Progress, in its 19th-century understanding as industrial innovation, has rarely been a friend of women. Some may even say it’s been a foe. Women’s labors, the cottage industries of spinning and weaving which mothers could pursue at home white tending their families, were among the first eliminated by the factory system during the Industrial Revolution. Later on, the artist/engineers of the German Bauhaus bivouacked in the kitchen and sewing room, turning what had been female sanctuaries into laboratories for industrial design. Purportedly what was produced in those laboratories by typically male designers was developed to liberate women from domestic chores. More often than not, they made women’s work more complicated.
Many artists along the march of progress have dealt with the profound ironies that industry introduced into the 20th-century. But, the skewed hand dealt to women by industrial innovation has largely been ignored by artists at large and by women artists in particular. That the domain of traditional womanhood, the kitchen and the household, has recently been successfully mined for social content by male artists like Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach suggests that commentary from a cross-gender perspective continues to get special intellectual weight.
Harriete Estel Berman, however, is a woman artist who has looked into the face of domestic engineering and lived to tell the tale, unashamedly, from the perspective of a woman who might have been hoodwinked. Like one of those ding-bat feminist comediennes who purposely misreads society’s mixed messages about women, Berman uses coy feminine subterfuge, first to disguise withering commentary about the depersonalization of women and, then more recently, to veil the tender vulnerabilities embedded in the nesting instinct. She speaks not as an angry consciousness-raised feminist of Los Angeles’s Womanhouse or as one of the Bad Girls of the New Museum but as an anti-heroine for the ‘90s drawn, despite her best intentions, into the everydayness of female existence in America. The blenders and bathroom scales, food processors, and sewing machines that she fabricates exaggerate, in excruciating perfection, the utter banality of the 1950s’ existence experienced by mothers of middle-class Baby Boomers.
As the statement of a 1990s anti-heroine awash in consumer products, Berman’s work bears interpretation by theories developed by the post-war French thinkers known as the Situationists. A dada-inspired fringe group forged after World War II, the Situationists proclaimed that commodities had colonized all aspects of social and cultural relations, at the heart of which lay the routine of everyday life. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose 1947 book Critique de la vie was adopted by the Situationists as its central text, had argued that the critical condition for creativity was found in everyday life because it was there that subjective experience was delicately balanced with lived experience largely dictated by social institutions.
According to these theoreticians, utopian, even political aspirations were embedded in the relentless, boring routine of everyday life which, as often noted, has typically fallen on the shoulders of women. Rather clearly, this idea echoes the feminist decree that the “personal is political”. Thus, rather than trivializing women’s experience, the detailed, ironic observations of women’s everyday lives seen in Berman’s work constitute a call to action for women whose lives have been restricted by social assumptions. These works, in fact, suggest a transformation of women’s daily existence more decisively than any strident political statement.
Berman’s identification with the craft world as a metalworker is important conceptually in giving her work multiple meanings. Because of class associations attached to the crafts as industrial trades, particularly in Berman’s case with her parodies of industrial design, references to how women fit within the class system – as producers of work or as the products themselves – permeate her sculpture. In making technically perfect prototypes of machines that function metaphorically within the social domain rather than for their original uses, she raises Malthusian questions about design intentionality that echo arguments about art, craft, and nature debated a half-century ago at the Bauhaus. These theoretical issues which Berman’s works so directly address have gained growing importance in contemporary art theory as the larger social and economic context of art has been examined. Just as women’s secondary position given to the crafts within the visual arts.
Like Koons, Steinbach, and other Neo-Pop personalities of contemporary art, Berman speaks directly to the unfulfilled promise of excessive consumerism that has characterized the Baby Boom generation. Berman grew up in the 1950s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a middle-class family assaulted by the explosion of consumer advertising that eventually led another Pennsylvanian, Andy Warhol, to develop Pop Art. The post-war retreat to the home by women and the retrenchment of traditional domestic values in the 1950s made housewives the chief targets of much consumer advertising. To be viewed as contemporary and progressive, these women, whose energies were now directed away from self-reliance and toward nurturing wholesome families, and the husbands who supported them, used newfangled domestic gadgetry as one important measure of their success. Toasters, and later on blenders, waffle-makers, and food processors, were popular wedding gifts that transformed the kitchen appliance into a symbol of an abundant, progressive family life. In both advertising imagery and in the public imagination, the operators of those appliances were most likely women, the implicit appendages of the machinery.
Like so many Baby Boomer women, Berman grew up surrounded by contradictory messages about what her goals as a woman should be. The daughter of a woman who had devoted her life to her family, Berman was encouraged to pursue an education and a subsequent career. Her first stop was Syracuse University where she considered male-dominated professions such as architecture and industrial design, finally settling on metalsmithing and fiber arts. After finishing at Syracuse in 1974, she worked as a jeweler for a few years before entering graduate school at Tyler School of Art where she earned an M.F.A. in 1980. She found herself in the early 1980s in Palo Alto, California, living with a businessman, working as a silversmith and soon to become a mother.
