The daughter of a schoolteacher and a lawyer, Rosler grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1965. In the late Sixties, she moved to Southern California, where she made some of her most enduring work. Aside from wartime topics, much of her early work focused on the role of women in the home; Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) is a six-minute milestone of feminist art, a hilarious short black and white video featuring the artist, dressed in an apron, robotically demonstrating the uses of kitchen implements. Rosler moved back to the East Coast in the early Eighties, where she’s lived ever since.
“Martha is one of the few truly political artists in America,” says Rebecca Quaytman of Orchard, an artist-run Lower East Side gallery. “In terms of the antiwar sentiment, she’s perfect for now. She is a major inspiration to young artists.” To Rosler herself, the true artist and the art market are irreconcilable. She declined to be represented by any gallery until 1993, when she began working with dealer Jay Gorney. (Gorney has represented her ever since, currently at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where he is director of contemporary art.) And though Rosler has certainly received her share of institutional recognition (in 2000 a retrospective of her work was shown in five European cities and in New York, where the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the International Center of Photography gave her a joint show), she finds the commodification of art troubling. “Artists still see art as transformative,” she says. “But they see that when their works are sold, they’re sold as things.” She sees the marriage of fashion and art—a union largely pushed by artists, in her view—as dangerous because it can render art just as disposable as fashion: “Some, especially younger ones, are saying, ‘We are sold. We are whores. But we are looking for something to help us refind our social vision.’”
In her SoHo loft, with its white walls, Moroccan rugs and bare windows, Joan Jonas presents herself as the quintessential performance artist—quietly intense and dressed in black and gray. Two stuffed coyotes, both props from The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, a work Jonas performed at Dia:Beacon in 2005, sit on a table. “I’ve always been marginal,” says the 71-year-old artist. “It never bothered me. I was just trying to find new ways of making things and breaking forms.”
Modesty aside, Jonas has definitely earned a place in the firmament of American art, even in the marginalized medium of performance. The videos she made in the Seventies as Organic Honey, her “electronic erotic seductress” alter ego, are considered critical works in the history of video and feminist art, exploring female identity through gestures, mirrors and costuming. “She has mastered a subtle and complex way of working with video, mirrors and reflection, and she engages with issues of representation as much as with myth or fairy tales,” says Cooke.