Interview with Dorothy Iannone
When you challenged the censorship of Henry Miller’s book Tropic of Cancer by the US Government in 1961, were you yourself already making art with a sexual content?
No. When, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, I sued the Collector of Customs for the return of Tropic of Cancer, which the U.S. Customs had seized from my suitcase on my return from Europe, the figurative forms in my paintings and drawings were emerging, but they were not at all developed enough to indicate the theme which would later become dominant in my work: the total relationship with the beloved. The meaning of literary censorship came alive for me when books I had chosen to read were seized by customs. It never occurred to me then, that as my work followed my own sexual and political development and influenced that development through the actual making of the work, it too would one day be seized by customs in other countries.
In 1968, you made Lists IV, your artist’s book with drawings of everyone you had ever slept with. Did you realize then that you could have censorship problems?
No. While I was making it, I never gave any thought to the reception of my work. Shortly after Dieter Roth and I came together in 1967, he asked the traditional lover’s question about how many. I had to think before I could answer, because in eight years of marriage I had been only with my husband. So, I made a list, then a drawing of the first scene which came to my mind as I recalled each person. I added first names, my age, and whether we had gone all the way, or if it was just fooling around. Making the book was a natural continuation of my artistic direction in my new autobiographical mode.
What led to this new intimacy in your work?
Ten years ago, when I was making our correspondence book, I noticed that in one of my early letters to Dieter, I wrote that I had no words to convey how happy I was with him, so I made artworks to express those feelings. Already, a few months after our relationship began, and the moment we stopped traveling and settled down for a season in Basel, I began creating my “Dialogues,” original books with paintings and texts based on episodes in our life which seemed to me especially significant. Making these works, which have remained as originals, was also a way of being with the beloved, even when we were apart, enabling a kind of total immersion.
You did encounter serious censorship in the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, which you describe in your book The Story of Bern. What effect has censorship had on your work?
Maybe there would have been more very large works, or more works altogether, but in no way was my content affected by censorship. I completely ignored it and kept my eyes on my heart. I still do.
Did censorship have any effect on your life?
At first glance, it seems indisputable that my life would have been smoother, let’s say, if more people could have seen my work. But yet, if in the last seven years of my mother’s life (she died in 1996) I had been in demand, so to speak, as an artist with all the usual commitments to exhibitions and projects, I would not have been able to repeatedly fly to Boston from Berlin at a moment’s notice, as she suffered one medical crisis after another. But because I was professionally, more or less, suppressed, I was free to be at my mother’s side whenever she needed me. In those years, I got to know her better, and to appreciate her many fine qualities which I hadn’t recognized before. The years of taking care of Sarah Pucci are a part of my life which defines it for me, as much as my work does. It’s also a part of my autobiography which I had not foreseen, but yet is so important it enables me to say that if being for a long time professionally suppressed was the price of freedom to be my mother’s true friend when she needed one, then it was a brilliant deal.
How are your new works the Movie People related to your lifelong theme of love?
Making them seems like the closing of a circle. Early in my work, I used texts from writers whom I loved, such as Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Later, I used my own writings and my own story. And now, in my super twilight years, I return to the inspiration of lovers who are not myself, although now I use my own words to narrate their history and to call attention to their exemplary loves. The Movie People are painted cutouts, mounted on wood, of scenes from my favorite films about unconditional loves, or at least, about the sacrifice of one’s own happiness for the sake of the beloved. I have noticed, though, that gradually the urge to situate my lovers in their environments in more detail is becoming greater. Soon it may prove so irresistible that the cutouts will have to become paintings, because there won’t be much space left to cut away. My own surroundings have always been extremely important to me. My apartment, for instance, is my home, my museum, my repository of beauty and comfort and potential and workplace and challenge, at once my empire and my refuge.
But maybe it’s only the desire to make the image as captivating as possible which is leading me to change its form from sculpture to painting.
Every decade or so, you make work which announces your existential and spiritual concerns. How would you describe your outlook these days?
This question is a spur to formulate in words what I still experience as a lot of different feelings. And may I say that, although your style of questioning is somewhat different from the one I’m used to from you, I appreciate the way that you seem to go effortlessly in the directions I’d like to take. I think the first explicit formulation was in 1975, in a text which was part of the video sculpture “I Was Thinking Of You.” In the text, the lovers meet 2000 years ago, outside of the city gates where the woman lives. By this, I meant to imply, in pre-Christian times. At the beginning, there was a sense of that complete intimacy with the beloved which I was looking for: “And if it’s you, the one with whom all intimacy is possible, I will relax and seduce you with my soul. Don’t be more afraid than necessary. I will seduce you completely, and you will not be able to resist. And as thanks, I will give myself up to you.”
And almost ten years later, in my painting “Hommage Aux Femmes Et Aux Hommes,” I wrote: “Somewhat discouraged by your ever renewed rejection of the ecstatic unity we are capable of experiencing together and after an uncharacteristic period of estrangement from myself, I begin to remember that I am she who desires the ultimate union, and I continue my path toward that realization, but this time, beloved, without you, although it is true that I still dream of you. Perhaps you will join me yet. Anyway, I’m going on.” So now in 1984, although a continuous state of complete intimacy, evidently, hasn’t proven that easy to obtain, a gradual understanding of the nature of my longing, now enables me to call it, alternately, “ecstatic unity” and “ultimate union.” I am disappointed, perhaps, but undaunted.
And then, in 1990, a sea change! “Going on with the journey toward ultimate union but now, beloved, no longer seeking you outside of myself where ecstatic unity with you used to take place, sporadically, undependably, and was for one reason or another, enough times impossible to maintain, so that, forced finally to realize that way would not result in completion, I began to look for you in my own heart.”
The about-turn from looking outward to looking inward was, no doubt, inspired by my fortunate encounter in 1984 with Tibetan Buddhism. This text appears in a painting of a woman sitting in the meditation position. She has one hand cupped behind her ear, which is the characteristic pose of Milarepa, an 11th century Tibetan poet and saint who wrote songs of spontaneous realization. I identify with him because he is an artist, and not because of his spiritual achievement, which for me remains, of course, only an aspiration. . . .
Around the year 2000, reflective and uncharacteristically a bit downbeat, I wrote: “On the continuing journey toward a shore whose distance seems sometimes even to increase and now fully aware that the way must certainly be a solitary one, I sigh and wonder if indeed I will ever move from the view in which I find myself today. But not to go on now is death.” Perhaps this text reflected the effect of the loss of all my closest and dearest within the space of a few years. Anyway, when I finally used it in a work in 2008, another chapter in my life was unfolding, and the painting is light-hearted and sparkling, despite the obstacles in the journey which are described in the text.
And the answer to my question?
A provisional, incomplete answer: “Always striving to come closer to the way it is, loving You more than ever, trusting absolutely that You whom I have longed for, and the true nature of my mind are one, smiling, running out of provisions, so profoundly grateful to all of those who have helped me on the way, that just writing about that feeling evokes my tears…”