The sweetness outside of time

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In 1969, Dorothy Iannone and her lover, Swiss artist Dieter Roth, were scheduled to participate in Ausstellung der Freunde, an exhibition of contemporaries in Kunsthalle Bern. Prior to the opening, however, and at the instigation of several contributors, masking-tape was placed over the exposed genitals of her male and female nudes – a very modern sort of fig-leaf. An argument ensued that saw both she and Roth removing their contributions from the show.

Walking through the current retrospective of the American artist, Dorothy Iannone’s work at Berlinische Galerie, 45 years later, this act of censorship appears almost incomprehensibly prudish. Her work, which embraces large-scale paintings, graphic series, furniture and video, is a celebration of male and female intimacy that revels in love and desire without engaging with the darker realms of pornography or the obscene. As ever with censorship but even more focused in the case of artworks suffused with energy, vibrancy and humour, hiding the genitals of Iannone’s lovingly lustful lovers suggests it was the censors with dirty minds, and not her.

Life-size canvases by Dorothy Iannone, 1970-1

Life-size canvases by Dorothy Iannone, 1970-1

The first works encountered in Berlinische Galerie’s main hall are a series of life-size canvases in which men and women, stylised like the hieratic gods of Native American folklore explore one another against meticulously worked patterns of primary colour. A man kneels before his female lover, a woman reaches between the legs of her man. Texts are inscribed on the canvases like records of speech: I BEGIN TO FEEL FREE, where a man pushes his erection against his lover’s vagina; YOUR NAMES ARE LOVE FATHER GOD, as a man fondles a woman. Elsewhere the texts are more explicit, but always they are incorporated with the joy of flesh savoured, of pleasures willingly given and willingly received.

Frequently in this large series, the figures seem to blend or merge together, while their genitals have a sameness that creates an ambiguity between masculine and feminine that complements the intentional vagueness of whether it is the man or the woman speaking the text. The result is a dramatising of erotic love as a merging of identities, an explosive synthesis and coming together that is explored throughout the work of Iannone (born in 1933), whether in her paintings or her wonderfully detailed and poetic graphic series.

Lolita. From Dorothy Iannone's series of cut-outs, Movie People, 2010

Lolita. From Dorothy Iannone’s series of cut-outs, Movie People, 2010

Beyond the main hall, the viewer encounters furniture or objects designed and decorated by Iannone that recall her much-loved mother, Sarah Pucci, whose meticulously beaded objects likewise evoke the sacred in the context of homely ornamentation. Throughout the exhibition, the viewer witnesses the range and consistency of Iannone’s art. From her self-made tarot pack (68/69) to the recent series, Movie People, where cutouts depict scenes from classic movies expressing “unconditional loves, or at least, about the sacrifice of one’s own happiness for the sake of the beloved”, the enduring impression is of an artist who devotes her considerable energy and passion to explorations of love.

With works from the very origins of Iannone’s career, teaching herself to paint while married to her first husband, the abstract-expressionist painter James Upham, one of the most astonishing aspects of this retrospective is how closely she stuck to a single style and vision. Her work is unmistakable, and her style carries from painting to object to videos (embedded in hand-painted boxes like 1972/2005’s Aua Aua) with a kind of passionate transcendence. Her graphic works, mostly drawn from such real-life experiences such as her original meeting with Roth in Reykjavik or arrival in Berlin (where she has lived since the 1970s), with their black and white figures and poetic descriptions, merge seamlessly with her colourful paintings of men and woman that ecstatically evoke Hindu gods and goddesses. It is not surprising to learn that she has been a practicing Buddhist since 1985.

Mother, by Sarah Pucci, 1980s

Mother, by Sarah Pucci, 1980s

Perhaps it would be easy to criticise Iannone’s works for their constant celebration of male and female love – although I think she is celebrating love in general, without boundary or gender. Her feminism embraces – it does not militate. Her style stays the same, and likewise her passions. But I prefer to view these all as strengths. I am move quickly through exhibitions – I am conscious that to stay too long causes one’s inner child to rebel, sulk, and ruin the experience. Artworks are special – they should be treated that way, not consumed one after another as if at a Las Vegas shrimp buffet.

Here, however, it was a pleasure to take one’s time, among the paintings and texts, and perhaps that is because everything tended to discuss certain subjects only. Her fidelity to her passions is not a weakness, but a strength, and it is in that context her relative lack of artistic change should be understood. It draws you in with its generosity, rather than tiring you with its demands. In that way, Iannone’s artwork is very much made in the same spirit as her attitude to love – and, I feel, you could not give her a more meaningful compliment.

Details from Dorothy Iannone's painting, I BEGIN TO FEEL FREE

Details from Dorothy Iannone’s painting, I BEGIN TO FEEL FREE

by Ruvi Simmons

Dorothy Iannone is at Berlinische Galerie , Alte Jakobstr. 124-128, Berlin until June 6

Images by Ruvi Simmons and Shirin Barthel