannon launching tiny black balls into the Empire State Building. N.Y. Canvas Series #2 was included in Steckel’s infamous 1972 show at Rockland Community College in Ramapo, New York, which touched off a censorship controversy in Manhattan’s art world and led to Steckel’s founding of the Fight Censorship Group (FC) the following year. The group’s members included Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, and Hannah Wilke. A 1973 manifesto of sorts penned by Steckel for the FC boldly declared: “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums—it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.”

The erect penis was, in fact, Steckel’s frequent subject. In an untitled and undated series of Xerox prints on view, the artist smashed her face against the copier’s glass plate, forcing her lips into exaggerated, open-mouthed positions. Drawing with pencil on top of the images, Steckel superimposed the outlines of stiff, elongated dicks that often plunge into her mouth and sometimes expel teardrop-shaped drops of semen. As violent as these works appear, Steckel’s goofy faces and cartoonish illustration style show that she approached her raunchy content with a healthy sense of humor. Unlike Steckel, mainstream feminists took an increasingly humorless approach to sex as the 1970s progressed, culminating in the so-called sex wars. At an infamous conference at New York’s Barnard College in 1982, a group of “sex radical” feminists challenged the dominant antiporn contingent. Scholar Carole Vance presented a paper titled “Between Pleasure and Danger,” in which she argued that women’s sexuality is a messy negotiation of the two terms—sometimes oppressive, sometimes empowering, but most often a combination of both. Steckel’s photographic superimpositions are an early material exploration of what Vance puts into words with her own theories. Like her feminist contemporaries, Steckel was faced with the complex dilemma of making her private pleasures line up with her public politics. While she never neglected to depict violence, she also laughed at the messiness of pairing pleasure with danger—star-spangled body fluids and all. Steckel implored her peers in a 1972 statement: “Women, rip off your ‘white-gloves’—rip off the fig leaf—and then perhaps we’ll all have a chance to get together and tell some jokes.”