Martha Rosler - House Beautiful: Giacometti (1967-72)

Martha Rosler, House Beautiful: Giacometti (from Bringing the War Back Home), 1967-72 (detail), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Martha Rosler: Critical Domesticity

by Boris Cornelissen | 23 May 2020

Martha Rosler might not be a household name in Australia, but is a highly influential figure in feminist and political art history. Born in Brooklyn and educated in California, her work examines the power structures that inform representation and commodification, particularly of the female body. Her videos and photo-montages in the public collections in Australia give a good insight into some of her best-known works, and indeed into the critical artistic practices that emerged in the United States in the 1960s and 70s.

See full list of Martha Rosler works in Australian collections

What initially stands out most in House Beautiful: Giacometti (1967-72), is likely to be the Swiss artist’s famous sculpture L’Homme Qui Marche I (1960), which is placed next to an impressionist landscape painting in what looks like an upper-class 1960s interior – perhaps from a feature on an art collector’s house in an interior design publication. But looking more closely at the image, it reveals gruesome details that give the work an entirely different meaning: where you would expect the windows to look out onto a well-maintained garden, the work depicts body parts spread out across a beach. Fragments of war and death that are in total contrast with the quietly sophisticated interior.

Martha Rosler, House Beautiful: Giacometti (1967-72)

Martha Rosler
House Beautiful: Giacometti (from Bringing the War Back Home), 1967-72
c-print
63 by 52.2 cm.
Edition of 10, plus 2 artist’s proofs. Printed in the late 1990s.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by Geoff Ainsworth AM 2015)

The shock of this violent contrast is the result of the juxtaposition of imagery taken mostly from the magazines House Beautiful and Life, which Martha Rosler used for an important body of work with the double title House Beautiful – Bringing the War Home. Although they were made with magazines that Rosler collected from her apartment building, the collages took their cue from real life. The rapid economic development of the American economy in the 1960s had brought television into more households than ever before, and each night viewers would be confronted with the world’s first televised war which was being fought far away in Vietnam.

“It was the first living room war, where we saw timely footage of battles and huts on fire and so on, every evening at dinner hour, broadcast by a television in our living room”
– Martha Rosler

Martha Rosler talks about the House Beautiful – Bringing the War Home series for the Museum of Modern Art, New York

The sharp contrast of gruesome violence that was being broadcast across households in the most developed country on earth shocked Rosler, who decided to join the anti-war protests. The artist’s collages were created as a form of activism, and were initially circulated as photo-copied flyers and reproduced in underground publications between 1967-72 (it wasn’t until the late 90s that the works were published as a formal edition). Throughout the approximately 20 collages in the series, Rosler explored how the domestic sphere was ideologically implicated in the war, despite the physical distance from the battlefield. The idyllic suburban interiors were powerful signifiers of the achievements of American capitalism, which stood in direct opposition to the communist enemy in Vietnam.

“I saw a clear reference to the home itself as being central to our ideology of why we were fighting people abroad”
– Martha Rosler

By bringing the war right into the heart of the country (the living rooms of middle-class Americans), Rosler emphasised that the war was not just being fought overseas, but was inextricably connected to life at home through political and economic interests. In Balloons (1967-72), a second work from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, this is even more outspoken. The battlefield here is not outside in the garden, but right at the centre of the interior. Against the backdrop of a well-lit sitting room with double-height ceiling and a comfortable conservatory, Rosler added the cut-out image of a distressed Vietnamese man holding a baby in his arms and appearing to rush up the staircase, as if he is running away from the terror of the battlefield. The cheerful, multicoloured balloons behind him create a poignant contrast between celebration and horror, which through televised footage now co-existed in the living room.

Martha Rosler - Balloons (from House Beautiful - Bringing the War Home), 1967-72

Martha Rosler
Balloons (from House Beautiful – Bringing the War Home), 1967-72
c-print
63 by 52.2 cm.
Edition of 10, plus 2 artist’s proofs. Printed in the late 1990s.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by Geoff Ainsworth AM 2015)

Although other artists around this time also engaged with the impact of television (think of Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series), Martha Rosler wasn’t only critical of the war itself or the desensitising effects of the new media, but offered a gendered perspective on this. Whilst the collages of soldiers are exclusively images of men, the occasional figures depicted in the domestic settings are archetypal housewives looking after the domestic environment whilst the men were fighting abroad, protecting both their wives and homes from the ideological enemy. The women in these settings are entirely passive, almost oblivious to the war – well-dressed, well-presented, but seemingly not engaged with world affairs. 

