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Finding Bella Abzug in Art

A Lower East Side gallery has put together a mysterious exhibit dedicated to the women’s rights activist

Marjorie Ingall
July 15, 2016
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Bella Abzug talking to journalists in Beijing, China, September 12, 1995. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Bella Abzug talking to journalists in Beijing, China, September 12, 1995. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

In honor of what would have been U.S. Representative and women’s rights leader Bella Abzug’s 97th birthday (she was born on July 24, 1920), I paid a visit to a show at the Marc Straus Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side called “If Only Bella Abzug Were Here.” The group exhibition runs through July 29 and “commemorates the life and achievements of Bella Abzug with a selection of works by both established and emerging female artists.”

I did a spin through the gallery, which features works by art-world rock stars like 2015 MacArthur Fellow (aka “Genius Grant” winner) Nicole Eisenman, as well as folks you’ve probably never heard of. But I couldn’t figure out what most of the pieces had to do with Abzug. They were an intriguing collection of both literal and figurative work, with seemingly little in common, depicting such subjects as museum windows, Italian villas, nighttime landscapes, female nudes, or isolated words on canvases. There was a black and white snippet of art film of a woman singing. There was a graphic red and white swoop on raw canvas. There was Kirsi Mikkola’s jagged, energetic mixed-media paper-on-paper collage in cool grays and beiges. And there was no text explaining the Abzug connection.

So I started writing my own curatorial wall texts in my head.

Emily Wardill’s “All the Clothes of an Imelda I Know,” a pale wood pedestal with a carved wood protrusion upon which is draped a pair of inside-out white women’s panties, crotch thrust forward, is a meditation on the sexualized roles limiting women that Abzug fought against.

Rachel Selekman’s “The Listener,” a watering can with an artificially giant expanded spout and a huge funneled opening, is an incisive commentary on Abzug’s ability to make feminism’s garden grow; the ear-trumpet-like extension is a reminder not to discount the role older women—so often mocked or dismissed as harmless putterers or deaf biddies—in our society.

(Facebook / Marc Straus Gallery)
(Facebook / Marc Straus Gallery)

Joan Levenson’s word paintings—a book-reminiscent diptych with the words WORD COUNT on one side and WORDS COUNT on the other; and a cool pale paper square with a white SINCE in the bottom right corner and another with the word AFTER floating in its lower middle—is an exegesis on the power of words to effect change. It’s a reminder to cherish Abzug’s contributions to American politics, reflect on the ground we’ve lost as well as gained, and continue the fight after her death.

Tarra Bandet’s “Dusk Before Dawn,” a three-dimensional tree surrounded by a mosaic tile frame reminiscent of Greek Orthodox religious iconography but made of monochromatic natural materials (stone tile, pebbles, shells), rather than bright colors or painted images of saints, is a depiction of the Tree of Life in the Jewish tradition that spawned Abzug’s advocacy and feminism—a symbol of life contrasted with the timelessness and tidal steadiness of the seas. Perhaps the old-person’s-shower-tile-like framing, along with the embedded rocks and shells, represents Miami, where in 1991 Abzug and her Women’s Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO) helped lead 1500 women from 83 countries in creating the Women’s Action Agenda that became the platform for women’s issues addressed by the United Nations.

Full of deep thoughts about Abzug’s influence on contemporary art, I ran into Ken Tan, one of the gallery’s directors. “We wanted to show works we liked that were all by female artists, but that’s not really a theme for a show,” he explained. “Marc Straus, being the old kid on the block, grew up on these streets; his father had a textile store right over there and Bella Abzug was one of his customers. She had a big voice, big hat, big personality. So the show is about celebrating the distinct voices of women artists who are unique in their voice and expression. And it works.”

Indeed! Women’s voices are worth listening to, even after you discover that a show of women’s works pegged as related to Abzug is merely a seemingly last-minute branding effort rather than a preconceived, considered tribute! But playing the “what the heck does this have to do with Bella Abzug” game as you view engaging individual pieces is still a lot of fun.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.