The Great Journey into Space is the second exhibition of the Belgian Pop artist Evelyne Axell to be seen in New York. Her first New York exhibition, Axell’s Paradise: Last Works (1971–1972) before she vanished, which I reviewed for The Brooklyn Rail, was also at 1602 Broadway (October 1–November 21, 2009). (Note: The gallery’s name is different from the address, which is 1181 Broadway, third floor). Together, these exhibitions fill a gap in our knowledge of what was going on during the heyday of Pop Art as well as offer viewers a chance to assess the work of an artist who has largely been left out of art history. An exhibition devoted to the “Erotomobiles“ that Axell did between 1964 and ‘66, at the outset of her rather short career, would fill out the picture.
In the larger historical context, Axell’s work was included in the important and revelatory exhibition, Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968, organized by Sid Sachs. That exhibition amplified what many people suspected for a long time: men weren’t the only ones to make Pop Art. In fact, many women artists — and here I would include Axell, the American artists Rosalind Drexler and Marjorie Strider, the English Pop artist Pauline Boty (1938-1966) and the Polish sculptor, Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973) – made Pop Art that critiqued the male gaze and other mainstream assumptions regarding women as objects to be looked at and perhaps even appreciated, like a bottle of fine wine.
(Axell was friends with Szapocznikow and went to England where she met Boty. In addition to being actresses, artists and dying young, there are other parallels between Axell and Boty, particularly in their work, that I think should be explored in a two-person exhibition.)
(Before I discuss the current exhibition of Axell’s work, I would like to advance that there is an alternative history of Pop Art as it is presented by most museums, including the ones in New York. It is a history occupied solely by women, particularly the ones who deliberately subverted the tropes associated with Pop Art, the representation of women being foremost among them. This is the occult history we should be interested in, not another rehash that glorifies Andy Warhol to the point of excluding all else that was going on around him. )
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The exhibition focuses on Axell’s interest in space travel undertaken by women. It includes the assemblage painting “Valentine” (1966), which she made in homage to Valentina Tereshkova, who, on June 16, 1963, became the first woman to fly into space. The painting’s gold leaf, spray painted surface includes a white toy astronaut helmet — it belonged to Axell’s son — and a zipper of a white cat woman outfit that the viewer is invited to pull up or down. Behind the zipper, and synonymous with the painting’s skin, is a nude female body, complete with protruding breasts and belly button.
With her hands behind her head, and arms and elbows extending up, Axell’s silhouetted figure shares something with the prostitute in the middle of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon“ (1907) and Ingres’ “Venus Anadyomène” (1848). The pose is modern and classical, inviting and self-contained.
Axell’s self-contained women done in high-key colors are the opposite of Roy Lichtenstein’s crying babes in primary colors and black. This what Martin Filler has to say about Lichtenstein in “Cool: Roy Lichtenstein & Andy Warhol,” (The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012): “In 1957, the critic Thomas B. Hess called Antonio Canova, Neoclassical sculptor of icily perfect marble nudes, ‘the erotic Frigidaire,’ but that epithet might better be applied to Lichtenstein.” And throughout their careers, weren’t Tom Wesselman and Mel Ramos right there with Lichtenstein, humming merrily along?
Warhol focused on women’s faces, while Axell never shied away from calling attention to women’s breasts and genitalia. She wasn’t interested in dividing the head from the body or in being subtle. When she did do portraits, it was of Angela Davis.
In “Self Portrait“ (1971), which is done in felt tip pen and gouache on cut paper, Axell utilizes the flat graphic style that served her well throughout her career. Her face is surrounded by cascades of black hair, which become the top of a dress that exposes her breasts. She is wearing glasses (her signature image), and the circles of the frames echo the circles of her breasts. Axell’s recurring use of eyeglasses in her work openly challenges the sentiment expressed in Dorothy Parker’s well-known ditty: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” In “The Painter (Self Portrait)” (1970), which is done in enamel on Plexiglas, and not in this exhibition, Axell depicted herself wearing glasses. She is nude and holding a loaded paintbrush in one had and a bucket of paint in the other. In cosmonaut Tereshkova, Axell recognized a metaphor for complete liberation from the rules of men. Her flight became synonymous with the desire for freedom, fantasy and the erotic imagination.
Axell’s female cosmonaut presents an alternative view to the one found in Robert Rauschenberg’s silkscreen images derived from the mass media or Gandy Brodie’s lone figure floating in space.
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While Axell briefly studied painting with Magritte, it seems very likely that she also got a view of the erotic from Jane Graverol (1905 – 1984), a woman painter in Magritte’s circle.
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In 1969, Axell organized a “Happening” at the opening of her exhibition at the Richard Fonke Gallery in Ghent. A number of photographs were taken of the event, and some of these are included in the current exhibition. The “Happening” consisted of a young woman wearing nothing but an astronaut’s helmet. Against a background of “lascivious” music, Axell, who is wearing dark sunglasses, slowly dressed the woman in panties, nylons, bra, slip, and a form-fitting dress with a zipper, of course. The woman’s identity is never revealed. Afterwards, a raucous debate about the sexual revolution, led by the French critic Pierre Restany, took place.
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Although Axell’s career lasted less than a decade (1964 – 72), she created distinct bodies of work, explored different non-art materials, including Plexiglas and felt tip markers, and seemed always to be pushing herself in a new direction. She painted, made assemblage paintings, sculptures, prints, and a partition.
Her recurring subject is the relationship between a woman’s body and the erotic imagination. She links that imagination with speeding cars, tropical islands, and women astronauts—a desire for complete freedom. She was, one might say, the star in her own movie; and it is funny and biting, filled with hot and cool colors. She has revisited Gauguin’s Tahiti and, except for an occasional appearance by Tarzan, removed all the men. In this and her depictions of a staged self, Axell anticipates Cindy Sherman. The difference is that Axell both embraces and revels in the overheated and erotic, while Sherman goes to great lengths to suppress it. Axell’s female is both indolent and in control. There are no signs of anxiety in Axell’s paradise, while Sherman’s alter ego never achieves such a state of liberation and hedonism.
Evelyne Axell: The Great Journey into Space continues through July 27 at Broadway 1602 (1181 Broadway, third floor, Herald Square, Manhattan).