Mary Beth Edelson

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Mary Beth Edelson
Mary Beth Johnson

Alma materDePauw University, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Known forPainting, collage, performances
MovementFeminist art movement

Mary Beth Edelson (born 1933) is an American artist and pioneer in the Feminist art movement, deemed one of the notable "first generation feminist artists." She was also active in the civil rights movement. Edelson is a printmaker, book artist, collage artist, painter, photographer, performance artist, and author. Her works have been shown at museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Personal life[edit]

Mary Beth Johnson was born in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1933. Encouraged by her parents, she became interested in art and activism at about age 14.[1] [2]

She had two children: a daughter from her second marriage and a son from her third marriage to Alfred H. Edelson, the CEO of Rytex.[3] Robert Stackhouse, also an artist, lived with Mary Beth Edelson for 27 years in her live/work loft in Soho following the end of her third marriage.[4]

Mary Beth Edelson resided in New York during the mid-1950s. She later lived in Indianapolis, where she owned an art gallery, until 1968 when she moved to Washington, D.C. Edelson returned to New York in the 1970s.[4][5]


From 1951 to 1955, Edelson attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, during which time she also studied at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago (1953–1954).[6] Her works were exhibited in 1955 at an exhibition for senior-year students, where one of her paintings was deemed unseemly for "ministers and small children." Angry faculty members demanded the works to be pulled from the show, which resulted in protest at the university.[2]

After her School of the Art Institute graduation Edelson moved to New York, where she enrolled in a graduate program at New York University. In 1958 she received her Master of Arts degree.[2]

Feminist and civil rights movements[edit]

During the second half of the 1950s Mary Beth Edelson became active in the emergent feminist movement as well as the civil rights movement.[4] In 1968 she established the country's first Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in Washington, D.C.[4] Edelson presented her first feminist speech at the Herron Art Museum ’68, Misses NYC.[7]

Chrysalis and the Heresies Collective, including the Heresies publication, were founded in part due to Edelson's efforts. From 1992 and 1994 she was involved in the leadership of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and the Women's Action Coalition.[2] [8]

Edelson was a member of the Title IX Task Force, a group formed to increase the presence of women's painting and sculpture in museums in accordance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act that bans federally funded organizations from sex discrimination. The group, assembled in 1998, filed a complaint with the National Endowment for the Arts against the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.[9]


Mary Beth Edelson's feminist and conceptual art consists of bronze sculptures, paintings, collages, prints, story gathering boxes, and sketches. She is also a photographer, book artist, and performance artist,[2][4] and has lectured at museums and universities across North America.[7]

Feminist art movement[edit]

Edelson is considered one of the "first-generation feminist artists," a group that also includes Rachel Rosenthal, Carolee Schneeman, and Judy Chicago.[10] Working within the larger conceptual framework of the 1970s feminist art movement, Edelson's paintings, collages, and performances challenged hegemonic patriarchal values. Common themes in Edelson's work from this period include: ancient goddess figures, such as "the enigmatic Baubo, the trickster Sheela-na-gig, an Egyptian bird goddess, and Minoan snake goddesses";[11] references to popular culture; and subversions of art historical scenes.[2] Lucy Lippard describes Edelson's approach to her artmaking: "Mary Beth Edelson’s work arises from Feminism’s double strength. Like the great Goddess to whom she has dedicated her art, she has (at least) two aspects—political rage and life-giving affirmation. The two merge in an individual identification with the collective ego."[12]

A.I.R. Gallery (Artists In Residence), founded in 1972, held exhibits of Edelson's work, including her participation in the Heresies Collective from its early days of operation.[8][13] Edelson was herself a member of the feminist cooperative gallery, as well as a founding member of the Heresies Collective.[4]

The artist was included in the 2007-2009 "WACK! Art of the Feminist Revolution" traveling exhibition, curated by Connie Butler.[4]

Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper[edit]

