Magazine article Artforum International

Anita Steckel 1930-2012

Magazine article Artforum International

Anita Steckel 1930-2012

Article excerpt

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 oneperson exhibition at the Hacker Gallery in 1963. Steckel titled the show "Mom Art" because, as she put it, with characteristic irreverence, "1 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 protoleminist satire of American culture in the early '60s.

COMMUTING BETWEEN her Brooklyn home and Manhattan'slligh School of Music & Art in the late I 940s, Steckel saw more than her share of flashers. Years later, she would recall the experience in a limerick:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

  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."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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