Judith Bernstein, an Artist for Our Times

Image of artwork by Judith Bernstein.

Judith Bernstein, Birth of the Universe #33, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 15′ 6“ × 10′ 2”.

The fabulous success of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible films certainly speaks to the fantasy life of the larger public. That so many people pay to view them is revealing. And so it’s worthwhile asking how to interpret that response. Compared with that mass art, painting attracts relatively small audiences. But now and then, although this is relatively rare, one finds a gallery artist whose work also speaks to the larger political and social issues of the time. Judith Bernstein is such a painter, for her art reveals a great deal about the state of our present public life.

In the 1960s, when she was a graduate art student at Yale University, Bernstein was inspired less by works in museums than by the graffiti in the men’s rooms. Other artists were interested also in such sources outside the traditional art world. She learned how to make gallery art from that experience; she wanted to turn these male fantasies into visual art. Early on in her career, her aggressive erotic work proved a hard sell. Just now, however, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired her Horizontal (1973), a 9 x 12 ½ feet charcoal drawing of a phallic screw rendered in her signature style. About time! I wonder when they’ll hang it in the galleries devoted to the permanent collection. I can remember vividly the first time some years ago I saw Bernstein’s work in a group show. I was astonished. No need for coffee that day! She makes large cartoonish images in black-light lit colors of close up images of genitals, Death of the Universe #1, 2018, is one, and Gaslighting (Red) (2019) is another. When she writes in large capitals “Cunt face universe” on Birth of the Universe #11, The Source (2013), then you can see that she isn’t, so to speak, beating around the bush.

Bernstein’s recent Gasligting (Blue Ground) (2022), the typo in the word ‘gaslighting’ is intentional!, shows her distinctive images of genitals. She is concerned, she has said, with “the origin of space, time, and infinity, using the rage of the active cunt as the primal source in the expanding universe.” Feminist rage is her theme. To understand how original she is, try this experiment- look through any survey history of Western art that includes some female nudes. How many images of women show genitals? The exception which provides the rule, comes of course from outside the art world. I mean pornography. But how many Western art nudes that you can find are by female artists? Until now, very few. Bernstein changed the rules of that game. She turns cliched misogynistic subjects into aggressive angry images supporting women, dealing with what the English art writer Julian Bell calls the “female otherness that excites yet endangers males.” This radical development of the traditions of erotic art is a great achievement.

Kenneth Clark’s magisterial The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) takes this history up to Brancusi, Henry Moore and Picasso. He concludes by saying that “the nude does not simply represent the body, but relates it, by analogy, to all structures that have become part of our imaginative experience.” Bernstein, finally!, has really has shaken herself free from this entire tradition, and entered singular new artistic territory. Such otherwise diverse late modernists as Francis Bacon, Bernard Buffet and Peter Saul distort the body wildly in pursuit of their erotic visual preoccupations. Bernstein does something completely different. It’s the sexual parts themselves, detached from the body, that engage her attention.

The present public embrace of Bernstein’s art marks a real change in sensibility, a total breakdown of the traditional standards of what’s publicly acceptable. The age of Trump, who is one of her favorite targets, is just one marker of this break, which runs across the entire culture and through the complete political spectrum. Consider a brief list of some changes. Now it’s become possible (and important) to talk about gay rights and sexual harassment. There is general accessibility of erotic imagery that was previously available only under-the counter; fascination of biographers with the previously unmentionable aspects of subjects’ lives; whistleblowers’ breakdowns of political secrecy; extremely rapid international circulation of information on the internet; and the ability of absolutely anyone to make and circulate video recordings on their smart phone. Films, literature and video deal with sexuality in frank ways that were unimaginable a generation ago.

Here I link together very diverse aspects of what I view as essentially variations on a single theme, the breakdown or rejection of traditional repressions. Some of these changes are marvelous, while others, in my judgment, are potentially highly problematic. But it doesn’t really matter what I, or anyone thinks, for they are happening. And Bernstein’s art is part and parcel this broader change. Why has our culture become unbuttoned in this way? Part of the cause certainly is the new technologies, which in some ways are harder to censor than books. But I suspect that larger cultural changes are also at stake. Clark, noting in passing that Japanese print makers include “certain intimate scenes usually allowed to pass unrecorded,” remarks that they had no concept of the nude. This certainly is an interesting cultural difference.

Needless to say, I am not contending that Bernstein considered (or even was aware of) all of these broader considerations. She is an artist whose goal is to make the best work possible, not a public intellectual. But I do believe that only a painter with a singular social intelligence would have had the skill to create works which have the extraordinary impact of her art. Some commentators say that Bernstein is not subtle. I agree that her art is singularly forceful. But when you give it some time, you will discover that her paintings are oddly beautiful. Why? Unable to answer that question, I close with a short story which may be relevant. According to an ancient Greek myth, when Demeter, who was a dinner guest is depressed Baubo, an old woman who was the goddess of mirth, flashes him, and thereby causes him to laugh. Freud loved that fable. Viewing people’s private parts can cause surprising reactions.


Although there is, as yet, no monograph about Bernstein, you can view her artworks on-line. I owe a special debt to the spirited discussions of Thomas Micchelli which are online. As is my prior account: https://hyperallergic.com/702067/judith-bernstein-philosopher-painter-for-troubled-times/ The quotation of Bell comes from his What is Painting? (2017). The erudite art historian Joseph Masheck drew my attention to Freud and Baubo.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.