In 1970, everyone knew who Kate Millett was. She made the cover of Time, rendered with piercing eyes and in a confrontational pose by Alice Neel, and has been a guest on some of the most popular talk shows, like Dick Cavett and Today. The previous year, she had published Sexual policy, which dissected the work of writers such as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and DH Lawrence to show how patriarchal power is a political institution that allows men to exercise power over women in all aspects of public life and private. It made the best-seller list, and Millett became a celebrity – albeit reviled as “the Mao Tse-tung of women’s liberation” and derided as an “overworked and undersexed” woman. Other feminists even saw her as a threat to the movement after she became a lesbian and resented her fame.
But what is less known, and even less appreciated, about Millett is his lifelong artistic practice. She was first a painter and sculptor, from the 1950s, then founded a utopian art colony outside Poughkeepsie with proceeds from her book. Her artistic career, however, was seen as a frivolous distraction by her academic colleagues and was overshadowed by her activism. As she wrote in Sexual policy, “The fact that two of my sculptures have recently appeared in Life magazine was thrown at me as proof that I was not a serious scholar. Yet it was through his sculpture that Millett sharpened his voice and refined his message. “If it works, if it succeeds – and how hard it is to succeed in sculpture – then the object has created its own meaning, stronger and better than words could tell,” Millet wrote.
A number of these sculptures are now on display in ‘Kate Millett: Fantasy Furniture, 1967’, a new exhibition at Salon 94 Design of the artist’s surreal take on the objects couples share in a domestic space. As the name of the exhibition suggests, the sculptures are fantastic – whimsical assemblages of wooden body parts, found objects and striped fabrics – and offer a sly critique of intimacy and coexistence in marriage: in Loveseat, two figures sit next to each other but face opposite directions, like a Victorian-style sofa; a small dish cabinet has a toilet seat attached to the back and is named Bachelor’s apartment; and in piano and stool, two wooden fists hover above the keyboard. “A lot of people buy pianos not to play but to stand in the corner of their living room,” Millett said, pointing out the absurdity of status furniture. Very early as a sculptor, she had learned that humor appealed to a wide audience. Blue Eyed Marble Box, a piece of furniture embellished with a blue and white checkerboard, has two secret drawers that open when you pull on nipple-shaped handles.
Kate Millett’s “Furniture Suite” included her first solo exhibition, held at the Judson Gallery in 1967.
Photo: Neal Boenzi/The New York Times/Redux
The Salon 94 exhibition recreates Millett’s first solo exhibition, held in 1967 at the Judson Gallery, the downtown mecca for conceptual artists like Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Yoko Ono and the site of Fluxus happenings. Millett’s Judson show, named simply “Furniture Suite”, came after years of struggling to find an audience, like most female artists of her day. “I seemed to be going nowhere,” Millett wrote of that time. “There was no opportunity to exhibit. I even struggled to make a living. But the show was a hit — and anticipated its next. “It’s almost as if she was conducting the first round of ‘sculptural research’ for Sexual policy by playing with the phenomenon of coupling in the most general sense of the term”, writes art historian Kathy O’Dell in the catalog of “Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First 38 Years”, an exhibition she has organized in 1997. Millett herself said that the process of making the sculpture required a more rigorous and methodical approach than the writing. “You don’t just hit it like a piece of diction, you get there through days, weeks, years of conceptualization, emotional struggle,” she once wrote. “This visual image must be so compelling that it lingers in the viewer’s mind as something memorized or presaged.”
If her activism has eclipsed her work, it is through her sculpture that we can see Kate Millett becoming Kate Millett. It experienced a resurgence in 2016, when a new edition of Sexual policy was published, and a generation of feminists emboldened by Me Too were eager to learn more about the history of their movement. His death in 2017 has also sparked memories and reassessments of his theories, and a rediscovery of his sculpture is expected. Until recently, this work was stored in a barn on Millett’s farm, now run by his widow, and hadn’t been seen publicly for decades. Last year, Bard hosted Millett curator and historian Jenni Crain, recreating Millett’s 1972 installation. end piece, and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY–New Paltz have organized a retrospective of his artistic practice. By taking over the Judson exhibit, Salon 94 hopes that museums will buy the sculptures. “The only way for this work to enter an institution is if someone like us takes it and shows it,” explains Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the gallery’s founder. ” And it’s not easy. These works have been in place for 50 years.
Millett produced “Furniture Suite” between 1965 and 1967, during which time she experienced the most important moments of her career and her life. Shortly after enrolling in a doctoral program in comparative literature at Columbia in 1964, she attended a lecture series entitled “Are Women Emancipated?” and became rooted in feminist activism. She joined the committee of the National Organization of Women and Radical Women of New York and found herself questioning her marriage to Fumio Yoshimura, a sculptor she had befriended when she lived. in Japan in the early 1960s (after their separation, they remained close friends and only divorced in 1985). Meanwhile, Millett became obsessed with the murder of Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old girl from Indianapolis who lived in a boarding house and died after her caregiver held her captive in a basement, brutally torturing her. and starving him for months. The influence of these events seeped into his sculpture.
“For a long time I made sculpture a happiness with form itself,” Millett wrote in “From the Basement to the Madhouse,” an essay she wrote in 1988. “And so my early work , Pop and fantasy furniture, were intentional. on ingenuity, Mozart spirit and grace. I had a wonderful time. Then one day in 1966, I came across something in a magazine that changed my life. It also changed my sculpture. Something happened, a devastation of the spirit like the collapse of a building. But the rubble revealed a certain door; maybe he had always been there.
Immediately after “Furniture”, Millett’s sculpture became darker. Just months after the show closed, she staged a performance at Judson that transformed the gallery into a cage—a theme she would continually revisit in her sculpture. This feeling of captivity discreetly surfaces in some of the “furniture” rooms. dinner for one – a bar stool found with two forearms clutching cutlery sticking up from the seat and two legs tangled in the footrests – is one of the last works that Millett sculpted in the series and looks suspiciously like a trapped body. Its name communicates the loneliness an individual can feel in a relationship, but the clenched fists crossing the stool also represent a sense of empowerment, even rage. Same for Bed, an anterior piece that swallows the two bodies placed on it, a clear gap, separation and isolation, between them. “With women, I always knew. This was our life, lockdown. Lockdown in lockdown,” Millett wrote.
“Kate Millett: Fantastic Furniture, 1967” is on view at Salon 94 Design from January 19 to March 5, 2022