Anita Steckel, Artist Who Created Erotic Works, Dies at 82
By PAUL VITELLO
Anita Steckel, whose playful and sometimes unsettling erotic works were little known outside the mostly underground world of feminist art until she was discovered in her 70s and her creations acclaimed as masterly and groundbreaking, died on March 16 in Manhattan. She was 82.
Her death was confirmed by Rachel Middleman, an art historian and the executor of Ms. Steckel’s estate.
Ms. Steckel, who lived and worked most of her life in a small studio in Greenwich Village, told interviewers that she had always felt a tension between being a woman who liked men and being an artist who chafed at the limits that men had historically placed on women.
Her ventures in erotica, she said, were in part intended to establish the right of women to make art from the male figure — just as men had for millenniums created art from the nude female figure. Ms. Steckel’s paintings of naked men and women engaged in suggestive or explicit acts of sexual expression — and particularly her depictions of erections — set off a furor in 1973 when she included them in a one-woman show at the arts center of Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y.
“It certainly didn’t turn me on,” a local legislator said in demanding that they be taken down.
The commotion made her momentarily famous in the pages of art publications (which generally liked her work) and in New York City tabloids (which generally did not). And it led her to form an organization of female artists, known as the Fight Censorship Group, whose membership would include Louise Bourgeois and Hannah Wilke. A mission statement she wrote for the group became a sort of manifesto for many women creating experimental art. “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums,” it said in part, “it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.”
Asked about this episode during a 2007 panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania, she replied that by definition being an artist meant transgressing social norms.
(A recent work by Steckel, parodying the Bush Administration)
“Good taste is the enemy of art,” she said. “It’s wonderful for curtains, but in art it’s suffocating.”
Richard Meyer, an art historian and professor at the University of Southern California, said in an interview that beginning in the early 1960s, Ms. Steckel was ahead of her time in her use of materials, her fusion of art and politics and her feminist audacity.
“Anita Steckel was a visionary artist whose work addressed issues of gender, pleasure and sexual politics well before the founding of the women’s art movement,” he said. “She was fearless.”
Anita Slavin Arkin was born in Brooklyn in February 1930 (friends said her exact birth date somehow never came up) to Dora and Hyman Arkin. She left home to become an artist after graduating from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts).
Soon she was immersed in the art scene and bohemian life of Greenwich Village. In her 20s she and Marlon Brando lived together when he was appearing on Broadway in the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Ms. Middleman said.
She later became close to the poet Allen Ginsberg and the singer and musical archivist Herbert Khaury, later known as Tiny Tim. Her marriage to Jordan Steckel, an artist, ended in divorce after about 10 years. Their daughter, Dinah Steckel, is her only survivor.
Ms. Steckel taught for many years at the Art Students League and took a variety of jobs to help support herself. One was as an instructor of Latin ballroom dancing; another was as a crew member on a cargo ship.
Ms. Steckel attracted attention in 1963 with a series of painted montages in which she added ghostly figures to scenes of famous paintings and old portrait photos. In one work, “The Wet Nurse,” she draped the large, enveloping figure of a black woman over the shoulders of a prim Southern white woman in a black-and-white photograph. In others she added images of women, black men and tourists in funny hats to reproductions of canonical works by Picasso and Leonardo, as if to suggest worlds beyond the masters’ ken.
To poke fun at male domination in the realm of Pop Art, she called her series Mom Art.
Among her best-known works was “Giant Woman,” a series of paintings produced from 1969 to 1972 depicting a titanic nude woman lounging amid New York City skyscrapers or straddling them. In one, she cheerfully wraps her legs around an Empire State-like building and seems to ride it like a rodeo bull.
Mr. Meyer, the art historian, had never heard of Ms. Steckel until he was asked to write the text for the catalog of a feminist art exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007. In researching the field, he became intrigued by Ms. Steckel’s work, went to New York to meet her and wrote an essay about her that sparked interest among art writers and critics.
“She was thrilled about Richard’s essay,” Ms. Middleman said.
In a 2007 New York Times review of an unrelated show, the artist was called “the estimable and too-long-overlooked Anita Steckel.” In an apparent confirmation of that description, the exhibition that led Mr. Meyer to discover Ms. Steckel did not include any of her work.