Edelson's Some Living American Women Artists (1972) appropriated Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with the heads of notable women artists collaged over the heads of Christ and his apostles. John the Baptist's head was replaced with Nancy Graves, and Christ's with Georgia O'Keeffe.[nb 1] This image, addressing the role of religious and art historical iconography in the subordination of women, became "one of the most iconic images of the feminist art movement."[2] Proposals for: Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era, a 1977 performance piece, had the same objective.[2] New York's Museum of Modern Art acquired the original work along with four other original collage posters in the series.[4][14]

Artists featured in the piece include: Lynda Benglis, Helen Frankenthaler, June Wayne, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Nancy Graves, Georgia O'Keeffe, Elaine de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, M. C. Richards, Louise Bourgeois, Lila Katzen, Yoko Ono, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Yayoi Kusama, Marisol, Alice Neel, Jane Wilson, Judy Chicago, Gladys Nilsson, Betty Parsons, Mariam Shapiro, Lee Bontecou, Sylvia Stone, Chryssa, Suellen Rocca, Carolee Schneeman, Lisette Model, Audrey Flack, Buffie Johnson, Vera Simmons, Helen Pashgian, Susan Lewis Williams, Racelle Strick, Ann McCoy, J.L. Knight, Enid Sanford, Joan Balou, Marta Minujín, Rosemary Wright, Cynthia Bickley, Lawra Gregory, Agnes Denes, Mary Beth Edelson, Irene Siegel, Nancy Grossman, Hannah Wilke, Jennifer Bartlett, Mary Corse, Eleanor Antin, Jane Kaufman, Muriel Castanis, Susan Crile, Anne Ryan, Sue Ann Childress, Patricia Mainardi, Dindga McCannon, Alice Shaddle, Arden Scott, Faith Ringgold, Sharon Brant, Daria Dorosh, Nina Yankowitz, Rachel bas-Cohain, Loretta Dunkelman, Kay Brown, Ce Roser, Noma Copley, Martha Edelheit, Jackie Skyles, Barbara Zucker, Susan Williams, Judith Bernstein, Rosemary Mayer, Maud Boltz, Pasty Norvell, Joan Danziger, Minna Citron.[15]

Story Gathering Boxes[edit]

Story Gathering Boxes, an ongoing participatory artwork, was initiated in 1972. Each piece in this series consists of a box with four chambers made out of poplar wood. The chambers contain wooden tablets or paper cards with imagery and themes regarding spirituality, gender, and goddess-based narratives. Each paper card contains a prompt inviting viewers to share personal stories on various topics, such as gender, domestic violence, and immigration. Story Gathering Boxes allows all viewers to participate in the creation of a collective narrative.[16][17]

Goddess metaphor[edit]

During the 1970s Edelson aligned herself with the feminist neopaganist goddess movement.[18] She refers to Great Goddess theory throughout her work.[18] Primordial archetypes, like the goddess, warriors, and tricksters that she invokes, represent a contrast to women of formalized, patriarchal societies.[8] As Edelson states in “Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley” published in the April 1989 New Art Examiner, her enduring interest has been in “destabilizing preexisting representations of masculine desire and privilege in relationship to the female body.”[19] She continues: “My rituals also provided resistance to the mind/body split, by acknowledging sexuality in spirituality, thus reconciling the experience of a united spirit, body, and mind.”[19]

According to Lucy Lippard, ritual is Edelson’s “prime form.”[20] The National Museum of Women in the Arts' biography of Edelson states: "Her site-specific performances or 'rituals' […] strove to create a new feminine spirituality with its own values and iconography."[2] Recurring “esthetic talismans” in her iconography are stone and fire, substances “at the heart of the Great Goddess myths that she is adapting to contemporary needs.”[20] For example Edelson invited visitors to ritually enter through a flaming ladder installation titled “Gate of Horn” for her 1977 show at A.I.R. Gallery memorializing the“"9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era.” On Halloween, adopted as the “Woman’s New Year,” another public ritual took place in the gallery and outside street.[20]

