Visual art is just that, a medium that speaks to us visually. So why is it that we might need words to help us “read” a work of art?

In a recent lecture at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, contemporary artist Frances Stark noted how a text panel accompanying a work of art is often the first thing we look at in order to gain entry into the piece. Even without a text panel, we will look up close to see the title, another gateway.

Some art observers rely on docent-led tours or a head set or plastic-encased handout; few heed American inventor and art collector Albert C. Barnes’ idea of just looking at the art to truly experience it.

Some contemporary artists put text right into the art. Some use text as a visual element, but Judy Brodsky puts text on her etchings because she wants them to tell the story. Brodsky, like Stark, is gifted in being articulate in multiple means of expression, and effectively combines them, as can be seen in her exhibit “Women,” on view through Thursday, January 6, at the Bernstein Gallery in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Together with Ferris Olin, Brodsky, a Princeton resident, is founding director of the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art at Rutgers and the curator of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, the longest continuously running venue for showcasing the work of emerging and established women artists.

“Judy’s work is very textured, both in terms of material and meaning,” says Bernstein Gallery curator Kate Somers. “While some of the prints are more didactic and in your face, other pieces are subtle and sly in their meaning. Judy has a voracious need to explore and understand the world, both as an intellectual and as a feminist.”

“Women” includes extensive explanatory text panels, all of which the Princeton artist has written herself, to allow for the fullest understanding of her concerns as expressed in the work — and you really do want to read every word.

“That said, the power of the images alone in ‘Women’ is immediately felt and clearly most important to the artist,” says Somers.

“Women” combines three series of work Brodsky completed over the last 20 years. “100 Million Women Are Missing”; “Women, Love, and Philosophy”; and “Memoir of an Assimilated Family” all focus on themes of race, culture, and gender, which have preoccupied the artist her entire career.

The 13 works on view are etchings made from photographs and other found material. Brodsky, who grew up in the shadow of the Rhode Island School of Design, began taking classes there when she was six years old. She earned a bachelors in fine arts (which, says, Brodsky, was really art history) from Harvard in 1954 and has been primarily a printmaker since her graduate school days at Tyler School of the Arts.

“100 Million Women Are Missing” was based on a headline Brodsky read in the New York Times. “Women’s lives were so miserable, they were just walking away from their lives,” she recounted from the article. “Since I was involved in the Feminist Art Movement for years, this struck my fancy.”

Brodsky created nine images in that series showing different aspects of the status of women in the world. One piece is about the ritual of Suttee, the Hindu practice of a woman immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, since outlawed by the government. The article Brodsky was inspired by talk about widows “accidentally” killed in “kitchen fires” — but they were not so accidental. She contrasts this with China’s policy, started in 1978, in which couples, with some exceptions, are restricted to having just one child — but if that child is a girl, she will be placed in an orphanage.

“China now regrets that policy, because there are too few women to go around, and the population may decline,” says Brodsky in an interview in her spacious Princeton home with large walls to accommodate her significant art collection, which includes works by Faith Ringgold and Duke Riley. Her husband, Michael Curtis, is a professor emeritus of political science at Princeton.

Another work in this series is based on a report from the 1990s, “The 10 Leading Occupations of Women,” about the occupations of women in the U.S. from studies done in the 1890s (servants, dressmakers), 1940s (stenographers) and 1990s (secretaries). “Women were still working in support positions — nursing, teaching and clerical jobs — although that’s changed today,” says Brodsky, who is a past president of the College Art Association, and has served as dean and associate provost, as well as chairing the art department of the Newark campus at Rutgers. “Today women are in government, heads of companies and scientists, and it will continue.”

In another work a news image shows the G20 Conference with Margaret Thatcher the only woman among a group of male world leaders, including Ronald Reagan. The piece, titled “Boys Get Called On,” was based on something Brodsky read about boys getting called on more in school. The upper part of the print shows women in a police lineup. “I’m contrasting the anonymous women in the lineup with the world leaders,” she says.

The second series, “Women, Love, and Philosophy,” is based on the relationship of a Nazi leader and the women who loved him. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), existential-deconstructivist-postmodern philosopher and author of one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century, “Being and Time,” was also noted for outstanding contributions to thinking in literature, psychology, and artificial intelligence.

“During the Nazification of German universities, when Jewish professors were fired, Heidegger fired (Edmund) Husserl, his own mentor to whom he had dedicated ‘Being and Time,’” says Brodsky. “Heidegger was an ardent Nazi.”