The advent of Berman’s own settled domestic existence marks the beginning of work that shows the artist’s ambivalence about the role of women in the suburban American dream. Using the household appliance as a metaphor for women’s utilitarian position in society, throughout the 1980s she created true-to-life facsimiles of household gadgets called as a whole The Family of Appliances You Can Believe In. This series included blenders, refrigerators, ovens, mixers, toasters, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, crack pots, irons, tool boxes, power drills, food processors, pencil sharpeners, and sewing machines. Slightly miniaturized but otherwise deceptively resembling genuine appliances, these machines borrow heavily from the deadpan aesthetic reversals of Duchamp’s industry-produced Readymades, notably modified by being both handmade and labor intensive. Such double entendre play, seen here in the art historical repartee between hand made and readymade, continues in appliance labeling. In her blender facsimile, called Womanizer, Kitchen Queen, Berman has identified the speed buttons as “love, honor, obey, cherish, mix, blend, stir, cream, spread and bear”, indicating the growing intensity of a women’s function. The scripted words “Everready Working Woman” emblazon an electric drill, mounted on a stand like a hair dryer cum ray-gun/mixer, loaded with a cartridge of crimson lipstick installed in the handle.
Throughout the 1980s, Berman’s witty visual and verbal plays were underscored by the works’ playful toy-like appearance. In addition to their miniaturization, the sculptures frequently included actual toys, like the diminutive ballerina spinning inside the Womanizer blender or the doll house kitchen dinette set installed inside the crockpot. This juxtaposition of the childlike with the mechanical calls to mind similar symbols of womanhood used by Dada artists Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and later on the Surrealists who largely revered women as tools for their own self-discovery: muses, mediums to unlock their unconscious, or witnesses for the pure primal creativity possessed by children. Indeed, as one of the most perennial social behavioral stereotypes for women, the woman-child is the primary narrator in Berman’s work of the early 1980s, rendering her commentary harmless, even cute, by its kitschy references. The childlike nature of the miniatures also indicates a kind of nostalgia, not only for the bygone days of childhood innocence but for the innocence of the days when it was socially acceptable to be a woman-child, a condition rapidly disappearing as women now routinely face the hard-bitten realities of contemporary life.
For Berman a kind of epiphany occurs in 1983 in a work called Idols of Generation, Illusions of Prophecy, moving her work beyond visual feminist satire and into self-discovery. A full-scale hand iron, nickel-plated and spiked with sterling silver thorns along the handle, opens like a religious triptych onto a photo advertisement of women covering their faces with the same image repeated on the adjacent panel in repousséd silver. A more conventional example of art metalsmithing, this work is atypically humorless for Berman, but it nevertheless brings art into her mix of social symbols, uncovering, as in the photograph, a genuine persona hidden behind the coy woman-child appliances. Issues about the craft world, about the preciousness of fine materials in which she was trained but which she had previously been reluctant to flaunt.
By 1985, the dialogue in Berman’s work between art and domesticity became a full-blown series of tongue-in-cheek works called KitchInArt. This series consists of four facsimile food processors designed and decorated to depict different periods in art history which she has named Classically Greek, Baroque Rococo, Cubist Futurist, and Social Realism. The absurdity of this double entendre – from the ridiculous mundane food processor to the sublime period of ancient Greece – clearly parodies the stylistic pomposity of Postmodernism and can be read as representing Berman’s own conflicted female identity as an artist or as a traditional domestic worker. But it also acknowledge the importance of decoration as an abstracted form of visual narrative, an aesthetic leap for Berman whose forte had previously been technical dexterity and witty verbal interplays. By allowing the visual styles from distinct historical cultures to function symbolically, she continues the social commentary of her facsimile appliances but enlarges her argument to include woman in art throughout historical time.
Moving into the realm of contemporary art theory provoked serious questions for Berman about the relationship between art, craft, and the function of objects in society. She explored the dynamics surrounding the issue in a work called Critic’s Choice from 1986. Didactic in tone, this sculptural triptych consists of three full-scale manual pencil sharpeners identical except that one is made from lead, one is nickel-plated brass with steel blades, and one is nickel-plated brass with sterling silver blades. A machine universally used by draftsmen of all aesthetic persuasions, fine artists as well as marking Berman’s departure from electrical to pre-industrial manual machinery. The dull lead pencil sharpener and the one with glimmering sterling silver blades represent the extremes in the scale of object production. Unpolished and dark gray, the lead pencil sharpener suggests a functional prototype for industrial mass production, while the high sheen of the precious metal version demonstrates the virtuosity of technical craftsmanship. In between the two lies that art pencil sharpener, the sheen of its stainless steel blades lying midway between the lead and sterling silver bladed sharpeners. Wires with terms from pedantic art criticism – “geometric configurations; references to an entropic paradigm; rationalized and idealized forms” – are attached at the ends, indicating that this genre of objects can not stand alone visually or functionally but must be accompanied by verbal explanation to be socially understood.