The artist’s own naked body acts “as a stand-in” for the divine feminine in Women Rising (1973), Moon Mouth Series (1973-4), and later Goddess Head (1975) photomontages, for which the artist documented herself performing “private rituals” in nature and altered the images with a grease pencil to resemble mythological women such as Wonder Woman, Kali, the Wiccan Spiral Goddess, and Sheela-na-gig.[21] She explains her conception of the goddess as “an internalized, sacred metaphor for an expanded and generous understanding of wisdom, power and the eternal universe.”[10]

Nude women's bodies[edit]

Edelson draws attention to the female nude to address the ways in which women have been "exploited and underrepresented in the history of art." She has used black-and-white photographs of her own naked body in both indoor and outdoor spaces as a ground for her paintings. "By presenting herself so self-possessed and unapologetically unclothed, she hoped to help loosen the centuries-old grip that male artists held on the passive female body," wrote the !Women Art Revolution.[8] She created performance art using photographic works that involved body art, including O’Kevelson, shown in 1973, where her self-portraits were revised with a grease pencil until they resembled Louise Nevelson or Georgia O'Keeffe.[4]


The book The Art of Mary Beth Edelson was published in 2002 after several years of collection of information and images of her works. It includes conversations with artists and essays by her colleagues. In her essay about Edelson, "Shifting Signs," Laura Cottingham described "her engagement in producing images of female representation that seek to disrupt and transform the patriarchal pictorial codes that define and limit female identity."[4]

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C., has held exhibitions of the artist books she's made in "Book as Art" shows.[4] In 2002, The Last Temptation of Lorena Bobbitt showed an image of Bobbitt holding the severed penis of her husband.[4]

Oral history project[edit]

Edelson was interviewed for the Archives of American Art Oral History Program in the first half of February 2009 at her New York studio by former Independent Curators International (ICI) executive director Judith Olch Richards. The program has interviewed artists, critics, historians, and others since 1958 to record visual arts history.[5]

Recent work[edit]

Mary Beth Edelson’s work has recently been the subject of various museum, gallery, and art fair exhibitions, including: Greater New York at MoMA PS1, Mary Beth Edelson, Feminist Humor as Political Device at Princeton University's Bernstein Gallery, The Devil Giving Birth to the Patriarchy at David Lewis Gallery, and Sex Work: Feminist Art & Politics at Frieze London. In March of 2018 the entirety of Edelson’s SoHo loft was digitally archived by The Feminist Institute (TFI), an online repository for feminist artwork overseen by Hunter College.[22]

MoMA PS1’s 2015 survey show Greater New York included the artist’s life-size monument to Lorena Bobbitt, who famously castrated her abusive husband in 1993. The sculpture, titled Kali Bobbitt (1994), reimagines Bobbitt as the warrior goddess Kali, mounted on a ziggurat plinth, adorned with knives, and grasping a severed penis.[23] Edelson explains:

My interest in Bobbitt is obviously a feminist one—I had a point of view about it immediately and wanted to examine and express that. I started thinking of her as Saint Bobbitt because she really did something for all women: She retaliated. In addition to the book, I’ve also created a lot of other drawings and a sculpture of a Kali figure that I made out of a mannequin. She has a number of arms and a girdle of knives around her waist as well as a bracelet of severed penises around her arm. In short, she is decorated. I first exhibited the work at Combat Zone and put this very dramatic lighting on it. It sums up my feelings about the Bobbitt situation, a situation that I feel the same way about today as when I first heard about it—I thought it was really funny. As someone once said: A hundred ten million women worldwide are survivors of genital mutilation, and then there is just John Bobbitt––one man, one name. [11]

In March of 2017 Edelson’s 1973 hand-painted silver gelatin prints––collectively titled Woman Rising––were exhibited in the show The Devil Giving Birth to the Patriarchy at David Lewis Gallery. This was the first exhibition to focus on the series, selections from which were later presented at Frieze London in a new section curated by Alison Gingeras titled Sex Work: Feminist Art & Politics.[24] The Devil Giving Birth to the Patriarchy (2017) also prominently featured Edelson’s Kali Bobbitt sculpture, previously exhibited at MoMA PS1 in 2015.[25]