One of the women who loved Heidegger was Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who happened to have been the first female professor at Princeton University in 1969, a decade before women were admitted as students, was a student of Heidegger in the 1930s, and in fact had had a love affair with him. She was forced to leave Germany because she was Jewish, and she fled to France, where she was imprisoned in a concentration camp. She managed to escape to the Pyrenees, then Spain and Portugal and finally the U.S., where she achieved fame as a political philosopher, writing about the Otto Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Despite Heidegger’s position toward Jews, Arendt led the successful effort to have him exonerated from the Nuremberg Trials, says Brodsky. “I’m fascinated by this, that the quintessential Jewish refugee still has so much affection for the quintessential Nazi intellectual, that she led this effort. That the romantic relationship between a man and a woman is more important than life-or-death philosophical differences, that she’d still feel affection for her mentor when she would have been murdered if she stayed. He was working to have Jews eliminated.”

Also part of this narrative is Edith Stein, a student of Husserl who, according to Brodsky, was brilliant but couldn’t become a professor at a German university because she was a woman. “She was the daughter of Orthodox Jews, and she had a vision that transformed her life and resulted in her converting to Catholicism,” says Brodsky. “She became a nun and entered a convent. When World War II started, the nuns were sent to Amsterdam, where they lived under Nazi occupation.”

When it was revealed that Edith Stein was a Jew, she was sent to Auschwitz and killed. But before she died, she wrote a letter, upon hearing of the death of Husserl, asking what Heidegger’s reaction had been.

“Her first thought was not about Husserl, but about Heidegger,” says Brodsky. “He was foremost in her thoughts, just as with Hannah.”

The piece incorporates lace, something Brodsky also read about in the New York Times. At the beginning of the 20th century in Vienna, modern design was beginning in this particular lace pattern, except that the nude figure at its center is not really modern at all — it is the same classic reclining female nude used historically, and what feminists refer to as “the male gaze”: she is reclining, passive, for the sexual pleasure of men.

“So I blew it up large and made my own pattern, using an image of Hannah Arendt along with Poussin’s ‘Rape of the Sabine Women,’” says Brodsky. She used images of dead bodies from the Holocaust for the tassels.

The third series, “Memoir of an Assimilated Family,” is an installation of 100 etchings with anecdotes about Brodsky’s own family that came to her after her mother died in 1994, leaving behind a treasure trove of family photos.

“I have a remarkable family,” says Brodsky. “We went from poor to my father being one of the first Jews to receive tenure in the Ivy League. It was a wonderful example of assimilation.”

Her father was a professor of literature at Brown University, as well as a writer and a poet; her mother taught home economics. “They were born teachers whose interaction with my brother and me was one in which teaching us all kinds of things was integral to the love and affection we felt for each other,” she told Rider University professor of art Harry I. Naar in a 2003 interview for an exhibit catalog there. Brodsky and Naar shared office space when both were on the faculty of Beaver College, now Adelphi University.

“Until my father’s generation, most professors came from trust funds because professors made pitiful money,” says Brodsky, who has carried on the line of professorship. She is a distinguished professor emerita in the department of visual arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, and founding director of Rutgers’ Center for Innovative Print and Paper, renamed the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions in her honor in September, 2006.

Brodsky is concerned that one generation may not feel connected to a past generation and may look at old photos they don’t know anything about. “I wanted my family to know about the past — not achievement, but what makes them alive.”

In these blown-up ancestor photos, digitally manipulated and made into etchings, she uses text and creates a narrative about the families of her mother, her father, her brother, her first husband David Brodsky, who succumbed to lymphoma in 1997, her current husband (Michael Curtis), and her children.

For example, in one she writes, “My mother and her sisters made their own clothes. I still have Mother’s organdy ruffled high school graduation dress. They loved clothes. When living on a professor’s salary, Aunt Grace in the fashion business gave Mother hand-me-downs that looked beautiful on her.”

Or, in another: “This is Michael’s Aunt Fay on her wedding day. She married a rabbi who gambled, they divorced, and then she married a policeman. Two of her three children committed suicide. How sad that such a beautiful wedding did not lead to a happy life.”

Brodsky, whose work is in the permanent collections of over 100 museums and corporations including the Library of Congress, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Stadtsmuseum in Berlin, the Armand Hammer Museums in Los Angeles, and the Fogg Museum in Boston, also creates enormous drawings in oil stick.

“I became a printmaker rather than a painter because it involved using concepts,” she says. “Printmaking is a layering process. I have complex inspirations, bringing together material from disparate sources. Images are not enough. I want to use words as well to express myself.”

“Women,” opening reception, Friday, December 10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Artwork by Judy Brodsky. On view through Thursday, January 6. Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment. 609-497-2441.

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