In 1972 a legislator attempted to close an exhibition of Anita Steckel’s work at a community college in Rockland County, New York State, declaring a bathroom the only appropriate venue for it. In response, Steckel founded the ‘Fight Censorship’ group with artists including Louise Bourgeois and Joan Semmel. The incident attracted media attention in New York but then was largely forgotten until the art historian Richard Meyer revived interest in her work in 2007. In an essay he contributed to the catalogue for ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (2007–8) (in which her work was not actually included), he observed of Steckel and other female artists who used phallic imagery during the 1970s: ‘The art they produced reminds us that sexuality cannot be made neatly to align with politics, including the politics of feminism.’
Steckel’s recent show ‘Mom Art: 1963–1975’ was the first since the 1960s to focus on her early paintings, drawings and photomontages. ‘Mom art’, a term she coined, punned on the then-ubiquitous ‘Pop art’. In contrast to Pop’s jazzy palette and attention-grabbing scale, in most of these works Steckel painted over fusty, postcard-size vintage photographic portraits – altering faces or skin colour, rendering clothed subjects nude, adding new figures or objects. In an interview published in Esquire in 1963, Steckel explained why she took this approach: ‘The old photographs I used were creepy and depressing to me. The fact that the people in them were dead disturbed me. This was a way of bringing them to life.’ She often placed marbled paper mats – like endpapers in antique books – around the images, casting her subversive alterations into sharper relief.
The embellished works address family, religion, art and race with blunt irreverence. Steckel superimposed a grinning skull on a groom’s face in Death Marriage (1965), painted a Hitler-esque moustache and hairstyle on a disdainful-looking toddler in The Beginner (1963), and, in Holding (1963), furnished the Venus de Milo with long arms, attenuated fingers tucked under the statue’s pedestal. Her references to racial politics are perhaps most unsettling. In The Company Picnic (1963), for example, she inserted black characters into an engraving of a bucolic 18th-century scene; some grope equally lascivious white women clad in frilly gowns. This corrosive image seems at once ahead of its time, anticipating the work of younger artists like Kara Walker, and clumsier than the pointedly feminist – and more personal – works that brought Steckel notoriety in the 1970s.
Those works include the ‘Giant Women on New York’ (1969–72) series of photomontages, in which a Brobdingnagian female nude straddles the Empire State Building, wielding a paintbrush, and another hangs impaled on the Chrysler Building. In her ‘New York Skyline’ paintings (1970–2), images of the city’s skyscrapers are topped with jaunty phalluses. By presenting New York as a male-dominated realm in such an aggressive fashion, Steckel was poignantly seizing a measure of power herself while expressing her own heterosexual desire.
Steckel has cited Ingmar Bergman and Harpo Marx as key influences, which isn’t surprising: in her work, bleak references to large themes coexist with gleeful sight gags. From the beginning she mixed leering humour into her acid satire. One painted photograph, depicting a man standing behind a bare-chested female violinist, is titled To Harpo (1963); another is dedicated to the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, who, like Steckel, had a robust aversion to good taste. The Berlin Dadaists – especially Hannah Höch, John Heartfield and George Grosz – also seem to be kindred spirits. Tackling the departing presidential administration, Steckel’s 2008 show ‘The Grosz-est Bush: “Goodbye and Good Riddance”’ combined photocopies of Grosz’s sardonic visions with cutouts from news clippings. An image of an open-mouthed Dubya groping a garter-clad Condoleezza Rice was saved from being merely a cheap shot by its visual energy and apt allusion to Weimar-era corruption. Mordant and original, Steckel’s early work suggests that she’s never shied from such carefully targeted confrontation.