By CAROL KINO
Published: September 5, 2008
ON a recent afternoon Martha Rosler welcomed a visitor to her
three-story Victorian home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to discuss her
new show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Chelsea. Midway through the
visit she said, "I'm a mad clipper, I don't know if you noticed."
Yet you can't help but notice. Step inside the house where Ms. Rosler
has lived since 1987, and you see piles of newspaper and magazine
clippings, photographs and books littering every conceivable surface.
In her downstairs office four Macintosh computers fight for space
with a sea of videotapes, slides, film canisters and political
buttons and posters. More piles lead the way up the staircase, and
line her tchotchke-filled living room.
Ms. Rosler's home may help explain why the work of this video and
political art pioneer is so hard to characterize. Over the last
40-odd years she has worked in many different media, including
photography, video, site-specific installation, critical theory and
the Internet. In the 1960s she made photomontages that protested the
Vietnam War and the objectification of women. During the 1970s she
became known for her videos some quite hilarious that critiqued
female social roles. Since then she has tackled subjects as diverse
as the Bosnian war, the 1973 Chilean coup, the semiotics of airports,
the plight of the homeless and the social politics of the Baby M
custody case. So it's no surprise to also see at least one television
set and stacks of newspapers in every room.
Newspapers are Ms. Rosler's obsession. She likes to read a week's
worth of The New York Times in a single sitting, and she takes it the
old-fashioned way: in print. "I love the newsprint, and I love the
serendipity that you have no idea what you're going to turn the
page and find," she said. "There's a certain formal quality to
reading the paper the way it's organized. Of course I'm from another era."
But you would never guess that looking at her new work.
The show, running through Oct. 11, is largely devoted to new
photomontages from Ms. Rosler's series "Bringing the War Home." She
began making political photomontages in the 1960s, to protest the
Vietnam War, and reactivated the project during the 2004 presidential
election, in response to the Iraq war. They are composites
constructed from the incongruous photographs commonly found cheek by
jowl in commercial news media: advertising images of idealized
American homes conjoined with combat scenes from overseas.
The earlier series, made from about 1967 to 1972, brought the war
home; she introduced Vietnamese refugees and American troops into
images of suburban living rooms. The pieces were intended to be
photocopied and passed around at antiwar rallies in New York and
California, where Ms. Rosler, a Brooklyn native, lived on and off
throughout the 1970s.
The photomontages in this show, all made this year, differ in that
they are large, vibrantly colored, digitally printed and hung in a
commercial gallery. In them Ms. Rosler often collages Americans onto
scenes from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In "Point and Shoot" a glamorous bride poses on a Baghdad street,
holding an old Polaroid camera, while troops behind her train their
guns on civilians. "Invasion" shows a tank flanked by an army of men
in identical black suits. In "The Gray Drape" a woman triumphantly
lifts a cloth from a picture window, as if unveiling a public
monument, to reveal a fiery battleground.
Initially Ms. Rosler felt some trepidation about reviving the
project. "The downside was that people could say, 'She's revisiting
something she did 30 years ago,' " she said. "But I thought that
actually was a plus, because I wanted to make the point that with all
the differences, this is exactly the same scenario. We haven't
advanced at all in the way we go to war."
When it came to making the new work, however, she encountered one
salient difference: today combat photojournalism is harder to come
by, partly because media access of this war has been restricted, but
also because journalism itself has changed. In the 1960s she got most
of her war photographs from Life magazine; now, she said, there are
fewer outlets for photojournalism. Added to that, contemporary
photographs of domestic interiors are often covered in type.
The current work differs in another respect: It notes the human toll
exacted on our military. One photomontage, "Prospect for Today,"
which is printed on a 20-foot vinyl banner, features two American
veterans with prosthetic legs.
"I always want to remind people of two things," she said. "One is to
reconnect the here and the there, and say that they are both parts of
our world. But the other is to say: 'Look how easy this is. You could
do it.' Which I want people to feel about all my work."
Earlier in her career Ms. Rosler avoided showing her work in
commercial galleries especially the antiwar photomontages
preferring to disseminate it through underground publications and
other grass-roots methods. She sometimes declined to sign or date the
work, or give her age. (Although her own biography suggests that she
is in her mid-60s, she still won't confirm it. "I see it as a form of
commodification of the artist," she said.) To support herself Ms.
Rosler, a longtime professor at Rutgers University, has been teaching
since the mid-1970s.
After she returned to New York in 1980, she said, "It became clear to
me that the alternative art scene was drying up, and that I was
losing any platform for my work." In 1993 she finally agreed to be
represented by the New York dealer Jay Gorney, now director of the
contemporary program at Mitchell-Innes & Nash.
Mr. Gorney was drawn to Ms. Rosler because "she is such an
influential figure," he said. "She is the kind of artist that, when
you work with artists as I do, you keep hearing about her again and
again." He sees more than ardent social consciousness in her work.
"There's a reason the photomontages are so resonant. Yes, they're
timely, they're important, they're first-generation American
agitprop, but they're wonderfully successful images and they're
Ms. Rosler said she was gratified to find that with a gallery's help
her work began reaching broader audiences. In 2000 she had her first
major museum show, a 30-year retrospective split between the New
Museum of Contemporary Art and the International Center for
Photography. "What I didn't realize was the efficiency with which a
gallery could actually convert me into somebody that people paid
attention to in the larger art world," she said.
She was also a key player in "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,"
the first major museum survey of the subject, which opened in 2007 at
the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. "She has always claimed
feminism and called her work political," said the curator Cornelia
Butler, who organized the show. "I really admire that because it goes
in and out of fashion, and it's mostly out of fashion. I think that's
part of the reason that her work is very fresh to a younger
generation of artists."
But while political art may be out of vogue, it's also fashionable to
carp that young artists don't make enough of it. Ms. Rosler, who
frequently collaborates with her students, takes a more charitable
view. Her generation had it easier because "we were brought up to
believe that the U.S. was the shining light of the world," and "there
were so many more of us," she said. But "there are plenty of young
artists who are activist in some way or another."
One is her son, the cartoonist Josh Neufeld, who spent about a month
as a Red Cross volunteer in 2005, working with Hurricane Katrina
survivors. Now, in the Web comic "A-D: New Orleans After the Deluge,"
he is chronicling the experiences of six of the city's residents.
Growing up, Mr. Neufeld said, "I thought of my mom's work as being
angry and strident." He gradually came to believe otherwise. "She
sees herself as a teacher," he said, "someone who can see a better way."
Ms. Rosler makes plenty of work outside commercial galleries. Her
"Prospect for Today" photomontage just went up on highway billboards
in Missouri, as part of Art the Vote, a get-out-the-vote effort. This
year for a project at the Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca,
N.Y., she compiled some of her photomontages and photographs of books
for a screen saver that can be downloaded from
Then there's "Martha Rosler Library," a project that allows visitors
to peruse nearly 8,000 of her own books, which opened in 2005 at
e-Flux in New York and has toured Europe since 2006. (She seems a bit
anxious about finding space for them all when they're returned next year.)
"I'm mindful of the fact that the gallery is a commodity exchange
system," Ms. Rosler said. "But my practice reaches in so many
different ways outside the art world that I don't feel bad about
that." Besides, she added, "I realized that if I made political work
that was shown in galleries, it would wind up in mass newspapers and
magazines. And it did."