Interview with Judith Bernstein

Contemporary Artist and Feminist

Judith Bernstein in front of BIRTH OF THE UNIVERSE #7 2013

This month’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction at South Kensington features a range of feminist artists. We spoke to Judith Bernstein, who has just been the subject of a solo show at the ICA, about contemporary feminism and her influences.

Maria Howard: What are the main influences on your work?

Judith Bernstein: My art references the subliminal and is a psychological amalgamation of sex, war and feminism in different orders and priorities. As a graduate student at Yale School of Art in the 60s, during a time when Yale had an all-male undergraduate programme, the gender inequality was extreme in my environment and the outside world. This fact and many, many others led to my obsession with feminism and political injustices. I became fascinated with explicit bathroom drawings that I explored at Yale. Graffiti is deeper psychologically than you can imagine, because when you’re releasing on the toilet, you’re also releasing from the subconscious. I love raw humour and there’s no editing of thoughts when men use the bathroom. For me, aggression and humour are strongly connected. I wanted my paintings to confront war with very graphic, in-your-face word and image, as expressed in the drawing UNION JACK-OFF FLAG. No visual can be as crude as war. In 1970, I then made the leap to drawing hardware screws that morphed into humongous charcoal phallic presences. They are power images that continue to characterise war and feminism (at 9 x 30 feet, mine’s bigger than theirs). My voice was screaming to be heard.

Howard: What contemporary artists have caught your attention?

Bernstein: Louise Bourgeois, Paul McCarthy and Walter De Maria. I’ve been personally connected to these artists, who have singular and unparalleled psychological and visual imagery. Like me, these artists NEVER HELD BACK.

Howard: What is your perspective on 21st century feminism?

Bernstein: I was born in 1942, 22 years after women got the right to vote. We’ve come a long, long way. But there is also a long way to go for women and artists of colour having equal access to the system, especially worldwide.

Howard: What do you collect?

Bernstein: I collect information and objects from The New York Times, The New York Post, TV, Thrift and Dollar Shops.

Howard: Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Bernstein: I would invite every woman who ever made an artwork going back in time to the cave drawings. It is a WOMEN’S INFINITY TABLE!

Howard: What’s next for you?

Bernstein: I’m having a one-person painting exhibition at The Box LA, owned by the artist Paul McCarthy (7 September – 26 October). The exhibition includes 18 humongous paintings from my BIRTH OF THE UNIVERSE Series. I’m exploring the origin of space, time and infinity, using rage and the expanding universe. Fluorescent colour and rich oil paint portray the chaos and nuclear explosion that is the BIRTH OF THE UNIVERSE. These works also explore the current relationships in gender issues with a literal dialogue represented by female and male genitalia. The concept of layered and intricate relationships between individuals, objects, electromagnetic forces, galaxies and the celestial infinity define each other. All of these grand concepts reflect back on human relationships. My art is a self-portrait of my ideas and provides a window into my subconscious.