"Dorothy Iannone: Lioness"

The New Museum presents a one-woman '60s revival.



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  • I Am Whoever You Want Me To Be

  • Dorothy Iannone An Icelandic Saga, 1978, 1983, 1986. Ink of cardboard, 48 sheets, each 40 x 30 cm (cat. 105).

  • Dorothy Iannone An Icelandic Saga, 1978, 1983, 1986. Ink of cardboard, 48 sheets, each 40 x 30 cm (cat. 105).

  • Dorothy Iannone An Icelandic Saga, 1978, 1983, 1986. Ink of cardboard, 48 sheets, each 40 x 30 cm (cat. 105).

  • Dorothy Iannone An Icelandic Saga, 1978, 1983, 1986. Ink of cardboard, 48 sheets, each 40 x 30 cm (cat. 105).

  • Dorothy Iannone An Icelandic Saga, 1978, 1983, 1986. Ink of cardboard, 48 sheets, each 40 x 30 cm (cat. 105).

I Am Whoever You Want Me To Be

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that one of the salutary effects of the recently imploded art-market boom was that its sea of money lifted the boats of various artists who’d been previously underappreciated, if not ignored, getting them shows they might not have received before. This bounty also allowed room for sensibilities that are somewhat outsidery. The freshly resurrected career of Dorothy Iannone, born in 1933 in Boston and currently living and working in Berlin, is a good example of both. This summer, her work—which largely depicts the artist in various states of sexual transport, in a style that might be called “early-American visionary” meets “underground comix”—has been on view at Anton Kern Gallery, and is currently enjoying this miniretrospective at the New Museum. The last time Iannone showed in New York was in 1967, in a gallery she ran with her then-husband, James Upham. Considering how focused Iannone’s work is on fucking, you might say that her revival has been a long time coming in more ways than one.

Also appropriate is the fact that while her last outing happened the same year as the Summer of Love, her return corresponds with the hoopla surrounding the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. But while Iannone’s paintings, constructions and works on paper are redolent of the free-love ethos of the ’60s, they are much more a product of her own radical individuality, apparent obsessions and descent into l’amour fou. For the most part, her oeuvre constitutes an erotic celebration of her seven-year relationship with Dieter Roth, the Swiss-German assemblagist known for artist books and objects made with manure.

Roth possessed almond-shaped eyes and fine, almost feminine features set in an ovoid face, so it’s no wonder his visage appears regularly in Iannone’s work. The details of how she met Roth are worth noting, not only because they make a great story, but also because they are the subject of one of the main pieces here, Dialogues, a series of cartoon panels detailing their romance, which began in that pivotal annum, 1967.

Although Dialogues doesn’t go into her early biography, Iannone’s father died when she was two, and she was raised by her mother. She studied literature, first at Boston University and later at Brandeis. In 1958, she married Upham, a wealthy investor who was also a painter; they moved to the West Village, where Upham introduced his wife to the art scene. She took up painting, first as an abstractionist, and then later as a figurative artist whose approach, however informed it may have been by its avant-garde surroundings, still screams self-taught primitive.

It was another artist, Emmett Williams, who suggested that Upham and Iannone accompany him by freighter to Reykjavik, Iceland, where they would meet Roth. As Dialogues makes clear, Iannone’s attraction to him was devastatingly immediate and inescapable. Upon returning to New York, Iannone promptly told her husband she was leaving. She flew back to Iceland the next day.

To judge from the paintings, Roth and Iannone’s time together certainly didn’t lack for intensity, but it seems that sex for Iannone was a means to a higher spiritual end—for transcending not just the body, but time and place. Iannone saw Roth as the Antony to her Cleopatra (their story held a particular fascination for her), and indeed, Iannone borrows liberally from Egyptian painting not only in her use of bold black outlines and flat expanses of color, but also in details like wigs and jewelry that resemble those from pharaonic tomb murals.

The big question about Iannone’s work is whether or not it is feminist. Well, yes and no. Iannone depicts herself as both dominant and submissive with regard to men. Her video within a painted box, I Was Thinking of You III, which features a close-up of the artist’s face as she achieves an auto-induced orgasm, could be seen as a riposte to Vito Acconci’s monument to creepy onanism, Seedbed (much as Lynda Benglis answered Robert Morris’s S&M Nazi poster with her famed dildo-wielding pose in Artforum), but that’s probably stretching it.

Iannone remains hard to characterize; she’s neither insider nor outsider, liberated woman nor passive sex object. One is tempted to think of her as the little girl left without a dad, searching for a father figure. But the ferocity that led Roth to give her the pet name Lioness would seem to dispel that notion. Ultimately, the best way to describe Iannone, perhaps, is as a fantasist who made life conform to her erotic dreams.

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