"People are always telling me how beautiful I am now," says The Young and the Restless star Marilyn Alex, 70, in photographer Joyce Tenneson's new book of portraits of older women, titled Wise Women (Bulfinch Press, $40). "They are almost incredulous because the old stereotype is that we shouldn't get more beautiful with age."
Indeed, age confers more than wisdom in Tenneson's amber-toned photographs of poets, actresses, politicians and other culture celebrities, mixed in with a handful of ordinary people. Posing her models against a mottled dark backdrop, often garbed in simple wraps or archaicizing shifts, Tenneson manages to imbue her sitters with a palpable magnetism and erotic charge that is more commonly seen in subjects perhaps 50 years their junior.
This is no small accomplishment, and Tenneson's Oprah-esque project (the warm and fuzzy talk show host has been among her subjects) has proved exceedingly popular. An exhibition of the photographs was most recently on view at the Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta, June 7-July 10, 2002. The dealer herself, a veteran of open-heart surgery, poses in this collection making a hand symbol from the Asian discipline of chi quong.
Tenneson's earlier photographs, especially examples found on her website under the "Beauty" heading, picture younger, half-nude models, sometimes posed with white doves or mysterious globes of light. These pictures partake in a kind of New Age eroticism that seems demure and "feminine" -- done for a serene and non-transgressive (and non-male) gaze.
The "Wise Women" photographs extend this sensibility but allow the sitters to seize their own erotic subjectivity with considerably more power. Jessica Tandy at 84, wrapped in a kind of gauze shawl, with her hair just beginning to grow in after chemotherapy -- what a dish! Similarly, Kitty Carlisle Hart, 90, showing her famous dancer's legs; the 66-year-old Geraldine Ferraro, holding a flower, formerly a politician but now a women's health advocate; and Mona Miwako Lutz, 78, posing like a doppelganger with her granddaughter China Chow. "I don't think of myself as being old," she says.
If such a "post-feminist" esthetic as Tenneson's seems so pretty now, it might be well worth taking a look at some of the original feminist activism that began that transformation of the art world back in the 1970s. Few better sources, and certainly no livelier one, can be found than The Art of Mary Beth Edelson (Seven Cycles, $65 hardcover), the 200-page catalogue for a traveling exhibition that was designed by the artist and contains essays by Laura Cottingham, Alissa Friedman and others and interviews by Edelson of several celebrated feminist artists.
Born in East Chicago in 1933, Edelson helped found a gallery in Indianapolis in 1965, spent almost a decade in Washington, D.C., and settled in SoHo in 1976, where she became a member of AIR Gallery and the Heresies Collective. Veterans of the downtown scene will remember the melodramatic black-and-white photographs of her, Jungian nature performances as well as her 1972 poster of a Last Supper featuring collaged-in portraits of living American women artists. These are classics of '70s art.
Edelson's mix of esthetics and politics seems to have gotten even more militant over the years, if that's possible. A 1993 collage pictures Lorena Bobbitt as Mary in Michelangelo's Pieta, holding Jesus' newly amputated penis in her hand. Other works from the '90s, many taking the form of images on semi-transparent chiffon, are pictures from the movies of women with guns -- Thelma and Louise, say, or Gena Rowlands from Gloria, or Gloria Graham from the Big Heat.
The interviews that close out the book (with Nancy Spero, Miriam Schapiro, Yvette Brackman and Carolee Schneemann) feature much historical material -- unfortunately fragmentary -- about various feminist initiatives in the Post-minimal art world, from the pickets women artists set up at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim in the 1970s (seeking to boost the proportional representation of women in the museums' shows) to the more broadly political Women's Action Coalition in the 1990s. Unsurprisingly for a book on and by an artist-activist, these conversations provide a fascinating exploration of a range of New York women artists since the '70s -- and also look forward towards new feminist issues facing younger artists.
As women's power grows, does traditional masculinity detumesce? A certain fascination with the polymorphous models of male power, from the imperial world conqueror to the cross-dresser and young hermaphrodite, informs What Is a Man? Changing Images of Masculinity in Late Antique Art (University of Washington Press, $19.95). The catalogue for an exhibition organized by Natalie Boymel Kampen and held this spring at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College in Portland, Ore., the book showcases a grab bag of 41 items from the late Roman period. These coins, busts, sarcophagus fragments and other artifacts both pin down the concept of manliness, or virilitas, and illustrate a certain flexibility in what the curator calls "gender order."
Thus, Kampen examines coins as propaganda, parsing their images of the emperor as representations of "ideal manliness" that "would reach the desired audiences with clarity and impact." Other items in the show provide weaker, less manly images -- two fragments of Egyptian faience showing what may be hermaphrodites, for example, and images of gladiators who, as slaves or criminals, supposedly lacked a Roman citizen's masculine honor.
The de-eroticization of young boys is especially interesting. The book reproduces Roman marbles that present Jonah, who today is pictured as an aged prophet, as a nude, curly-haired youngster. Similarly, representations of Christ usually took the form of a youth until the fifth century, Kamen says, and presents a Roman marble of a sarcophagus featuring a youthful shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders, "one of the most enduring images of the classical Mediterranean world." As Kamen points out, "like David, Christ was meant to be understood as vulnerable but given great strength by God."