In October of the same year, the Tate Modern accessioned Edelson’s Selected Wall Collages (1972–2011). The collages, made between 1972 and 2011, vary in size with the smallest measuring approximately 100 millimeters in height and the largest about one meter in height and width. They depict imagined chimerical beings derived from “ancient mythology, art history, popular culture, nature and photographs of the artist and her peers.”[26]

During a 2018 interview with Vogue Australia, actress Emma Watson listed Mary Beth Edelson as one of her favorite “trail-blazing feminist artists.”[27]


DePauw University gave her an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 1993.[2] She received grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts,[4] the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 2000, and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000 and 2006.[2][4] She received a residency to Yaddo.[4]



  • Shaking the Grass, gelatin silver print mounted on board, 1980, Walker Art Center[28]
  • Seven Cycles: Public Rituals, offset lithograph on paper, 1980 Walker Art Center[28]


  • Firsthand: Photographs by Mary Beth Edelson, 1973-1993 and Shooter Series. Seven Cycles; 1 January 1993. ISBN 978-0-9604650-4-0.
  • Forgrening: en inbjudan till att fläta grenar. Malmö Konsthögskola; 2000.
  • Home made root beer. Malmö Konstmuseum; 2000.
  • Phases of the Loon. 1986.
  • Seven Cycles: Public Rituals. A.I.R.; 1980. ISBN 978-0-9604650-0-2.
  • Seven Sites: Painting on the Wall. Mary Beth Edelson, 1988. ISBN 978-0960465026.
  • To Dance: Paintings and Drawings by Mary Beth Edelson with Performance in Mind : Published to Accompany an Exhibition of the Same Title Organized and Circulated by Patrick King Contemporary Art. Patrick King Contemporary Art; 1984. ISBN 978-0-9604650-1-9.
  • Woman Rising. 1975. (Exhibition)
  • Linda Aleci, Paul Bloodgood, Laura Cottingham, Alissa Friedman, E. Ann Kaplan, Mary Beth Edelson. The Art of Mary Beth Edelson. Seven Cycles; 2002. ISBN 978-09604650-6-4.
  • Mary Beth Edelson; Henri 2 (Firm). Bed .... Henri 2; 1971.
  • Mary Beth Edelson; Hewlett Gallery. Mary Beth Edelson: new work : an ancient thirst and a future vision : [exhibition] Hewlett Gallery, Carnegie-Mellon University, College of Fine Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Gallery, 1983.
  • Mary Beth Edelson and Amelia M. Trevelyan. The Art of Mary Beth Edelson. New York, N.Y.: Seven Cycles, 2002. LCCN 82046025. ISBN 978-0960465071.
  • Mary Beth Edelson, Mel Watkin, Adam D. Weinberg, and Sam Yates. Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums. New York, N.Y.: M.B. Edelson, 1990. ISBN 0960465030.
  • Gayle Kimball, Carey Lovelace, Mary Beth Edelson, et al. Women's Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Scarecrow Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8108496-1-7.
  • Margaret Randall, Pat Oleszko, Kossia Orloff, Mary Beth Edelson, Linda Montano Dona Ann McAdams. Heresies 17 - Acting Up! Women in Theater and Performance. New York: Heresies, 1984.


Her works have been shown at:[4]

"A Life Well Lived: A Retrospective of Mary Beth Edelson's Work" was assembled at the Malmo in 2006 and traveled to the Migros Museum in Zurich.[4]



