- Martha Rosler: Irrespective
November 2, 2018 – March 3, 2019
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St
New York, NY 10128
Lenfest Center for the Arts
615 West 129th Street
Coming Together in Pieces: Montage, collage, and identity
by Adina Glickstein
From left: Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes and Balloons, “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series, 1967-72. All images from The Jewish Museum website.
I knew little about Martha Rosler before visiting Martha Rosler: Irrespective—an ongoing retrospective of her work at the Jewish Museum—aside from a passing familiarity with perhaps her most famous video art piece, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). This current retrospective begins, however, with a wall of photomontages, a medium that appears to have been a part of her practice since at least the late 1960s, including the first incarnation of her “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series in 1967-72. Similarly, Romare Bearden’s Patchwork Quilt (1970) on view at the Wallach Gallery’s Posing Modernity exhibition highlights Bearden’s use of collage, and the similar techniques suggest to me an affinity in theoretical underpinnings between the otherwise very different, yet roughly contemporaneous projects.
As the Posing Modernity catalogue explains, Bearden’s use of collage was a fundamentally modernist project of fusing the European with the non-Western, and the “low” register of popular culture with fine art. Collage allowed Bearden to represent African-American culture more meaningfully than another medium might have by drawing directly from the multiplicity of sources that shaped it, uniting them into the final work of art. Of course, a significant difference exists between the two works insofar as Bearden’s collage is a reinterpretation of preexisting art on two different levels: that which is intrinsic to the medium of collage, and the fact that it references Manet’s Olympia. The second dimension of referentiality is not present in Rosler’s photomontages; instead, they collage full preexisting images rather than fragments to create an interplay of depth and flatness, or tension between textures, in their pictorial space.
This points towards another difference between Rosler and Bearden’s practices: the critical dimension of Bearden’s work was primarily concerned with race (along with, arguably, gender), while Rosler’s photomontages don’t seem to comment on racial tensions, and instead engage anti-war critiques alongside their analysis of gender. That the two artists work on different critical axis may mark their differing subject positions as a black man and a white woman.
Yet these two works suggest some shared investment in collaging and montaging as acts of retrieving or rethinking cultural history in relation to one’s own marginalized identity. For Bearden, this meant drawing on collage’s resonance with jazz, uplifting African-American cultural production at the same time as he responds to Olympia, a work that has historically invited a critical discourse that forces Laure, the black model in the painting, into invisibility. Rosler’s work, on the other hand, pulled images of women from newspapers and magazines and left the full figures intact, in order to critique their portrayals of femininity—“a visual means of fighting something imposed on us visually.” If a common tendency between the two artists’ practices can be identified, it might be said that both use collage as an oppositional image-making practice responding to the inadequacy of existing representations, thus drawing its political impact from the incorporation of and reference to found materials.
I am also interested in analyzing the anti-war dimension of Rosler’s photomontages, especially in relation to the themes of “picturing atrocity” and “regarding the pain of others” I have explored in recent seminars. Rosler’s two “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series responded to the Vietnam and Iraq wars respectively, juxtaposing images of the wars from Life magazine with interiors pulled from home design publications. These works seem to trouble the geopolitical imbalance that, as Jay Prosser writes, often accompanies images of violence: “showing atrocity abroad tends to be acceptable” while “there’s more circumspection in what is shown of atrocities closer to home” (9). Though the more graphic images in Rosler’s collages are undoubtedly those from the front lines abroad, their depiction alongside images from American consumer culture refuses to let these close-to-home atrocities off the hook: Rosler writes that the images of the home represent the ideology that motivated the war in Vietnam, vivifying the deplorable conceit that motivated such horrific use of American violence. The home is located as central to the war machine: not just an arena for viewing atrocity at a distance, but fundamental to the conceptual framework—an unwavering dedication to consumer capitalism ostensibly threatened by communism abroad—that was used to justify the violence in the first place, giving new meaning to the idea that Vietnam was “the first television war.”
Granted, even the war images in Rosler’s photomontages aren’t particularly graphic, especially compared to the more recent collages by Thomas Hirschhorn that deal with similar subject matter. Nevertheless, they pose the crucial questions that help us, as spectators of violence, productively transform our shock into action: who is responsible for this atrocity? For what cause are these wars being fought? Here, Rosler’s art fulfills the task that Sontag outlines towards the end of Regarding the Pain of Others: “to set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering” (103).
Cohen, Alina. “Martha Rosler’s Powerful Collages Are a Wake-Up Call to America.” Artsy. 28 June 2018.
Hubber, Laura. “The Living Room War: A Conversation with Artist Martha Rosler.” The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty. 16 Feb 2017.
Murrell, Denise. Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.
Prosser, Jay. “Introduction.” Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis. Ed. Geoffrey Barchen. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.