New York

View of “Kate Millett,” 2022. Photo: Dan Bradica.

View of “Kate Millett,” 2022. Photo: Dan Bradica.

Kate Millett

Before she wrote her influential feminist book Sexual Politics (1970), before Alice Neel painted her portrait for the cover of the August 31, 1970, issue of Time magazine, and before she founded a women’s art colony outside of Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1978, Kate Millett was an artist. A thriving and active member of Manhattan’s downtown art scene during the late 1950s, Millett (1934–2017) established a studio on the Bowery and frequented the Cedar Tavern—who knows what the macho AbEx crowd there made of this burgeoning queer feminist activist sculptor? After a two-year stint teaching English in Japan and the staging of her first solo exhibition at the Minami Gallery in Tokyo, she returned to New York in 1963, began her PhD in comparative literature at Columbia University, became fast friends with George Maciunas and the rest of the Fluxus crowd, and married artist Fumio Yoshimura. Between 1965 and 1967 she produced the “Furniture Suite,” a playful group of anthropomorphic hand-carved wooden sculptures, which she presented in her second solo show, in March 1967, at the Judson Gallery (a basement room connected to the famed Judson Memorial Church). Unexhibited as a group since then, this astonishing body of work was put on display in Salon 94 Design’s posh East Eighty-Ninth Street space—namely, in a parlor with bespoke ligneous walls, parquet flooring, and a grand fireplace—where, it seemed, Millett’s curious objects found a fitting home.

Holding court in the center of the room was Love Seat, 1965, a piece styled like a merry-go-round and comprising two boxy wooden figures, reminiscent of Marisol’s sculptural Pop portraits but with a little more whimsy. Each one was sitting in a legless red chair and facing in an opposite direction, the pair’s poses recalling Victorian tête-à-tête seating. Millett covered parts of the manikins in ticking but chose not to adorn their faces, legs, and feet with the material. Bed, 1965, features four feet sprouting out of the end of a pair of rectangular boxes—tightly wrapped in more ticking—representing a mattress; crowning the work is a fancifully carved headboard, painted a vivid red. Millett’s employment of sourced or ready-made objects—such as a pair of used leather boots for a stool that accompanies a fake piano—most clearly suggest her Fluxus influences. Some of these hassock pieces were included in the Fluxus Codex (1988), a catalogue of Fluxus artworks compiled by Jon Hendricks. In the book, Hendricks mentions that Millett’s “2 legged stool with shoes” was intended to be produced as an edition, and that it could be purchased for forty dollars at the Fluxshop, then located at 18 Greene Street in SoHo.

While the show illustrated Millett’s investment in various Fluxus ideals—such as humor and making art more accessible—it was also clear that the works on view stand in sharp contrast to the seriousness of her critical writing, which has been a clarion call to feminist action_. _Indeed, as late curator Jenni Crain notes, “In Sexual Politics, Millett denounces the established norm of heterosexual partnering in relationships and the mythologies of heteronormative familial structure as a socially contrived system that maintains masculine authority within and beyond the confines of the home, while allowing women—the female partner—little freedom, autonomy, or agency, if any, at all.” Following that breakthrough book, Millett turned her attention to more closely examining processes of marginalization, isolation, social control, and institutionalization in both her writing and her art. For decades, however, the latter remained unrecognized—Millett was generally known as the “Mao Tse-tsung of Women’s Liberation” thanks to Time, which led to her being caricatured as a kind of feminist shrew by mainstream culture. Fortunately, Millett could never be so neatly pinned down. She later dubbed these nine sculptures “fantasy furniture,” and to me that title underscores the way Millet was so good at having her cake and eating it, too: She was committed to both espièglerie and critical rigor. Recognizing the futility of such a binary, Millett built her identity on her own terms, regardless of fad, fashion, and other people’s expectations.