The street that led to your loft is flower-strewn, exotic, and seems like an appropriate, sensual environment and entrance to your world in New York City.
Let me get you around the corner. I live on the fur street—Twenty-ninth Street is where the furs begin. My loft formerly
belonged to fur cutters. When I first got here in
, it was covered in a patina of fur, which made it primitive, dark, mysterious. The street is also strewn with garbage, and no
matter how disoriented I am, I turn the corner, and there will be something satisfying about the detritus, the basic spillage and leakage that’s all over the street—flowers, furs, piles of the litter—and the Empire State Building illuminated out my front window.
How did you feel about sex as a child?
Drawing and masturbating were the first sacred experi- ences that I remember. Both activities began when I was about four years old. Exquisite sensations produced in my body and images that I made
on paper tangled with language, religion, everything that I was taught. As a result I thought that the genital was where God lived. He took the form of a kind of Santa Claus and inhabited me. Santa Claus was the good version of Christ, because something awful
had happened to Christ, and I didn’t want that to embody me. Having Santa Claus in my body gave me a sense of effulgence, gifts, mystery, and renewal— down the chimney, into the house, up the chimney. Christianity and Christmas were two cards that led the
pack, and I felt that by choosing Santa Claus over Christ, I made the pleasurable choice and was there- fore able to deflect the other possibility, which was more painful, con- fusing.
Were your parents liberal in giving you sexual or bodily permission?
They weren’t prohibiting. I remember their sexual pleasure with each other was all-pervasive, and I was part of that. We’d all lie in bed on Sunday mornings. They would teach me to read comics.
More than any other prohibition, I remember the deep inti- macy, sensuousness, and delight. I built my own erotic fantasy life with various invisible animal and human lovers inhabiting my sheets, bed, influencing common objects.
By the time I was five or six, I was playing kissing games and blind- man’s bluff in the fields with the Catholic boy across the road, who was afraid when
I grabbed him. Growing up in the country was very im- portant. The animals were sexual creatures, and I identified that part of my nature with them. Nudity was also clear and direct. We turned hay as adolescents. In the afternoon, after working, we would take
off our work clothes to swim naked in the river.
Your parents and environment supported your naturalness. Were there any other supports?
Yes, my father, as a rural physician, took care of the body—the living body, the dying body. People would come to the house with bloody limbs in their arms, and we were trained to sit them down,
put a towel around something that was bleeding, and then run and get him. I would also peek through the keyhole of his office, be- cause it was on our side of the house. Sometimes I’d see a woman’s foot sticking off the edge of the examining table and I’d
crouch there listening to him say strange things. For example, he asked one woman when she had menstruated, and she asked, “What’s that?” and I heard him say, “Bleed.” I had
to look at, and it gave me a pe- culiar sense, an inside/out visual vocabulary.
Did that kind of relationship with naturalness and the body continue? Did you direct those experiences into art at a certain point?
I knew that I could locate that naturalness by making images and by loving. When I was young I was called a mad pantheist by older friends. I didn’t know what that was about (I hoped it was a female
panther) but was told that a pantheist is a nature worshiper. I had elaborate ritual places to go and lie at certain times of day or night. There were special trees that I had to be in contact with, and I would hide in a well that my mother had filled in with
flowers. I did this at dusk, because I found the transition from day to night uncertain and painful. I would get dizzy listening to the birds, smelling night aromas.
That was what I had to do.
You never lost this way of exploring, and your work attests to that.
When sex negativity and the ordinary sexual abuse and depersonalization that females experience in our culture intruded, I tried to judge it, sort it out, not internalize it. I suppose that not
inter- nalizing prohibitions gave me some messianic sense that I was going to have to confront or go against erotic denial fragmentations.
When did you start using sexual themes in your work? What form did these take?
There are different strands. One theme emerged when I was four or five and I did visual dramas on prescription tablets. The tablets were thick, and so I made a sequence of drawings, not just one
on a page. It would take fifteen pages for an image to emerge. These primitive drawings were filled with sexual implication.
You were making movies?
