MIAMI — “I’m just waiting for this to dry; I’m just waiting for this to dry; I’m just waiting for this to dry.” One of Ida Applebroog’s paintings in her Mercy Hospital series, on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Miami, features these words repeating around a circle with an orangey shape at its center. Follow the words and your head will tilt. Repetition, it is said, is often a habit of the mentally unwell, but the Mercy Hospital paintings contain a sardonic self-awareness of the situation that propagated them — Applebroog did, in fact, make these works while interned at a hospital.
Applebroog was born Ida Applebaum in 1929 in the Bronx, New York, into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family. She studied graphic design, worked at an ad agency, and married her high school sweetheart before her family relocated to Chicago, where she took courses at the School of the Art Institute. The family moved again in 1968, this time to San Diego, where Applebroog found solitude in the household’s bathtub. There, in California, she was hospitalized at the local Mercy Hospital’s psychiatric ward for intense depression and accompanying dissociative symptoms. “I was there for three weeks at first,” Applebroog told me, “went home for one week, and then had to go right back for another three weeks. I spent those six weeks drawing.” Applebroog would continue to produce other work, eventually moving back to New York and establishing her practice, but the Mercy Hospital pieces remained tucked away in her studio for years. “I finally did work up the courage to open the boxes,” she said.
Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami’s deputy director and chief curator, came to Applebroog’s studio to help select works from Catastrophes, a set of large-scale oil and ink paintings on Mylar the artist has been making since 2012. They depict dot-eyed characters in disconcerting situations that might quickly devolve into tragedies (a woman staring at another woman, one clutching a hammer; a skeleton-headed figure; a girl either emerging from or sinking into a very small box). Gartenfeld also chose sections from A Performance, a group of books Applebroog created in the 1970s, which she’d send to friends and strangers in the mail. At the time, mail art was becoming a useful way to share work, and the unsettling nature of Applebroog’s books — obtuse but disturbing phrases like “NOBODY EVER DIES OF IT,” images of men and women, frozen in the middle of vague scenarios — prompted hate mail in response. Together, the three sets of work featured in the ICA exhibition reflect the multiplicity of the artist herself, a kind of id, ego, super-ego trifecta: the unnerving but humorous images in the books — their meaning open to the reader’s interpretation — the obvious imminent dangers of Catastrophes, and, most striking, the deeply internal reflections of the Mercy Hospital pieces, Rorschach allusions of Applebroog’s own psyche.
Mercy Hospital is comprised of over five notebooks of work, vacillating between meandering, colorful abstraction and hyper-cognizant musings on the self. One inky watercolor that looks like larvae has the artist’s own name spelled out in what might be seedlings. Below, it reads, “Why? Why? Why?” Alongside, a paragraph begins: “A day of no sense; drawings of no sense; keep drawing, painting, working … is this what keeps me alive? or is this what makes me so ill?”
Bouts of internal madness and discomfort have no one specific cure. But drawing did create an outlet and conversational platform for the otherwise silent Applebroog. “I would show [the doctor] the drawings I’d made the day before, and we would talk about them,” said Applebroog. “They didn’t think I would do well with occupational therapy, because I was not coherent and could not communicate with anyone. I realized my way of communication was what I did best most of my life.”
Arranged side by side by side — engendering a slow walk and a close read — the paintings and drawings are sometimes colorless, sometimes explosive with greens, yellows, lavenders. There are strange, red-tinged bodies with clubbed fingers piled underneath a car; shapes that seem to reference the interior of both the earth and the human body; train-of-thought amalgamations of shapes and spirals. All appear to be melting. A few are buffered by questions (“1. Do you see the donut? 2. Do just see the hole? 3. But if you see the hole, then where’s Mary?”) and odd responses (“7. Wrong answers — you all failed the test!”). Other texts are repetitive: “That ain’t no monkey on my back — that ain’t no monkey on my back — understand? understand? understand?”
The female body appears frequently, in a soft heft that sometimes blends with its abstracted surroundings or, in the instance of one black-and-gray watercolor, morphing downward, head-first, into molten cloud formations. The wanderings of a brush creating cyclical patterns can look biomorphic, just by virtue of their shape (don’t all swirls have the potential to look mildly intestinal?), but Applebroog’s awareness of her own womanhood is clear across her work.
Applebroog is an adamant feminist, explaining to Hyperallergic, “I didn’t know anything about feminism in those days. Remember, I was in the generation of Janson’s History of Art. There were no women in that book. Who says we were not pre-judged by gender?” As Gartenfeld told me: “Ida is foremost in a tradition of women artists who have used the trope of unwellness or unfitness, in a culture that favors hyper-productivity, as a subjective position that can present new and critical forms of images.” The Mercy Hospital images are first and foremost a portrayal of Applebroog’s psychology, but a gendered nature of her experience is implicated. One magenta-and-orange drawing is captioned “NO MORE BIG MAMA”; another figure speaks to its own belly. Indeed, many of the potential protagonists (or victims) in Catastrophes or A Performance are women.
One might imagine Applebroog’s doctor asking her how she felt when she created each image, if they showcased anything meaningful or if they were made on the fly. It helps to understand Mercy Hospital as both a demystification of sickness and a lesson in the power of interpreting one’s internal experience, however complicated, for oneself.
Ida Applebroog: Mercy Hospital continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Miami (Miami Design District, 4040 NE 2nd Ave, Miami) through October 30. Call Her Applebroog, a documentary on the artist, will screen at O Cinema (90 NW 29th St, Miami) on Saturday, October 29.