Important Art by Martha Rosler
In this photomontage, Rosler uses pieces cut from magazine advertisements. A black-and-white image of a woman, with haircut and dress typical of the late-1960s, cleans heavily brocaded gold drapes with a cream paisley design. A vacuum is slung over her left shoulder as her hand pulls out the drape to make it taut. Her right hand drags the long hose attachment vertically down the fabric as she works. The far right depicts the other side of the drapes, framing a window in which we see a black-and-white scene of war. Large boulders fill the space in the center where two fully outfitted soldiers stand wearing helmets. Caught in a moment of rest, one smokes a cigarette while the other looks out at something in the distance. Their machine guns rest behind them and a gray ominous sky weighs oppressively above.
This work is one of twenty pieces from Rosler's House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c.1967-72) series created during, and influenced by, the Vietnam War. It was the first war in history that was literally brought into the homes of American people through the revolutionary new television set from which its horrors could be witnessed daily. It was often described as a "living room war" - a description loaded with strange poignancy as it shined a light on the eeriness of a nation living their everyday lives, ripe with consumerist concerns like keeping the stylish home drapes clean, all the while gruesome political realities took place elsewhere, becoming just another form of nightly entertainment in front of the tube.
This work is an important example of Rosler's role in multiple art historical movements. Her presence in the Pop art scene is clear here through the repurposing and reinterpretation of images from popular culture, news, home decorating, and housekeeping magazines. She also showcases her aggressive Activist vein. Because the typical American family's view of the war was shaped by media images, Rosler's compositions ask the viewer to consider the power that the media has in shaping one's view of politics. Rosler often purposely published these images in anti-war magazines and distributed copies of the work to like-minded individuals.
Simultaneously, there is a feminist element to the work as it comments on the robotic mundaneness of female domestic work in the midst of global unrest. The idea of women striving to keep the house beautiful while war's tragedies are omnipresent becomes almost comical, and presents a surreal picture about what we deem important. Recognizing the potential for manipulation in the photographic medium, Rosler once stated, "Any familiarity with photographic history shows that manipulation is integral to photography."
Woman With Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art is another work of photomontage. Fragments of images from magazines and advertisements depict a long narrow corridor with cream-colored walls on which hang colorful Pop art works and exhibition posters. Overhead is a red ceiling from which hang white globe lights. In the center of the work, a woman stands vacuuming a dark brown-carpeted floor. She is young and on trend with short hair, a white short-sleeve blouse, a calf-length dark green skirt, and black pumps. She holds the hose to the vacuum (positioned opposite and slightly behind her) in her left hand as she vacuums with her right. She confronts the viewer with a big smile on her red lips.
This work, while part of the larger Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain series (c. 1967-72), differs from many of Rosler's other works. Although it does indeed weave her common theme of addressing how women were recognized solely as housekeeping beauties in media at the time, it also takes it a step further by questioning women's underrepresented role as viable artists in the art world. Surrounded by works of Pop art, the woman smiles, happy to care for the space in which the art is hung. This figure is seemingly content in her domesticity and would never think to move beyond this task, accepting of her gender's fate of non-inclusion within the sphere of art, she exists merely to clean.
In a visually ironic way, Rosler uses the already ironically playful nature of Pop art to make this searing indictment on the way that women were treated in the art world of the 1960s and early 1970s. Despite the fact that there were many important female contributors to the genre such as Rosler, they were largely unrecognized. Male artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann (whose work is recreated on the corridor wall) were the ones most associated with the movement and whose work was most frequently exhibited.
Furthering her use of appropriated imagery in Cold Meat I, Rosler presents a picture of a refrigerator formed from the naked torso of a female. The top door is open to reveal a freezer stocked with food. In front of the refrigerator are four long strips, of what appear to be flesh, lying flat on a blue background. The piece is one of a series of works in which the perfect naked female form, often exploited and objectified in popular culture, is reconfigured into the structures of everyday kitchen items such as a dishwasher, oven, or, as here, a refrigerator.
This work is an important example of how Rosler was able to use Pop art to make strong feminist statements about female objectification by society, which laid the foundation for the important role that she would eventually play in the Feminist art movement. With a jarring visual metaphor, she links the female body, often found in pornographic magazines, to food-related items like pieces of meat, mere commodity for male pleasure and consumption. In addition, the connection of the female body to the domestic realm of the kitchen serves to reinforce the narrow view that was still prevalent in the 1960s of woman as housekeeper, defined only by her role as mother, nurturer, and home provider. In describing this aspect of the series, she stated, "I should think that the reading of 'woman = good mother = food' is apparent in the kitchen set; you might say its theme is 'consumption'."