Cleaning the Drapes (1969-72)

Martha Rosler’s first job out of college included writing captions for Collier’s encyclopedia. “It always was the most amazing puzzle,” she says with a laugh. “How can I possibly make these words fit into that space…It was the era of scientific discoveries, and I was always doing the science parts. In very few words, you had to explain to a mass audience was a quasar was, which is really very hard.” She gives me a shrewd look. “I have a very particular mind.”

That particularity, combined with a innate fluency with words and images, has distinguished Martha Rosler from other contemporary artists throughout her decades-long career. Along with producing a large body of work in a variety of mediums, she has expanded upon her role as an artist by also writing eloquently about social issues and contemporary culture. She is a rarity as an artist who writes lucidly about critical theory, citing Giorgio Agamben, Herbert Marcuse, psychoanalysis, and David Harvey with equal aplomb. She has interrogated Julian Assange. When she says, “I’ve always struggled over my writing, far more than I have over the art” it is hard to fathom, because her extensive publishing record suggests otherwise. Yet she is not feigning false modesty; when asked what makes her work so effective, her response is without pretense: “I always thought, I have this Brooklyn accent — lower middle class, unpolished, a straight-talking way of enunciating and articulating things. It put me in a position, in various works, to say things outright that other artists didn’t.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Martha Rosler has become an art-world transient, though she still considers New York home. She is one of the handful of contemporary artists who can also claim the role of a public intellectual, and travels the world giving lectures, exhibiting her work, participating in commissions, and accepting awards—in 2010, the Guggenheim Museum honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Currently she is living in Berlin on a DAAD fellowship and is working on several projects in both the United States and abroad. Like her contemporaries Marina Abramovic and Allan Kaprow, she has shown an occasional propensity to revisit and re-interpret her landmark work, but with a difference: when Rosler looks back to past events, it is solely to emphasize the connection between history and the politics of the present-day.

It is hard to underestimate the impact of her 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen, which holds steadfast in the canon of feminist art. A staple of college film courses, it has been exhibited internationally and continually since its release. The source of its power is in its simplicity: Rosler faces the camera and affectlessly recites a litany of everyday kitchen tools in alphabetical order, producing a brilliant détournement of the television cooking show.  “Apron,” she says, and then puts on an apron as if it were a straitjacket. “Bowl” she says, as she mimes mixing an imaginary concoction. “Chopper,” she says insistently, her voice a little more savage, and at this point the viewer senses the violence behind this arch performance, even before she slams the utensil repeatedly on the table. It is at once dark, funny, and poetic; and retains a sense of immediacy to this day.

When the Whitechapel Gallery in London invited Rosler to remake Semiotics of the Kitchen for A Short History of Performance, she initially balked at the suggestion. “It was never a live performance; it was always a performance for the camera.” The work took on a different valence when she decided to hold an audition and directed 26 women re-enacting the piece. Viewers could watch the idiosyncratic performances, occurring three at a time, in person. Rosler instructed the performers initially, but the interpretation of the piece was their own. She describes the process as a collective one: “It was a performance of living people. Some women were actors, some women were art students. There were different degrees of nervousness and professionalism. Working with the other women, they built up their confidence. At the end of the process I really felt like we were giving a communal gift to the audience.”  And how did the participants respond to the underlying feminist agenda of the piece, in this “post-feminist” age? “There wasn’t a single woman in that room who would have denied being a feminist.” The performance was well received and has recently been fashioned into a film of its own.

Over the past several years, Rosler has engaged in other artistic collaborations, most notably with e-flux, the influential contemporary art network that also produces exhibitions, publications, and events. In 2006, e-flux crammed their small space on Ludlow street with over 7,000 of her books and simply called the exhibition “Martha Rosler Library.” (Titles ranged from William Sumner’s 1883 treatise What Social Classes Owe to Each Other to Richard Sennett’s 1970 text The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life.) In 2009, she presented a trove of documents and source material surrounding her landmark 1989 Dia exhibition If You Lived Here…which explored issues of urban housing and homelessness. Also In the works are two forthcoming publications with e-flux: a book collecting her three-part essay on artists, the ‘creative class,” and gentrification (previously published in the e-flux journal) and a manuscript from the mid-1970s entitled The Art of Cooking, which includes, among other things, snippets from vintage cookbooks and a mock-dialogue between Julia Child and the former New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne.

