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Frieze New York 2022

A Milestone Year for Pioneering Feminist Art Space A.I.R. and its Artists

The gallery enters its sixth decade as one of its founding member, Judith Bernstein, turns 80 

BY Valeria Napoleone in Features , Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 19 MAY 22

I first encountered Judith Bernstein’s work when she had her solo show at London’s Studio Voltaire in 2014. Bernstein spent one month in production residency there, and made a massive installation across the site’s former chapel building and a second exhibition space, including the largest wall painting she had ever done at the time. The wall painting was so intense, and so labor intensive — I was impressed with her energy. Her energy is really contagious.

What I appreciate about Bernstein is her courage. In the 1960s, she made work speaking out against war in Vietnam and, in 2017–18, her exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York was a statement against Donald Trump. She’s an artist for whom recognition has come later in life, but she doesn’t have an inch of regret or anger at being “overlooked.” She’s always excited about her current work and next project. I find that inspirational.

Judith Bernstein, Birth of the Universe #33, 2014. Courtesy: the artist and Kasmin Gallery, New York

From the Studio Voltaire show, I bought the large painting Birth of the Universe (2014). I was drawn at first to the color palette — there’s a beautiful blue in there, which is fluorescent under black light. I love the imagery of the painting, which is very bold, depicting a “cock” and a “cunt” (to use Bernstein’s words), but I also find myself getting lost in the paint. The composition and brushstrokes make me look at the work in an abstract way.

The piece takes up almost an entire wall and people do sometimes find it overwhelming for its size, colors and content. I have not had to explain it to my children — I think most people get what it is about when they see it. Though, when it was installed, I remember referring to the face with the cock and the art handler said: “Really? I thought it was an elephant!” I have it installed across from a Lisa Yuskavage nude (True Blonde, 1999) and a Nicole Eisenman foam piece called Saggy Titties (2007), where the subject’s breasts hang down past the borders of the canvas. There is a great conversation between these pieces about the woman’s body—and deep-pink colors.

Judith Bernstein, 1973, exhibition view, A.I.R. Gallery, New York. Courtesy: the artist and A.I.R. Gallery, New York

Bernstein was one of a group of 20 women artists who first founded A.I.R. Gallery in New York in 1972. It was ground-breaking, since at that time there was very little opportunity for women artists to show their work. I’ve been visiting A.I.R. since the beginning of my art journey, when it was still on Wooster Street in SoHo. As a young woman and a new collector, I felt like a child going to school, ready to be taught and to grow. I would try to learn everything I could. I had already decided I was going to focus on collecting work by women artists, but it was places like A.I.R. that really helped me understand just how necessary this was. The archive they have there are amazing and what impressed me especially was the camaraderie. In the same way, what stood out to me, more than individual shows, was the energy of the space with its community-building and networking values. This sense of community and mutual support remains key to A.I.R.’s mission. That’s what is really inspiring.

As we look forward to the next 50 years, it’s clear to me that the work of A.I.R. is not done — that the art world has not changed as much as it sometimes appears. The gallery’s mission to highlight work by women artists continues undeterred with its commitment to younger generations and to community-building, including the complex landscape of gender fluidity and nonbinary identities.

Aphrodite Désirée Navab, ‘The Anahita Scrolls’, 2022, exhibition view, A.I.R. Gallery, New York. Courtesy: the artist and A.I.R. Gallery, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

While there is a growing diversity in the arts, the journey is still a long one. It will take the effort and courage of many people and institutions. If you’re interested in this journey, I don’t think you can find a more powerfully authentic institution to follow than A.I.R.

– As told to Matthew McLean

At Frieze New York 2022, A.I.R. Gallery will present Trigger Planting by the collective ‘How To Perform an Abortion’, a learning and art project that demystifies the historical, biological and ethical controversies surrounding fertility management. For more information about A.I.R., visit airgallery.org.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2022 under the headline ‘Triumphant A.I.R’.

Main image: A.I.R's first gallery at 97 Wooster Street, New York, 1976; from left to right: Rachel bas-Cohain, Joan Snitzer, Kazuko Miyamoto, Blythe Bohnen, unidentified, Laurace James, Patsy Norvell, Dotty Attie, Mary Grigoriadis and Daria Dorosh. Courtesy: A.I.R. Gallery, New York

Valeria Napoleone is a patron, collector and member of the advisory board of A.I.R. Gallery. She lives in New York, USA, and London, UK.