Mary Beth Edelson, Feminist Art Pioneer, Is Dead at 88

Eufemia Didonato

Mary Beth Edelson, a pivotal artist and organizer in the feminist art movement of the 1970s who was known as much for her participation in public protests as for her ritualistic performances, died on April 20 in Ocean Grove, N. J. She was 88.

The cause was end-stage Alzheimer’s disease, said her son, Nicholas Edelson.

What may be Ms. Edelson’s most famous work is also one of the defining images of the feminist art movement. She made it early in her career, when she was trying to move away from painting and into alternative forms of art. Taking a more conceptual approach, she asked 22 colleagues to suggest ideas of pieces she might create. The artist Ed McGowin suggested she take a critical look at organized religion as “a point of departure.”

“The first thing that came to my mind was the ways that they subjugate women, the way women are cut out of everything,” Ms. Edelson recalled in an online interview in 2013. “So, thinking of the iconic image of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper,’ I thought if I took all the male heads out and put female artists’ heads in, that would be a good statement for saying, OK, how does this feel when you look at it? How do you feel when you get cut out?”

In the resulting collage, “Some Living American Women Artists” (1972), Georgia O’Keeffe occupies Jesus’ spot at the table, with Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois and Yoko Ono among the apostles. Around the border, Ms. Edelson pasted photographs of 69 more women artists, listing their names along the bottom of the work.

Mary Elizabeth Johnson was born in East Chicago, Ind., on Feb. 6, 1933, to Dr. Albert Melvin Johnson, a dentist, and Mary Lou (Young) Johnson, a homemaker, and showed an early interest in both art and social causes.

In 1947, she began taking Saturday art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Her mother set up a studio for her in their house’s former coal cellar.) That same year, she organized a group to sponsor the emigration of a displaced Romanian family to the United States — without telling her parents until the family showed up at the house.

At Washington High School, she painted stage sets and illustrated the yearbook. She majored in art at DePauw University, in Indiana, graduating in 1955. In her book “The Art of Mary Beth Edelson” (2002), she noted that some faculty members objected to her senior thesis show, for reasons that remain unclear, and that, in her first experience of censorship, her paintings were removed.

Ms. Edelson married her college sweetheart, Richard Snyder, in 1955 and moved with him to Florida, but they divorced after six months. She then studied art at New York University, receiving a master’s degree in 1958.

After marrying Jerome Strauss, a lawyer, she moved to Indianapolis, where she continued to paint and taught at a college preparatory school. She gave birth to a daughter before divorcing again in 1964, and married Alfred Edelson, the head of a stationery manufacturing company with whom she had a son. In 1968 they moved to Washington, where her consciousness and career as a feminist artist really began.

Although her time in Washington was formative, it was also difficult: Ms. Edelson got another divorce, began a 27-year relationship with the artist Robert Stackhouse (they never married), and lost her daughter in a custody battle with Mr. Strauss. She was eager to return to New York City, and in 1975 she bought a loft in a cooperative building in SoHo.

In addition to her son, Ms. Edelson is survived by her daughter, Lynn (Strauss) Switzman; her sister, Jayne Glass; her brother, Allan Johnson; and three grandchildren.

In her seventh decade, Ms. Edelson’s work finally made its way into the mainstream. After five of her pieces were included in the “WACK!” exhibition, they were acquired by MoMA. She found commercial gallery representation.

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