- KitchInArt, 1985 (Clockwise from Upper Right); Classically Greek, copper, paint, Plexiglass; Social Realism, steel, paint, nickel plate, iron wire; Baroque-Rococo, steel, paint, decals, nickel plate, sterling silver, Plexiglass, painted pasta shells; Cubist Futurism, steel, paint, contact paper, nickel plate, Plexiglass, Rubic’s cube pieces. All works approx..: 10 x 8 x 8”. Photograph by Philip Cohen
The birth of two children in the late 1980s rerouted Berman’s intellectualized departure into art criticism. Between 1987 and the present, she has turned her attention to images of the home fused onto machine forms. A longtime collector of printed steel doll houses, Berman began reassembling segments of painted steel, first, into machine forms, such as a sewing machine and later a bathroom scale, and then into a series she calls Pedestal for a Woman to Stand On. By suggesting the notion of a box-like home superimposed onto the image of a box-like pedestal for women popularized by 19th-century Romantics, Berman provides wry insights into the extreme contradictions between reality and mythology in the perception of women’s proper place in society. Rather than offering a lofty position of high respect and reverence, the pedestal reputedly occupied by women is more likely to be a boxy little house clearly seen by Berman as a female workplace. Fabrication, a 1987 piece in the shape of a sewing machine made from tin doll houses, clearly suggests the home as both the location for domestic industry as well as a sentimental place invented from the fantasies of childhood and girlish dreams of womanhood. The use of a sewing machine is significant in this work because, as a reference to the textile arts, it points to the most feminized of all the crafts as well as to Berman’s own academic involvement with the fiber arts, thus providing a ready-made tool to continue her dialogue about women, the crafts, and artistic production.
As depictions of homes, the Pedestals invite fanciful imaginings of a happy, orderly domestic existence, paralleling Berman’s own growing nesting activity and projecting somehow an uneasy harmony absent in her earlier work. The miniature interior rooms harbored within many of the Pedestals conjure a voyeuristic sense of invading the inhabitant’s domestic privacy which, with their perfectly painted doll house walls and furniture, ends up not being personal at all but standardized and cool. Where Berman does suggest the personal and intimate is in her agile use of decorative patterning, borrowing once again from fiber arts and this time from the women’s domestic craft tradition of quit making. The pedestal sides, built from pieces cut from metal doll houses and assembled into traditional quilt patterns, gives the objects a surface familiarity, yet this familiarity is made dissonant by the out-of-context painted images snipped from the doll houses. Typically for Berman, the quilt patterns themselves provide delightfully hidden witticisms especially for quilt cognoscenti. My American Kitchen Saves Me Two Hours A Day to Keep Myself Looking Young uses a “broken dish” quilt pattern, implying the domestic mishaps that occur-despite modern conveniences-when housewives take the time to preen themselves. The “baby block” pattern decorates the work Baby Block to Creativity, suggesting the creative frustration experienced by women whose time and energies are absorbed by small children. The bathroom scale, constructed from fragments of Slim Fast cans cut with pinking shears, is assembled in the “wild goose chase” pattern, referring to the futility of endless efforts of women to lose weight.
In the end, in both her earlier consumer products and in the recent Pedestals, Berman makes her most potent commentary by understating the obvious: that our values and expectations are most directly revealed by the physical accouterments of our lives, by the visual environment which we shape for ourselves, and by the emotional weight we give to objects. Such attention to the innocuous details of living is at the heart of the reverence for the everyday espoused by the Situationists and Henri Lefebvre in the wake of World War II and the devastating consequences of larger visions. Indeed, in the pedestal piece We Are Reflected in the Objects We Choose to Surround Ourselves, it is Berman’s own image – and that of the viewer – that is reflected in the mirroring metal assembled in an “attic window” quilt pattern. Suggesting that humankind is perhaps the central part of the visual environment to be shaped to create a perfect world, Berman does nothing less than show us how art can transform the ordinary into the heroic.
Charlotte Moser has taught the history of 20th-century art and art criticism at California College of Arts and Crafts, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Northwestern University. She holds M.A. degrees in American Studies from University of Texas-Austin and art history from Northwestern University. Formerly editor-in-chief of Artweek, she has received independent scholar grants from the NEA, the NEH and the Illinois Arts Council. Her book on the sculptor Clyde Connell was published by University of Texas Press.
- Dada artists Hannah Hoch and Meret Oppenheim could be considered exceptions.
- Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross, “Introduction,” Everyday Life in Yale French Studies, Number 73 (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1987), p. 3.
- For an extraordinary contemporary discussion about the narrative of miniatures, see Susan Smith, On Longing (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore), 1984.