An artist who rarely confines herself to one medium (when she describes how she chooses the form of her work: “It’s the second thought, not the first thought”) I met with Rosler when she was back in Brooklyn to shoot for More American Photographs, a group show at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco. She, along with several other leading photographers, was commissioned to do a piece that examines the legacy of the depression-era photography of the Farm Security Administration, a topic that resonates with Rosler’s persistent interest in difficult socioeconomic issues — issues that often go neglected in the art world. “We’re not out of the depression,” she says simply. Rosler’s approach shifts the rural focus of the FSA photographs to immigrants and other residents in Greenpoint. “To my understanding, the FSA and the Resettlement Agency were about presenting a rural population to an urban audience. Here I am interested in representing this urban area, Greenpoint — that was like the village that time forgot — as a neighborhood in transformation.” She found that quite a few immigrants from every group were unwilling to be photographed, averting their faces every time she asked to take a picture. “It’s because the atmosphere is so overwhelmingly anti-immigrant…” Shop owners and young people were the most likely to agree to pose for a photo. The show ends December 17th.

Though she has an opinion on everything from the assassination of Osama bin Laden to the utility of Facebook, what concerns Rosler most about the current state of affairs is the conflation of consumer choice with political agency. “There’s very little distinction between an objective social process and a subjective feeling. What you get is this heavy insistence that women are different, blacks are different, Asians are different, because they occupy a different stance in relation to objects and social life, but absolutely no explanation of their different relationship to social power. Everything becomes a lifestyle choice.” She has written extensively about the birth of the creative class, and how in late capitalism, artists and hipsters have become the shock troops of real-estate revaluation, putting them in the awkward position of being unwitting accomplices of capital and the bankers on Wall Street. Rosler’s work seeks to restore the role of the artist to that of a worker and a citizen; her work is a palpable form of dissent. “Shopping is not the solution to all of life’s discontent. If you think it is, what is it that you’re not seeing? What is the role of agency that you really perceive for yourself? According to her, the Occupy Wall Street movement—forged in part in the discussion precincts of artists—is one of the most hopeful things to happen in the Untied States since the world-changing grass-roots movements of the 1960s. It is clear that social engagement and political agency are not just strategies of her art, but the lifeblood of her practice, and both her art and writing help us to see.


When Rosler was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, she was the teaching assistant to none other than Manny Farber. He was a profound influence on her thinking (says Rosler: “He taught me everything”) and brought a host of filmmakers to lecture to her cohorts, including Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin.

Favorite movies of all time: Alphaville and Kiss Me Deadly

On Luis Buñuel: “In one of the classes I TA’ed for Manny, we watched the entire filmmography of Buñuel. I loved many of his films; I despised Belle du Jour but loved Los Olvidados — it’s like Dragnet, but Surrealist.”

On Tree of Life: “I did like Terence Malick until I saw Tree of Life, which I thought was hilarious…. It was engrossing but weirdly grandiose and self-indulgent. My assistant told me that Malick is a Heideggerian… I thought he was simply a pantheist. Badlands is an incredible film, and so is Thin Red Line but as his budgets get bigger, he gets worse.”

On Imitation of Life: “I love to what Sirk did with the myth of the natural woman…and the image of Hollywood as a completely vacuous and dangerous machine. He shows the raw edges of race and class privilege and pretension, but he understood that no matter how cynical and revelatory he meant his films to be, they were always taken as straightforward, as just what the characters are enacting. The Left reviles that film, but I’m always saying to them, ‘Watch the movie!'”