  1. ^ a b "Mary Beth Edelson". The Frost Art Museum Drawing Project. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Mary Beth Adelson". Clara - Database of Women Artists. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  3. ^ "ALFRED H. EDELSON DIES". Washington Post. 1994-08-22. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Joan M. Marter. The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art. Oxford University Press; 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-533579-8. pp. 136–137.
  5. ^ a b "Oral history interview with Mary Beth Edelson, 2009 Feb. 1-16". Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  6. ^ "CLARA". Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  7. ^ a b "Mary Beth Edelson | Time Line".
  8. ^ a b c d "About Mary Beth Edelson". Digital Collections: !Women Art Revolution. Stanford University. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  9. ^ David E. Bernstein (2003). You Can't Say That!: The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. p. 38. Retrieved 11 January 2014. via Questia (subscription required)
  10. ^ a b Thomas Patin and Jennifer McLerran (1997). Artwords: A Glossary of Contemporary Art Theory. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 55. Retrieved 8 January 2014. via Questia (subscription required)
  11. ^ a b "Mary Beth Edelson". Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  12. ^ Lucy Lippard, “Fire and Stone: Politics and Ritual,” in Seven Cycles: Public Rituals, 1980.
  13. ^ "A.I.R Gallery". A.I.R Gallery. Retrieved 2014-02-06.
  14. ^
  15. ^ SOME LIVING AMERICAN WOMEN ARTISTS Center for the Study of Political Graphics; accessed March 3, 2018
  16. ^ Smith-Stewart, Amy. "Mary Beth Edelson: Six Story Gathering Boxes (1972–2014)" (PDF). The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 March 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  17. ^ Edelson, Mary Beth; Trevelyan, Amelia M. (2002). The art of Mary Beth Edelson. New York, NY: Seven Cycles. ISBN 0960465065.
  18. ^ a b Dekel, Tal (2014-08-11). Gendered: Art and Feminist Theory. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781443865616.
  19. ^ a b Robinson, Hilary (2015-04-20). Feminism Art Theory: An Anthology 1968 - 2014. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781118360606.
  20. ^ a b c Lippard, Lucy R. (1983). Overlay: contemporary art and the art of prehistory. Pantheon Books. ISBN 9780394518121.
  21. ^ Kuspit, Donald (1983). "Mary Beth Edelson: An Introduction” in Mary Beth Edelson -- New Work: An Ancient Thirst and A Future Vision. New York: self-published.
  22. ^ "How Women Are Using Digital Platforms to Find Parity in the Arts". Observer. 2018-04-05. Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  23. ^ "Greater New York | MoMA". Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  24. ^ "Mary Beth Edelson". Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  25. ^ "Mary Beth Edelson - Art in America". Art in America. Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  26. ^ Tate. "'Selected Wall Collages', Mary Beth Edelson, 1972-2011 | Tate". Tate. Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  27. ^ "18 feminist artists Emma Watson loves and you will too - Vogue Australia". Retrieved 2018-06-03.
  28. ^ a b "Mary Beth Edelson". Walker Art Center. Retrieved 11 January 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • M. S. Armstrong, A. Conley, K. C. H. Nahum. Original Visions: Shifting the Paradigm, Women’s Art 1970-1996. Exhibition catalog. Chestnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1997. ISBN 978-0964015364.
  • G. Battcock and R. Nickas. The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology. New York: E.P. Dutton 1984. ISBN 9780525480396.
  • N. Broude and M. D. Garrard, ed. The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s. Harry N. Abrams, 1996. ISBN 978-0810926592.
  • E. Heartney. "Mary Beth Edelson at A/C Project Room and Nicole Klagsbrun." Exhibition review. Art in America. 81 October 1993, pp. 128–129.
  • It's Time for Action (There’s no Option) About Feminism, Migros Museum, Zurich. Distributed Art Pub Incorporated, 2007. ISBN 978-3905770537.
  • G. Kimball. Women's Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. 2005. ISBN 978-0810849617.
  • L. Lippard: Overlay. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. ISBN 978-0394711454.
  • Percy Martin; Washington Project for the Arts (D.C.); Mary Beth Edelson. Dream on: Three Contemporary Artists Working with Myth: Mary Beth Edelson, Judy Jashinsky, Percy Martin. Washington Project for the Arts; 1989.
  • H. Robinson. Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2001. ISBN 978-0631208501.
  • C. Spretnak, ed. The Politics of Women's Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement. New York: Anchor Books, 1982. ISBN 978-0385172417.
  • WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.
  • J. Wark. Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art. Montreal:McGill-Queen's Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0773585232.
  • J. Wark. Gender Battles. Santiago da Compostela, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea, 2007.