Saturday, April 2, 2016

An Interview with Anita Steckel, a controversial feminist artist, who used erotica to challenge and mock the patriarchy.


 (Diane Arbus, 1971)
 The feminist artist Anita Steckel was born in Brooklyn in 1930, the daughter of Russian immigrants. She was educated at the High School of Music and Art and Cooper Union.

When she was a teenager, she rented a loft on University Place in Greenwich Village, where she held salons. At the age of 19 in 1949, she dated Marlon Brando, who was then performing on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

In the Village, Steckel hung out at the San Remo Café, on Bleecker and MacDougal. She would sell sketches for a dollar for drinks, spending time with the dissolute poet Maxwell Bodenheim, who would recite fragments of poems for shots of whiskey. She was also befriended by Anatole Broyard, who wrote about her crew of young hipsters in his essay “A Portrait of the Hipster” in the Partisan Review.

Steckel started exhibiting as a painter in the early 1960s. Her first project to get major attention was a series of drawings called “Giant Women,’ which showed giant nude women climbing through the iconic skyscrapers of New York, including one woman who was impaled on a spire.

In the early 1970s, Steckel moved into the Westbeth Home for the Arts, the artists’ colony in Bethune Street, near the Hudson River. She was befriended by her neighbor, the photographer Diane Arbus. Before she killed herself, Arbus took gorgeous photographs of Steckel.

In 1973, Steckel was up for a job in the art department of Rockland Community College and was warned to remove all sexual items she had in the exhibit. She added more sexual artworks in response and caused a media firestorm. Needless to say, Steckel did not get the job.

During the rockland controversy, Steckel broke out with a feminist manifesto on art. In biting satire, she mocked the predominantly male curators refusal to allow images of erect penises in their museums.
If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women,” wrote Steckel in March 1973. “And if the erect penis is wholesome enough to go into women then it is more than wholesome enough to go into the greatest art museums.”
For 26 years, Steckel taught at the Art Students League. As a drinker and as a lover, she hung out at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street, famous for the journalists and novelists, like Pete Hamill and David Markson, who drank there. Steckel also frequented the 55 Bar, two doors down, famous as an interracial pick up joint with an anything goes atmosphere, where bathroom stalls were often occupied by two people.

Steckel continued with the provocative artwork. She moved on to photo collages. When I met her in 2008, the project she was working on consisted of euphoric women water skiers in a line, with the face of George W. Bush pasted to their groin areas.

I first interviewed Steckel at her cluttered Westbeth live-work studio, where a hammock took up a large chunk of the room. We met a second time at the Bus Stop restaurant off Abingdon Square near Westbeth, where Steckel took most of her meals for the last decade of her life.

Anita Steckel died at the age of 82 in 2012.

Here is my interview:

Q. How did you meet Marlon Brando?

A. I met him through (the folk singer) Dave Van Ronk. My relationship with Brando never leaves my life. People are always interested in that.

Q. At your loft on East 10th Street, did you run a salon in the 1940s?

A. That was a big part of the bohemian scene. Mark Connelly, the playwright, went there. He wrote “Green Pastures.” Brando brought people there because it was such an extraordinary place. The Katherine Dunham Dance School would come and dance, playing congos.

Q. You  were friendly with Anatole Broyard in the 1940’s. What was he like?

With the mambo, it was the same thing. Anatole was always a little outside. He was a delightful person. He wanted to be an insider, but he wasn’t.

Q. You knew Diane Arbus at Westbeth?

A. I have a series of photographs, 10” x 14”, taken by Diane. She was a fan of my work. She came to some of my shows. She was trying out a new lens. She gave me the contacts and negatives.

Q. Where did you socialize in the Village?

A. I drank at the 55 and the Lion’s Head. Dennis Duggan (the late newspaper columnist) thought I was some ideal of the female species. The group at the Lion’s Head was wonderful. It was Irish and it was journalists. We partied outside the bar. We became a family outside of the bar. I was going through some very hard times. For about seven years, I was drinking heavily. Being with the Irish during those times was the most wonderful thing, the way they look at hard times. Somebody dies, and of course they will be sad, but then they have a party. They have a wonderful sense of life. Frank McCourt was the main one.

The Lion’s Head wasn’t the most enlightened place. They had bartenders that were very rude to the women. I was a very strong person. I didn’t go for being attacked. It didn’t stop me from being with people I wanted to be with. Women who came into the bar often felt that they were being mistreated.


Q. Were the women treated like meat?

A. No. That would have been nice. That was the 55.

Q. Was the 55 a dating bar?

A. The word “date” was a little fancier than what went on. It was an interracial bar. That was its big thing. People would come down there.

Q. How did you become involved in making photo collages?

A. Did you ever hear of Ray Johnson? He was a very close friend of mine. We had a friend in common named Bill Wilson. He wrote about Ray and collected his work. In 1962, Bill sent me four sepia photographs. The photos saddened me, so I started painting on them, changing the reality here and there. I started laughing. I had a show of those collages in the Hacker Gallery in 1963.

I became heavily involved with the feminist art movement.

Censorship issues? I was completely uninhibited, so the work I did was completely uninhibited. In the late 1960s, the women’s movement was very prescient. I was aware that I was a painter, but then I became aware I was a woman painter. My work became gender identified. Previously, women did not want their work to be gender identified. If someone said, “You work like a woman,” that was an insult.

I had a show at the Rockland Community College. They tried to close the show. This was the early 1970s. One of the teachers called me and said, “If you want a job here, you better take anything sexual out of the show.” That threw me into a tizzy. It became clear to me that I could not censor the show, for it became clear to me that I would find myself censoring myself in the future. That’s the worst thing I could do as an artist.. I brought in everything I had that was sexual to the show. I went in fighting. I also brought a paper that was about censorship.

The next morning, I was awakened by a radio show.