Judith Bernstein’s Archive
When I first encountered Judith’s work, I felt aligned with her crude sense of humor, her larger-than-life rage against oppressive politics, and her evident rebelliousness, not only as a feminist but as a Jersey girl—as someone who says “fuck” a lot. I also realized that much of her aesthetic vision paved the way for feminist art, punk, and riot grrrl. I could trace much of my own artistic lineage with her imagery and attitude. So, when I began to work as her studio manager, I became invested in preserving her work with the creation and maintenance of her physical and digital archive. This process feels like filling in a gap of unrecorded art herstory, a vindication of an artist that the art world previously left behind, a daily game of catch up. It’s also a scramble since Judith has always been—and continues to be—a prolific artist who has lived and worked in the same Chinatown loft for over 50 years. Aside from her art, she is an avid collector of wide-eyed plush toys, anti-war buttons, and baubles of all kinds that are kept in the many unopened boxes we at the studio have yet to explore.
There are romantic, if not cartoonish, visions of the archives and the archivist: treasures stashed in dusty piles, scribbled notes that contain the seedlings of contemporary thought or juicy gossip, while the archivist engages in the valiant act of preserving history, and being the righteous one tasked with bringing secret information into the light.
Archivist Sue Breakell writes, “For some, the archivist is a rule maker, casting spells around archives (damsels in distress), which are suspended in time, waiting to be rescued and re-animated by users (in shining armor).”1 However, I reject the patriarchal roles of knights and damsels; I’d like to think of the feminist archivist as an Aquarian water bearer, pouring information onto the land so that it is available for nourishment and growth. I do not think of Judith’s archives—or any—as dead before a necromancy ritual. Just because something is “undiscovered” does not mean it’s not breathing, or that art objects do not exist before they are shown or catalogued. An egalitarian approach to archiving within a feminist Ethics of Care confirms that we live in a continuous network and that we are all responsible for the creation and preservation of history.
In the mid ’90s Judith Bernstein described her career as “dead in the water.” She had no shows, very little support and a shoestring income from adjunct teaching jobs despite her significant contributions to contemporary art. Lack of exposure has been a problematic aspect of Bernstein’s career; however, much this has changed recently; hundreds of unseen works live within the flat files of her loft, heightening the need for archival efforts.
One of these series is Bernstein’s word drawings, which encapsulates how words have always played a significant role in Bernstein’s work, especially in instances where words and phrases evoke double meaning. These drawings are especially pertinent because one of the most insidious tools of fascism is the dissolution of language, the pirating of words and phrases to drain them of their potency and even to ascribe to them opposite meaning. Judith Bernstein, instead, creates pieces where we can meditate on phrases with double meanings, and think about how they poetically and politically inform one another.
I was peering into the vast chasm of the digital archive when I found a low-res photo of a piece, Black Rhinos. I mentioned to Judith that I had found this image and she said, “those are cop killer bullets.” I did not know what she was talking about. I assumed I did not know about the “cop killer bullets” because of my age, the same reason why Judith’s Iraq flag works feel historically prophetic to me (I was 12 on 9/11 and am only now old enough to see how much history repeats itself). One of these pieces, Iraq Travel Poster (1969), was not archived until January 2018. We find un-archived work in the studio weekly, which is both daunting and thrilling.
In December 1994, three articles were published in the New York Times about an ammunition ban on bullets able to pierce bullet proof vests. One of these bullets was named “Black Rhino.” In October 1994, there was also an article in the New York Times that reported the Black Rhinoceros slipping into the critically endangered species list due to poachers. Bernstein’s piece then hints at her most central thesis—as one of the reasons why Rhino tusks are so heavily poached is because they are believed to have the power of restoring vitality to impotent men. All of that killing for a little hard cock.
Judith reads the New York Times every day and when I am on the way to her studio I usually pick it up for her. The paper—and its glaring headlines—are a significant part of her work. Black Rhinos had been dated as 1990 in the archive; I knew now to change it to 1994. A small victory; neither magic nor knighthood.
- Sue Breakell, ‘Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive’, in Tate Papers, no.9, Spring 2008