The history of art has, like so many other vocations, been mostly told by men. But assorted cultural and political revolutions over the course of the 20th century brought women decisively to the forefront, as their self-possession and sexual agency was channeled into era defining works of art, that sought to overturn the patriarchal cultural hierarchy.
Surely then, two decades into the 21st century, it was not unreasonable to believe that in America, the matter of a woman's domain over her own body had achieved a reliable forward momentum. Yet in 2020, we find that reproductive rights have again come under attack by regressive socio-political forces, perhaps fearing the relentless force of will of truly empowered women. And while the sheer numbers and intensity of the recent Women's Marches have proven that such a force can be effectively galvanized, individual female artists had really never stopped addressing that sense of empowerment in their work.
Within this tense but exciting new context, has come a provocative, revolutionary new art book, A Woman's Right to Pleasure, released this August 20, 2020 via BlackBook, Dr. Amir Marashi, LELO, and ACC Art Books. Along with the book, BlackBook will host a digital exhibition via BlackBook Presents and through a unique collaboration with artsy.net, the premier online gallery platform.
The project came to fruition as a result of a unique collaboration with New York City gynecologist, Dr. Amir Marashi, and leading intimate lifestyle brand, LELO. Marashi, who has dedicated his career to helping women, including victims of female genital mutilation, initially had the idea to join the worlds of medicine and art in a project that explored female pleasure. BlackBook also partnered with LELO due to their aligning ethos that sees female pleasure as a human right that should be celebrated. LELO has been a guiding and influential force in the sex toy industry for over a decade, with designs that blend pleasure with performance like no other brand. The company aims to empower and liberate women by normalizing conversations around sex and pleasure, and by bringing those dialogues to the mainstream.
Amanda Charchian, 7 Types of Love, Eros 1, 2015 | 7 Types of Love, Storage, 2017
BlackBook Editor Alexandra Weiss enthuses: "Initially, we were thinking about pleasure in the most literal way: female sexual agency, and using the vagina as a metaphor for the entire female experience. But as we started speaking to more artists and writers, we realized that female sexual agency—and female pleasure—is really just part of the larger issue of female empowerment. And we also wanted to be sure this book was as inclusive as possible, knowing that the vagina is not what makes a woman a woman."
Coming hot on the heels of the #MeToo zeitgeist, enthusiasm for the project was not insignificant—though BlackBook's ability to envision how the work of some of the most influential figures of the last century-plus in the female artistic community could be cultivated to create a new kind of narrative, propelled it on to places not previously imagined.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Nude), 1990, silver print | Portrait of a Woman Fallen from Grace, 1987, digital print
Notably, the book is given further gravitas via essays by two of the most venerated feminist authors of the last two generations, Erica Jong and Roxane Gay, with the latter incisively elucidating, "While men are allowed to want openly, women have to be more discreet about our desires." And so a particular purpose of the book, then, is to encourage women to desire more openly, and to celebrate that desire in ways that are challenging, seditionary, beautiful, and even in some cases funny—if one is open to earnestly getting the humor.
Of course, the level of art talent that was enlisted for the project can arguably be described as unprecedented, while remaining true to the BlackBook ethos of uniting prominent voices with emerging talent. And so the works of the likes of Marina Abramovic, Faith Ringgold and Nina Chanel Abney, sit strikingly beside those of Tracey Emin, Arvida Byström, Georgia O'Keeffe and Harley Weir, creating a thrilling kind of tension, but also allowing one to understand the true sweep of female sexual expression.
Alice Neel, Claudia Bach Pregnant, 1975, oil on canvas
Nodding to the Simone de Beauvoir adage that, "One is not born, but becomes, woman," the book became a space where the contributors could explore their own idea of pleasure, whatever it meant to them, in a context that was at once safe, but also provocatively uncensored. And by bringing together their collective expression, the book really became about power.
"For BlackBook, curating which artists and contributors we wanted to be a part of this project was super important," Weiss says. "We wanted to stay true to the BlackBook mission of creating a space for all voices, making sure that we offered a range of diverse talent from all backgrounds and age groups. We didn't want to provide yet another 'female art book' that presented a limited view of what it means to be a woman."
Renee Cox, Garter Belt, from American Family, 2001, Archival digital C-print mounted on aluminum | Fur, from American Family, 2001, Archival digital C-print mounted on aluminum
And so we get Betty Tompkins' fearless Pussy #5, Emin's raw, zeitgeist-defining When I go to sleep, I dream of you inside of me, Jenny Holzer's thought-provoking Inflammatory Essays and Nan Goldin's voyeuristic Self-portrait with Brian having sex, amongst 270 pages of works including those by Judy Chicago, Marlene Dumas, Cindy Sherman, Monica Kim Garza and Mickalene Thomas, which taken together serve to leave the reader with a low/high, heady/visceral picture of contemporary female identity and sexuality.
Exalted American artist Marilyn Minter, whose 2009 Orange Crush is a particular highlight of the book, perhaps sums it up best when she observes, "I have always believed that women should be able to own sexual imagery and agency, and create images for their own pleasure and amusement. I embrace any woman who tries to own the production of their own sexual fantasies. Nobody has politically correct fantasies."
Cass Bird, Self-Portrait with Mae, 2015 | A Bird in the Bush, 2015
A Woman’s Right To Pleasure will be available August 20, 2020 via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all independent and mainstream retailers, art galleries museum stores and concept shops worldwide. The exhibition will launch on August 7 on BlackBook Presents and artsy.net.