I’ve been in hundreds of art shows over the years.
It is always a thrill. But this most recent one, “Agency: Feminist Art and Power” at the Museum of Sonoma County is especially satisfying.
Meaningful in ways no other has been.
When the catalog for the exhibit came in the mail recently, I quickly ripped open the thick envelope. Naturally, I was both pleased and honored that my collage had been represented on the glossy cover. Yet it was the interior bio pages I was most anxious to see.
Ok, I may have buried the lede.
Sure, I feel privileged to share the walls of an exhibit with such iconic and luminary feminist artists as Judy Chicago, Joan Semmel, and Martha Wilson. But the artist I’m most thrilled to see while I flip through this wonderful catalog bears the same name as me.
There are two Edelstein’s in this show and I couldn’t be prouder of my niece Jessie Edelstein for having her work as a performance artist recognized too.
Two generations questioning identity and gender representation through art.
My Mother The Patron
As a multitude of feelings swelled up in me, I so longed to call my mother and share this news. She would be over the moon proud of her only granddaughter and her daughter together in an art show.
Kvelling wouldn’t even come close to describing her joy.
Naches on steroids. ( Yiddish for pride or joy)
Not only an avid art lover, my mother Betty was a true patron of the family arts.
Truthfully, the Museum of Sonoma County was not the first art space in which Jessie and I exhibited together. That honor belongs to The Museum of Art of Western Park Drive. Not only was it a treasure trove of mid-century collectibles, ephemera, and a century’s worth of heirlooms, but it was also loaded with art.
In fact, it was in my mother’s home where Jessie and I had our original long-running exbibit together.
Following in my footsteps, my Gen Z niece Jessie had her first true retrospective in a mid-century ranch house in West Hempstead, Long Island.
Betty was a curator with a wizened eye and a heart of gold, who hung her beloved grandaughter’s drawings through the expanse of the house. No mere fridge door in the kitchen for her, crayoned sheaves of drawing paper hung Salon style in hallways, bedrooms, dining, and living rooms. Neat rows of Jessie’s whimsical drawings laden with text hung elegantly on a wall beneath a set of antique Tiffany cobalt blue Service plates.
To my mother, each item on that wall was as valuable to her as the other.
A Wall of My Own
That house on Western Park Drive was also my very first gallery and for over 60 years there was an ever-changing exhibit of my artwork. Seeing works I created as a young artist beautifully framed and displayed by my gallerist mother hanging next to my young niece’s ever-expanding collection of art always filled my heart.
How many Sundays did I sit on the same soft living room carpet that I sat on as a child and drew with Jessie using the crayons and paper my mother always kept in supply. How many times did that day’s creation get hung immediately on the wall by my appreciative mother?
Never kept in drawers, art was always honored. As was the artist. It was my mother’s way.
It was only when we finally sold that house on Western Park Drive two years ago that I had the sad task of dismantling this museum for the last time.
The art was the last thing to be removed from the house, a home whose walls were literally covered and filled with love. Seeing them bare for the first time was startling. The shadows of the outlines of the framed pieces were now the only evidence of the creativity that had once been there, confirming the end of that chapter.
But the legacy would live on.
A Seat At The Table
Today my art lover mother would be especially pleased knowing that Jessie and I are in a show with Judy Chicago.
In 1980 I was an art student at the School of Visual Arts when I originally saw that feminist’s groundbreaking installation The Dinner Party with my mother just as it opened at the Brooklyn Museum.
Over the years, my mother and I went to countless museums and galleries together, but there was a unique excitement we both acknowledged viewing this exhibit.
In the same year when THE blockbuster art show at MOMA was one devoted to that ultimate misogynist Picasso, this controversial feminist show was a revelation.
It is hard to describe the fury and visceral reactions The Dinner Party aroused.
No one had ever seen anything like it before. Denounced and vilified by many, Hilton Kramer of The New York Times famously dismissed it as kitsch, “very bad art” and little more than vaginas on plates.
Historically, women were woefully underrepresented in the art world. Judy Chicago’s generation was denied the recognition they deserved, rejected by the male art community and did something about it. Chicago sought to address the overwhelming maleness of art history.
As an artist, I would reap the benefits of the feminist movement in art even as I was coming of age smack in the middle of it.
As I walked into the dimly lit installation at the Brooklyn Museum there was a hushed reverence that felt like a holy experience.
Standing beside this massive triangle-shaped banquet table arranged with 39 place settings in variations of vulvar imagery emblazoned with the names of women of accomplishments both mythical and historical, I knew this was history.
This was a work of symbolism and scholarship that addressed the erasure of women’s history.
Viewing it with my mother felt just right.
This was the woman from whom I not only learned to set a beautiful table but who also let me always know I had a place at it.
Yes, she taught me where to place the butter knife and water goblet, but she also encouraged me as an artist from the very start, unflinchingly supporting my childhood identity as a little French painter named Pierre. She provided me not only with oil paints and sable brushes but with just the right costume mustache and gender pronouns to complete me. In a home shared with an entitled older brother, she made sure my voice was heard.
And while other girls received the much-coveted princess phone when they turned sweet sixteen, my mother built me an art studio attached to our house.
A room of my own.
Whatever the cost of the construction of that studio might have been, it wasn’t nearly as priceless as the confidence she built inside me.
How this patron of the arts would be thrilled that her two darlings are each invited to have a seat at the table. Being seen. Being heard.
Together. With Judy.
In a show about Female Agency.
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