Beauty from Disarray

Judith Brodsky's work in art and advocacy

Could Science Prove There’s a God? (2014) is part of artist Judith Brodsky's ongoing series about science and philosophy, The Twenty Most Important Scientific Questions of the 21st Century.Image courtesy of Judith Brodsky
From left: How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male)? (2013) and How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Female)? (2013)Image courtesy of Judith Brodsky
Judith Brodsky holds a work from her series, Memoir of an Assimilated Family (2003). An image from her current project, The Twenty Most Important Scientific Questions of the 21st Century, hangs behind her.Image courtesy of Judith Brodsky; portait by Andrea Warriner
How Does the Brain Work? (2013)Image courtesy of Judith Brodsky

Judith Brodsky’s entry into the art world began with a hand-drawn circle. Then a young wife and mother just years out of Radcliffe, Brodsky ’54 traced a radius around a map of her home in Princeton, New Jersey, and considered how far away she could go to study art and still be home by the time her children returned from school. Now an accomplished printmaker and Distinguished Professor emerita of the visual arts department at Rutgers, Brodsky recalls that at college, “There were these pulls in different directions”: students were encouraged to be scholars, but The Radcliffe News was filled with news of engagements and weddings. While pursuing her degree in the history of art, Brodsky herself was married by the end of her junior year.

By the early 1960s, she was itching to stage her first rebellion. The radius of her circle brought her to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, where she studied printmaking and began to identify male dominance in fine art. When women’s movements rose to challenge this status quo in the 1970s, Brodsky helped launch FOCUS, a festival celebrating women artists that drew feminist art pioneer Judy Chicago and abstract expressionist Lee Krasner, among others. The program’s success became evident from the pushback: “We got sued,” Brodsky recalls, “by a male artist who said he couldn’t get a show during that period because the galleries were only showing women.”

She kept up this dedication to outsider artists: in 1986, she founded the printmaking center at Rutgers that now bears her name, The Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions. The center provides studio space and materials for women artists, artists of color, and gay and lesbian artists, whose work might be too politically charged for museum curators. It has also helped place their art in collections throughout the United States and around the world. The genius was in the medium: “It was easier for an institution to buy a print,” she explains, “than to risk spending a lot of money to buy a painting or sculpture.”

Brodsky has also earned acclaim for her art: provocative print installations, etchings, and collaged images. Her own attraction to printmaking comes from its physicality, she says. The sketching, etching, and transferral involved in the medium constitute a whole-body procedure that “becomes almost meditative” and provides a deep connection to her work: “There’s no part of you that’s not involved in the process.” More than 100 museums and companies now house her pieces in their permanent collections, including the Library of Congress, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Berlin’s Stadtmuseum, and the Fogg Museum at Harvard.

Some of her projects skew more personal, addressing her own memories as they align with historical themes. One major series, Memoir of an Assimilated Family (2003), consists of black-and-white photographs, each enlarged and framed by a black background. She culled these images from her personal archives; the selections show several generations of a Jewish-American family moving through a changing world. Beneath the sometimes somber, sometimes joyful images is stark text that explains what Brodsky knows about the subjects, and the particular memories they evoke.

A work from 1990, The Animals Run Away. (Click through for more images from the series.)
Image courtesy of Judith Brodsky

In other series, Brodsky offers a playful look at relationships between humans and nature. The Meadowlands Strike Back, from 1996, was conceived as a reaction to her workday commute on the New Jersey Turnpike. “As I was driving up and down the Turnpike,” she writes in a statement accompanying an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design, “the imagery of the refineries, the garbage mountains, and the ports impinged on my consciousness.” One image, “The Animals Run Away,” is a deep red hell-scape of burning pines, with oil derricks rising to the top of the frame while bear-like creatures flee at bottom. “Garbage Mountain” shows a rising pile of fly-covered bags, with interlaid images of dead fish saturating the print’s lower half in Technicolor. “It’s one of my ways of making people aware of what the world is like around them,” she says of her habit of rendering apocalypse in cheery hues. She likens her style to literary satire, forcing commentary by drawing beauty from disarray.

Elsewhere, Brodsky blends popular science with philosophy. Her latest series, The Twenty Most Important Scientific Questions of the 21st Century, is a science fiction-like response to a New York Times list from 2003; it offers her take on what these questions, and their answers, could look like. One work, “Why Do We Sleep?” is an enlarged sepia image of wide-open eyes, surrounded by a neat halo of bulbs as if in an old diagram. The eyes themselves seem distressed by the question, as if it is what keeps them awake. Another, “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced? (Male)” centers on a Vitruvian Man-like figure, with skeletal parts and human organs orbiting him; an almost whimsical pattern of eyes and ears frames the piece. This neat menu of parts mocks the question, as if invasive surgery could be ordered from a buffet. By carrying them to their absurd extremes, Brodsky makes the questions themselves a target for her cynicism, and forces this century’s thinkers to consider what they are really asking. “If you replace all the body parts,” she says, “is it really science at the bottom of this? Or is it the desire never to die?”

Balancing her competing commitments as artist, curator, and advocate has not always been easy. During her lengthy career, Brodsky has periodically paused to consider her direction and legacy: “I thought, when I’m on my deathbed, do I want to look back and think about what I’ve done as an administrator, or do I want to have made more artwork?” But since that first, private rebellion, when a younger Brodsky sought to expand her creative horizons, her radius has expanded outward—drawing others, who were previously excluded, into the circle of accepted art.

Read more articles by: Violet Baron

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