Yes, they were about making visual dramas (even be- fore I had seen a movie). They were all projected, weird erotic events between male and female figurations. The second theme became clear in
college. I posed for my boyfriend because we didn’t have nude mod- els at Bard. He would do studies of me but not include my head, so I thought that I would do him, only I would include his head and actu- ally work from his head to his feet. There was great
upset about his genitals appearing in the portrait. Then I did a self-portrait and sat open-legged, including my entire body and exposed genitals. The painting was glowing red and dense. I got indirect reports that this was improper. The female was the constant
preoccupation of the male imagination, but when I wanted to examine it fully myself and have ac- tual parts depicted, I was accused of breaking essential aesthetic bound- aries. I remember feeling that I would have to keep my eyes on that— that I was myself
both an idealization and a center of intense taboo. I didn’t want to feel that taboo projected onto me. I was later temporar- ily kicked out of Bard for “moral turpitude” because they had seen my
boyfriend and me doing something obscene under a tree. They didn’t kick him out for moral turpitude.
Was your work a continuation of and a way of maintaining this freedom that you’ve always had?
No, not quite. In the mid-sixties, when I began my film
and the performance
I was thinking about eroticizing my guilty culture. I saw a cultural task combined with a personal dilemma. My work was dependent on my sexuality, its satisfaction, in- tegrity. I couldn’t work
without a coherent sexual relationship that fu- eled my imagination, my energies. My mind works out of the knowl- edge of the body. An erotic sensibility is inevitably going to experience conflicting messages in a masculinist culture that is basically divisive,
sex-negative—one that traditionally controls female expressiveness, our imaginative domain, our creative will, our desire.
Did you have any models in this work?
In the early sixties, my personal relationships, lovers, and friends were sustaining, as well as the writings of Wilhelm Reich and Simone de Beauvoir. Researching the “lost” paintings and writing
of women artists was very important, and I also did research in obscure books in Dutch, German, French, just to discover unacknowledged women as precedents.
You were a pioneer in a time when there wasn’t that much support for what you were doing.
It was a lonely, stroke-by-stroke position. I had to re- sist, analyze, and reposition sexual/cultural attitudes.
Did you suffer from guilt yourself?
I might feel guilty if too many sexual events pile up close to each other, but it’s worse for me to judge or deny sexual feel- ings or experience. I’ve only really regretted the times when I felt
that I wanted to be with someone and there was something socially or in- terpersonally uncertain about the situation and I said “no.”
You had guilt in reverse?
There are levels of reversal here.
Have you ever thought of writing a handbook for the sex- ually guilty?
I wrote one in for the sexually curious:
The Sexual Parameters Survey.
It’s in the form of a chart collating all aspects of love- making. I was alone after having been in an equitable, loving relation- ship for more than ten years. I began to encounter areas of sex
negativ- ity in relationships I assumed would be spontaneous, whole, passionate, even temporary. At times my body seemed to be a battleground of pro- jected taboos, contradictions. I posited a range of analysis, the sexual parameters to which three women friends
contributed their personal data. It was exhibited as a five-foot-long chart in a London gallery and was printed in my book
Parts of a Body House
Has the message of your performances changed over the years?
Two recent performances,
and Fresh Blood,
develop movement and slide imagery from texts that unravel specific erotic information as metaphor.
Erotic close-up images of body parts of myself and my lover . . . con- trasted with body images that register ambiguities between sensuality, eroticism, pornography
. . . images from anatomy books, mutilated bod- ies, X-rays, baby shit . . . the texts structure a series of “interrogations” about actual sexual experiences . . . the interrogated and the interrogator share the same secret knowledge . . . answers evaded,
diverted, then stated. This knowledge centers on a female basis of sexuality. The per- formers’ physical actions concretize aspects of the surrounding slide im- ages . . . these juxtapositions are often comic, releasing tensions between image and text, between
the public and private knowledge.
. . . the visual analysis and association of two simple dream objects (an umbrella and a bouquet of dried flowers) produces a matrix embracing elements of
architecture, chemistry, crystal physics, alchemy, goddess
worship, etymology. This morphology re-enters its source in the dreamer’s body.
Your work has been celebratory and didactic. It’s been for others, and in that sense, how has it helped you?
It’s made me concentrate on formal structures. My work presents particular difficulties because its source and its forms ex- amine eroticism, but that can also be used against it. The content can
be used to trivialize the formal complexity. Recent audiences and crit- ics are doing somewhat better. It seems that feminist analysis has deep- ened perceptions for the process of the work.