A pioneering feminist whose work has dealt with gender politics for 50 years, Judith Bernstein cofounded A.I.R. Gallery (the first space devoted to showing female artists) in 1972, and was a charter member of such activist groups as the Guerrilla Girls, the Art Workers’ Coalition and the Fight Censorship Group. But she remains renowned for drawings that transform hardware screws into phallic symbols of male aggression. Recently, Bernstein has turned her attention to President Trump, whom she describes as the biggest and dumbest dick of all. With an exhibition at the Drawing Center about to open, the 75-year-old artist spoke to Time Out New York about her confrontational style.
You’re best known for drawing dicks. When did that start?
When I was a student at Yale in 1966. I began rendering dicks as a statement against the Vietnam War, but then the image evolved into a combination of screw and phallus—a kind of hybrid. I was thinking of screw and being screwed as a play on words. The images took on a life of their own, becoming hairy, fetishistic and biomorphic.
You mentioned the work being anti-war. How so?
With dicks, you have erection and ejaculation—this sort of explosion. So it only seemed natural to use them to comment on war. I made a drawing in 1967 called Fun-Gun that’s an anatomical drawing of a cock with a trigger. It has real bullets attached to the nut sac.
But you also seem to be making a psychological observation.
Absolutely! When I make drawings that are nine by 30 feet it’s like, Mine is bigger than yours. Men may have the organ, but they don’t own the image. It infantilizes men when they see it because the scale is so enormous.
Have you ever gotten into trouble with other feminists who may not understand what you’re doing?
I’ve been left out of a lot of exhibitions because people have felt that dick art isn’t feminist. They’re not sure what to make of my dicks, given the way I aggrandize them. And it’s true that I buy into size mattering in that way. But I’m also making a comment by appropriating that image in the first place.
So now you’re focusing on Trump. What makes him a good subject for your work?
Oh my god, he couldn’t be a better candidate. If there’s anything positive to say about him, it’s that he’s been better than Hitler, which isn’t saying much. He’s a fool. He’s a monster. He’s a jester. He’s a sexist. He’s a racist. He’s also a con man. I have a drawing in the show titled Frankenschlong, which depicts him as Frankenstein on a three-dollar bill because he’s such a fake.
Is that work meant to be satirical or a dead-on affront?
It’s a dead-on affront.
“Judith Bernstein: Cabinet of Horrors” is on view at the Drawing Center Fri 13–Feb 4 (212-219-2166, drawingcenter.org).