joyce kozloff

Barbara Pollack: Did you start on the Patterns of Desire project intentionally to reveal a contradiction?

Joyce Kozloff: All of my work since the early seventies has been a collage of imagery from different cultures. At a certain point I began looking at erotic art. I decided to make a dialogue between pornography and ornament, which is probably a quirky idea. I had been interested in ornament first. With other artists I had been hammering away at making decoration a valid art form, but people were tired of the discussion. A lot of pornography from other cultures is very decorative or at least it was to me. I wanted to put it into a context that reanimated it and exaggerated what was funny about it.

Pollack: By associating pornography with Pattern & Decoration, are you raising pornography to an art form or are you saying that decorative art gets treated like pornography, as a subculture?

Kozloff: Both have been seen as degraded, as opposed to "high art." So I am trying to make us take a new look at them. There is an equation that has to do with femininity. Associating sexuality with Pattern & Decoration meant putting into what some consider a "female domain," material that represents "the male domain."

Pollack: While feminist artists have never had a problem breaking down the separation between high and low culture when it comes to elevating the status of decorative arts, we sometimes share a negative view toward popular culture — pornography, movies and advertising — as being denigrating in their portrayal of women.

Kozloff: I didn't have an agenda or see a conflict in doing that project. In fact, most of the energy went into looking for the appropriate source material to combine. I kept this confluence of things that seemed to make sense to me. The last big public art work I made before the erotic series was for a transit station in Detroit — a tile piece with lots of larger-than-life creatures (bears and bulls because it was in the financial district). At a certain point I realized that I was turning them so that I didn't depict their genitals, and I felt guilty about that, that I was doing something dishonest. On the other hand, given the choices, I believe I made the right decision for a very public piece on that scale. It is a kind of public art controversy that I didn't need to have. But it was the first time I experienced self-censorship. Doing the erotic work right after that was compensatory, if only to myself.

Pollack: Were you conscious of the feminist critique of pornography when you started on it?

Kozloff: In the early seventies there were a lot of women dealing with sexuality in their art, some of whom were my friends, like Joan Semmel. I was interested in that subject, but it wasn't what my work was about at that time. I knew, certainly, about the Women Against Pornography movement and the dialogue about whether pornography contributes to violence against women versus the noncensor-ship argument. I found it all very problematical. I was never able to come down hard and fast on either side. But I don't think that's what really motivated me to do the work. Obviously I am a feminist, but I didn't want to censor myself in any way. So while I was doing the drawings I deliberately didn't read any of the theoretical literature. I didn't know if my art was politically correct. I wasn't consciously trying to make a didactic point. At the beginning I was just doing it for fun. I needed to do some private work. There are a lot of constraints in public art, and this was an antidote for me. I would paint them in hotel rooms when I was on the road working on my projects. They were small and personal, and I wasn't making them for anybody or to show.

Pollack: But obviously by presenting it in book form with an introduction by Linda Nochlin, it becomes a feminist project. Do you feel comfortable with it taking that form?

Kozloff: It eventually began to take on a narrative and become a "project." Linda Nochlin is an art historian with a sense of humor. She would treat the historical material seriously but not in a deadly academic way. Her views on sexuality and art are complex, not a party line. I was pleased that she agreed to do it. She was the first writer I approached. I left it up to her to make sense out of my explorations.

Pollack: Also, you made the decision that you were not going to keep the drawings hidden in your studio.

Kozloff: Now, that was a political decision. I wanted to put the work into as public a context as possible. I have a strong hunch that many women have a private body of work dealing with sexuality that never enters the world. I also was getting madder and madder in the 1980s about the prestige of erotic work by men — whether it was Clemente, Fischl, or Salle — and the lack of women dealing with sexuality getting that type of visibility. We were all mad about that.

Pollack: In some of these drawings you include text right next to the images. Are the images from those texts?

Kozloff: No, not even from the same cultures as the texts.

Pollack: The sections of the text that you used, would they be specifically dealing with sexual matters?

Kozloff: Not necessarily, except the Book of Esther. The text was translated by an Israeli friend of mine because my publisher asked me to translate all the texts. I was using them because I liked the way they looked and that they were religious, but I didn't know what they meant. One was from the Book of Kells, one was from the Book of Esther, and one was a page from the Koran. After he saw the translations, he decided we would get into more trouble by publishing, than not publishing them. He was especially worried about the Muslim text because of the Salman Rushdie affair.

Pollack: Because it would look like you were criticizing those religions?

Kozloff: The text from the Book of Esther was about prostitution. Now that's not the way I was taught the Purim story when I was in school. King Ahaseurus gathered the women together in the house and this was what Esther's battle was about. The erotic images I had put on that page (from China and France) had to do with prostitution, and my translator insists that I "knew" why I made those text-pictorial juxtapositions. But it was just a coincidence.

Pollack: You obviously took pleasure in creating this work.

Kozloff: I laughed a lot.

Pollack: Was your pleasure pornographic pleasure?

Kozloff: Sometimes it was, or I thought they were beautiful or just bizarre. I had to find some strong reason to choose an image.

Pollack: Did you identify with women in the drawings?

Kozloff: In some of the drawings the situations are pleasurable for the women. Or, I view them as pleasurable for women.

Pollack: That's tricky. I thought I chose images of women receiving pleasure but not everyone took it that way.

Kozloff: Sexuality and humor are subjective. What I think is funny, someone may find disturbing, and what I think is sexy, someone may find oppressive. I didn't find everything in the book to be a sexual turn-on because I tried to show a wide range of diverse activities, something for everybody.

Pollack: One thing I found particularly humorous, but illustrates this problem, were all those funny looking vulvas in your watercolors.

Kozloff: And funny looking penises.

Pollack: Some women find the "cunt shots" in contemporary pornography particularly offensive. I wonder whether there is something inherently offensive in showing the female organs. You did not consciously deal with that.

Kozloff: Some of the images made me feel uncomfortable. I tried to stay away from violence, for instance. Looking through the sources, there were certain ones I kept going back to and saying, "I can't use this." Finally, I realized they interested me, so I had to use them.

Pollack: What was some of the criticism you received against the work?

Kozloff: I was accused of cultural imperialism. This is something I have had to deal with for over twenty years, and it always makes me uncomfortable.

Pollack: Even though I know you seriously deal with that issue, pornography does raise it to a different level because people in the West traditionally look at pornography from the East as something not as threatening because its not their own culture.

Kozloff: I had a heated discussion with my friend Judith Bettelheim, an art historian whose field is Afro-Caribbean. She believes that when you take work out of a culture, away from its specific ritual or religious use, and juxtapose it into another context, it is deeply offensive to its original meaning, and we in the West are always doing this to objects from other cultures. She was particularly upset that I was using erotic art, which is even more loaded.

Pollack: And what was your defense?

Kozloff: My work is intended as an homage because I love these things. It is not intended as an act of destruction. That cross-cultural dialogue is what enlivens it. In the late twentieth century, art from all over the world is part of our consciousness. I always acknowledge the sources, and I try to be respectful of them. I don't think that I treated the images from other places in a different way than I treated the ones from here.

Pollack: You finished working on this work three years ago. Looking back on it, what do you think it was about?

Kozloff: Part of it was the bad girl in me. Doing decorative art in the seventies was a big provocation and upset people, but that was a long time ago. In the eighties, I was very busy with public art, so that part of me that wants to be provocative came out in this work. And I don't want to be someone who repeats the same shibboleths for decades, without reexamining them and questioning myself.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.