This patriarchy-critical undertone is even stronger in a contemporaneous series of work titled Body Beautiful – Body Knows No Pain (1966-72). These collages address the depiction of women in media and advertising, placing particular emphasis on how certain power dynamics control the representation of the female body. By pushing this strategy to the extreme, Rosler subverts the language of advertising from within and exposes its internal logic. Many of the Body Beautiful works mock the sexual attraction that was being used in advertising by literally merging images of female bodies onto various products, with titles such as Hot Meat (a collage of a woman’s breast on a stove) or Cold Meat (a woman’s torso on a fridge).

Cargo Cult (1966-72), a third work donated to the AGNSW by Geoff Ainsworth, critiques the idealised standards of female beauty that were being promoted in advertisements. Here, the faces of different but very similar-looking female models are pasted onto tens of containers that are being loaded onto a ship – effectively reducing the women’s faces to commodity products to be sold around the world.

Martha Rosler, Cargo Cult (from Body Beautiful - Body Knows No Pain), 1966-72

Martha Rosler, Cargo Cult (from Body Beautiful – Body Knows No Pain), 1966-72, c-print, 99.5 by 77 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by Geoff Ainsworth AM 2018)

But Martha Rosler’s most famous piece, and a pioneering work of feminist art, would not be in the medium of collage that she explored in the late 1960s and early 70s, but in video. In December 1974 she recorded a single-take video tape which years later would come to be seen as a key piece of the feminist discourse in art-history, a copy of which is in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The 6-minute long black and white video looks like a DIY, low-quality interpretation of a Julia Child cooking show, and starts with the artist standing in a kitchen holding a blackboard with the title: Semiotics of the Kitchen. The camera slowly zooms out. The grainy quality of the video obscures the finer details, but in the background we can still see what is presumably a cookbook with the word MOTHER on the spine, positioned on a shelf.

Instead of demonstrating a recipe, Rosler proceeds by picking up kitchen equipment and lists each item by name in alphabetical order: apron, bowl, chopper. She clumsily demonstrates the tools without using them on actual food. Dish, egg-beater, fork. At this point she picks up the fork and stabs the void in front of her with violent movements that alert the viewer: this is not going to be just a kitchen alphabet. Grater. Hamburger press. Ice pick. She starts stabbing again, this time hitting the chopping board in front of her. Juicer. Knife. She stabs again, the large blade now making the act look even more violent. Ladle. She fills up her ladle with imaginary soup and tosses it to her left, outside the frame, which she repeats with measuring implements and later with spoon. Tenderiser brings more violence to the kitchen and is slammed repeatedly on the table, after which she picks up a knife and fork and forms the last letters with her upper body: U, V, W, X, a dramatically posed Y with head thrown back and hands raised upwards, and finally the Z, slashed with the knife as if it was Zorro’s sword. She puts the knife down, shrugs her shoulders and the video ends.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, betacam and black and white video, duration: 6 min 9 sec. Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

With all its absurdism and defiance of expectations raised by the cooking show set-up, Semiotics of the Kitchen is a timely parody of popular depictions of the housewife. The subtle presence of the word ‘mother’ in the background further emphasises the stereotype targeted by Rosler, namely the maternal figure in the nuclear family – and society’s expectations of her place in the household.

The semiotics in the title doesn’t refer to the format of the alphabet, which is sort of arbitrary and in itself non-sensical, but to our expectations of the symbolism seen in the movie. The knife, for example, can of course have multiple functions (of which violent stabbing might be one), but in the hands of a woman in a kitchen most viewers in the 1970s would have been conditioned to expect something very different. It is exactly this unfulfilled expectation of domesticity that Martha Rosler addresses here, and which is subverted by a non-conformity which at times takes the shape of a violent reaction. 

But what is perhaps Rosler’s greatest accomplishment is not her critical attitude towards the politics of representation and commodification, but her ability to capture such complex issues in a visually engaging practice. To critique society is one thing, but to be able to do so as art requires a different set of skills. What hasn’t been addressed here yet but is also a key part of her work, is Rosler’s continuous engagement with the vernacular – as a visual language, but also as a material source. This is obvious in the collages, which are sourced from popular media and speak their visual language, but equally in her video work which is expressed in the aesthetic of late-night television broadcasts of the 70s. Combining the appropriative strategies of Pop art with a critical stance towards representation and commodification, Martha Rosler’s work resonates as strongly today as it did five decades ago.


See full list of Martha Rosler works in Australian collections