I called her "Beanie" and she called me "Tutti," nicknames from our past—hers from the camp she attended when she was a child, mine a relic of my second marriage, a marriage Beanie watched disintegrate when she came to visit me in Bellingham, Washington in the late spring of 1974. I had gone there to visit my sculptor husband who was doing an Artist in Residence gig that I had helped to arrange and also, to begin work on the first studies for The Dinner Party plates.
By the time of this ill-fated journey, I had known Beanie for several years. She had moved west from Maryland in 1972, not long after our meeting at the infamous Corcoran conference on women in the arts in Washington, D.C., a conference that brought disgruntled artists, art critics and art historians together to share stories about our respective frustrations with the entirely male dominated art world.
Sometime after we met in Washington, I was shocked to discover Arlene at my door. In what I would soon learn was her characteristic determined manner, Beanie announced that "L.A. was where the action was in terms of Feminist art" and that she intended to move there as soon as possible. Beanie's name then was Arlene Corkery though that was her married name. She was studying for her Ph.D. in Art History at Johns Hopkins University.
She was frail in terms of her health, suffering from some unclear blood disorder, not that she ever allowed her physical limitations to hold her back. And she had her share of health challenges over the years. Nevertheless, she always seemed to bounce back, more determined, braver and more adventurous than ever each time infirmity threatened to prevent her from living life to the hilt. And she was beautiful, with long hair as dark as a raven's that gave even more meaning to her new name, which seemed to suit her perfectly. From the moment she adopted it, she fit into it as if it were a glove waiting to be donned by her.
During the first year she lived in Los Angeles, she taught some classes at Cal-Arts, but throughout the spring of 1973, Arlene and I began to make plans to set up our own school, and we teamed up with Sheila de Bretteville, who had been teaching design at Cal-Arts (she is now director of the Graduate School of Art at Yale). We eventually took up residence in the old Chouinard building as the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), the first independent feminist art educational institution ever attempted.
It is difficult to describe the atmosphere of the seventies; suffice it to say that many of us thought we were going to change the world, to transform it into a paradise of justice and equity. Ah, the hubris of youth, particularly in the fervor of a revolutionary period of history, to imagine that we could start a new school with nothing—no funds, no building, no equipment—that would nurture women to make art 'in their own image and likeness'—an altogether new idea at the time.
Arlene went on to initiate the Lesbian Art Project, which produced numerous important young lesbian Feminist artists, many of whom she mentored. She was also a creator and editor of "Chrysalis," an influential magazine of women's culture.
In 1983, she moved to New York to be with artist Nancy Grossman, who would become her life companion. Although we stayed in touch, we didn't see each other often. In the mid-1980's, Beanie became the chief art critic for the "Village Voice," a job I had some part in her losing.
In 1993, the Holocaust Project premiered at the Spertus Museum of Judaica in Chicago, my home town. Eight years in the making, the Holocaust Project was created out of an intense collaboration with my new husband, photographer Donald Woodman, and selected artisans. Looking back, I can see that I was often on the brink of madness, saved only by the partnership with Donald that led both of us to a confrontation with the potential for evil that lurks beneath the surface of even the most civilized of nations.
The Village Voice sent a reporter to write a major piece about the project and the opening. Donald and I were sanguine about the choice; after all, she was Arlene's colleague and a close friend of my old pal, writer, Lucy Lippard (whom I've known since the late 1950's). The reporter savaged the project, ridiculing everything about the show including the art, the opening events, and most of all, the enthusiasm of friends and viewers, among whom were Holocaust scholars and knowledgeable art collectors and patrons. When Arlene protested what she felt was an extremely unfair article, she was fired.
I am sure that she felt devastated by this turn of events but she never said anything to me. Instead, when given the opportunity, she wrote an article entitled: "Judy Chicago, the Artist the Art World Loves to Hate" for a magazine called Images and Issues—an article that could be credited with starting a turn-around of sorts in the critical assessment of my career. It's not easy standing up to the New York art establishment and the fact that Beanie did not budge from her belief in my work—even in the face of sustained and intense critical vitriol by many other writers—provides some insight into her integrity, courage and intellectual honesty. She extended that support to many artists over the years, writing monographs on the artists June Wayne, Betye Saar, Michele Oka Doner and her partner, Nancy Grossman, whose work she genuinely admired.
Our most recent partnership involved the formation of what has come to be called The Feminist Art Project (TFAP), a national initiative housed at Rutgers. One day, not long after the newly renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art re-opened, I phoned Beanie to express my dismay that—in addition to erasing the work of many early women artists in their own collection (Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncherova and Meret Oppenheim and her famous "Fur lined teacup" come to mind)—there was absolutely no acknowledgment of the Feminist art movement. Although a number of women artists from the 1980's were included, it was as if they had sprung out of thin air rather than as a result of both the Feminist art movement and the political organizing of innumerable women artists, including the Guerilla Girls, those saucy upstarts with their gorilla masks, poster campaigns, and irrefutable statistics about the sad state of affairs of women in the arts.
As always, Beanie was up for making some trouble. We agreed to meet the next time I was in New York, which wasn't too many weeks later. I can vividly recall opening the door to my rented apartment and seeing Arlene, older, heavier, walking with a cane but still just as full of life as ever; as if the tolls of aging could not fell her. By then, I believe that she had already undergone surgery for kidney cancer and months of grueling chemotherapy; but the strength of her voice and her convictions were undiminished. We soon teamed up with Susan Fisher Sterling, chief curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and soon thereafter, with Judy Brodsky and Ferris Olin of Rutgers, and with Maura Reilly, curator of the Elizabeth Sackler Center. It was she who suggested the title of what is now a national initiative involving a rapidly spreading series of exhibitions, events, panels, and activities aimed at breaking through the erasure that continues to marginalize or eclipse women's achievements.
The outcome of our efforts is still unclear; an unprecedented series of events will hopefully mark the time when erasure becomes a thing of the past, not only TFAP, but also the opening at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art of Connie Butler's exhibition, WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution (the first historic survey of Feminist art); the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (the first such institution devoted to Feminist art); the permanent housing of The Dinner Party (my lifelong goal); and the "Global Feminisms" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, curated by Maura Reilly and renowned art historian, Linda Nochlin.
Unfortunately, Beanie will not be here to see the outcome of our most recent initiative, and her absence is palpable to me. I knew that the cancer had returned, that she did not have long to live. But she went so fast; too fast. Her loss is inestimable; she was a rarity, a seemingly unstoppable spirit. Even as she was failing, she was working, unwilling to let go of the mission that had given meaning to her life, a mission shared by many but especially by me; to help bring about a change for the better in this often dismal world. Beanie, I miss you and I shall always treasure the little porcelain box I painted for a birthday celebration we shared many years ago; the lid commemorating Beanie (the flower) and Tutti (the butterfly). Although the lived years may seem long, at the end it is clear that our life span is brief, in your case, WAY TOO brief.