Eric Firestone Gallery is proud to announce the exhibition Martha Edelheit, Flesh Walls: Tales from the 60s. The exhibition will re-introduce the public to Edelheit’s radical paintings and pioneering subject matter. The exhibition includes multi-panel paintings from her “Flesh Wall” series, as well as canvases of elaborately tattooed female figures, and works on paper. The works on paper are a major series from the mid-1960s, depicting a wild, erotic vision of circus performers, and images of paper dolls, reimagined into adult fantasies that explore gender identity, sexual costuming, and sadomasochistic play.
Martha Edelheit was born New York City in 1931, where she lived until moving to Sweden in 1993. She currently lives outside of Stockholm. Edelheit studied at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1951 and then moved back to New York City. She took studio classes with artist Michael Loew while also pursuing a degree in Education at Columbia University. There she met and studied with art historian Meyer Shapiro, who she credits with inspiring a new way of thinking about image construction and pictorial space.
She established herself in the center of the downtown avant-garde, becoming a member of the Tenth Street artist-run space, the Reuben Gallery, where her first solo show was held in 1960. She, like other members Jim Dine, Rosalyn Drexler, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenberg, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, and Robert Whitman, were expanding the definitions of art-making with the creation of Happenings and experimental objects. At the Reuben Gallery, Edelheit first exhibited her “extension” paintings, which break the frame of the work and incorporate utilitarian objects into assemblages. Edelheit’s second solo show, in 1961, was held at another significant nucleus of experimental art, the Judson Gallery.
By 1962, Edelheit began to explore the subject of tattooing in her work. She related to the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss. In his 1955 book, Tristes Tropiques, Levi-Strauss speculates that tattooing was the first art and that the human body was the first canvas, even before cave art. The flesh of the figures Edelheit depicts become places where the dreams and fantasies of the models emerge. Edelheit’s paintings of tattooed figures led to her depictions of circus performers. In making her works on paper, Edelheit was thinking about non-Western art, like Japanese erotic “pillow books.”
In the mid-1960s, Edelheit met Charles Byron of Byron Gallery on Madison Avenue, where he offered her a show of watercolors and larger paintings which she titled the “Flesh Wall” series. These paintings further conflate body, marks and markings on the body (tattoos), canvas, and wallpaper. Edelheit was considering how she could appropriate wallpaper, transgressing the boundaries of high art by utilizing a kitsch household item. Edelheit tended to leave out situating elements, like furniture and indications of walls to create metaphoric representations of figures. She recalls that even seasoned art viewers like Leo Castelli came to the opening at Byron Gallery and blushed in response to the work’s frank sexuality.
The exhibition at Eric Firestone Gallery will revisit many of the works which were first shown at OK Harris Gallery, Provincetown, in 1963, as well as Byron Gallery, New York, in 1966.
In the 1960s, erotic art as a genre began to garner more recognition and attention, and contemporary critics began to contextualize Edelheit’s that way. Allan Kaprow published an article in Village Voice in direct response to the Byron Gallery show, addressing the significance of women’s contemporary erotic art (“Female Art: No Games,” 1966). Edelheit participated in Happenings in the 1960s and the performances often involved transgressive acts using the body. In the 1970s, Edelheit made experimental films and was a part of the group Women/Artist/Filmmakers along with Maria Lassnig and Carolee Schneemann.
Edelheit’s work — across the media of film, painting, and performance — implicitly challenged social expectations of women. By using quotidian materials and referencing tattoo imagery and Non-Western erotica, she also challenged formalist paradigms and traditional notions of figurative painting and the nude. She pushed forms and issues to the surface - literally and figuratively - which our culture preferred to ignore. Edelheit was a pioneer, though the conversation about taboo sexual imagery and the censorship of women artists remains topical today.