The exhibition the Museo Reina Sofía devotes to Ida Applebroog (New York, 1929) is the largest and most exhaustive retrospective of her work to date. The selection of pieces, spanning more than five decades, places the stress on the interests and concerns that were constants across her life, such as violence, power, gender politics and female sexuality.
Her feminist stance, her approach to the object as an element of performance and the material diversity of her work form the cornerstones of a practice that began during her time as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, from 1965 to 1968. After such a powerful and enriching period, Ida Applebroog moved to San Diego, California, with her husband and four children — tough years that for her developed into a deep depression and, ultimately, a nervous breakdown that would see her admitted to Mercy Hospital San Diego in 1969. Three long, dark months of convalescence, however, would also be a period of introspection that helped her shape her true identity and, in essence, affirm her calling as an artist. Ida dropped her married name (Horowitz) and maiden name (Applebaum), conceiving of a new surname, Applebroog, as part of her process to resignify her self.
The point of departure of the present retrospective is the broad set of ink, watercolour and pencil drawings she made in Mercy Hospital as part of her rehabilitation therapy. After her stay at the hospital, the artist drew her genitals every day over a two-month period; a series of works she would later reinterpret in the installation Monalisa (2006–2009). It was during the years between 1960 and 1970 that Applebroog sketched the outlines that would form the backbone of her later work. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she would also align with the sweeping contemporary feminist activism and it became one of the pivots of her artistic practice in the 1970s; the return to New York, where she still lives, also saw her become actively involved and participate in 1976 — with Mimi Shapiro, Lucy Lippard and Mary Miss — in the feminist collective Heresies, and she would later join the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), in 1992.
Between 1969 and 1973 she made a set of sculptures in different materials, works that were the grounds for the concepts, practices and visual art she would develop in the years that followed, with the bulk of the pieces performance-based on a human scale and open to being traversed and experimented with. Today, despite the absence of this ensemble, a significant technical and photographic archive has been conserved and is displayed in part in the exhibition.
Some of these early abstract sculptures —made with vellum — underwent a drastic reduction in scale and were an organic evolution in a series of small three-dimensional theatres, or stagings, characterised by narrative, the incorporation of text, and the disintegration of the public and the domestic. Both her stagings and her first film, It’s No Use Alberto (1978), were a breeding ground for one of her most salient and personal projects, the Performance Books, three series of artist’s books published between 1977 and 1981: Galileo, Dyspepsia and Blue Books. The vignettes that were repeated — seemingly without rhyme or reason — point to Applebroog’s admiration of the theatre of Beckett, with whom she shares humour and the absurd to harshly expose the atemporal blights of society.
From the early 1980s onwards, Applebroog cast aside this more intimist scale to work on paper and canvas in larger formats, for instance in Everything Is Fine (1990–1993), Variations on Emetic Fields (1990) and Tattle Tales (1992–1994), pieces which can be understood at once as individual works and large installations. They became another support for her to accentuate, with great clarity and irony, human fatalities. Thus, the artist plays with and confuses the viewer: on the one hand, making them keep their distance via different resources such as illustrated frames or interposing stage curtains, and, on the other, obliging them to traverse the installations or subtly identify them with proximate domestic scenes.
Ida Applebroog’s work has been shown at documenta 8 (Kassel, 1987) and dOCUMENTA 13 (Kassel, 2012), and has been the subject of solo shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Miami, 2016), Brooklyn Museum (New York, 1993), the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin, 1993), the Contemporary Arts Museum (Houston, 1990) and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, 1978), among others.
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