Decades before Tracey Emin showed the world her messy bed, and made confessional art a “thing,” Dorothy Iannone was quietly making work about sex, love, friends, and the mundane tasks of our everyday. Iannone’s work (which was often censored over the years and dismissed for its simple, comic book-like style and graphic sexual content) has received renewed interest from the art world recently. In 2009, the New Museum presented her first solo exhibition at a US art venue, which was followed by wide-ranging gallery exhibitions and additional museum shows in Paris, London, and Berlin. A new publication, You Who Read Me with Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends (Siglio Press, 2014) builds on that interest. The book assembles rare and out-of-print artist books, drawings, etchings, and unpublished texts spanning Iannone’s more than 40-year career, and reproduces many of them in their entirety. Included also are a number familiar works like On+On (1979), A Cookbook (1969), and I Was Thinking of You (1975), along with excerpts of a 2011 interview with artist Maurizio Cattelan, as well as conversations with critic Trinie Dalton (who also contributes an essay), and writer Noa Jones.
Born in 1933 in a multigenerational Catholic household, Iannone studied literature at Boston and Brandeis Universities before marrying painter James Upham in 1958. They traveled frequently to Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and she began to incorporate into her paintings the artistic styles from art she had seen during her travels: Japanese woodcuts, Indian erotica and paintings from Mughal Empire, Greek and Egyptian sculpture. Together, she and Upham opened Stryker Gallery in the heart of New York’s vibrant downtown art scene in 1963, and Iannone befriended several European and American ex-pat artists such as Robert Fillou and George Brecht. Soon, a trip to Iceland with another friend, the Fluxus artist and poet Emmett Williams, would forever change her life. She met and fell in love with artist Dieter Roth and after a brief return trip to New York, Iannone left her husband to move back to Reykjavík. She lived and worked with Roth there and in London, Basel and Düsseldorf until their relationship ended in 1974.
Iannone’s work evokes a youthful simplicity. Her images are filled with colorful decorative motifs like stars, flowers, rosebuds, and teardrop-like doodles that complement an abundance of florid texts that frequently accompany the explicit illustrations. While there are crude drawings of genitals on all of the figures whether they are clothed or not, the work isn’t necessarily just about sex. Iannone seems much more interested in exploring what it means to be devoted to someone or something. Flora and Fauna (1973), a drawing on Bristol board with felt pen, is a brilliantly colored scene featuring the mythical Dorothy and Dieter figures surrounded by a lush landscape. Dieter’s and Dorothy’s arms are covered in black patterned tattoo-like sleeves, and Dieter wears black “pants” with white, yellow, and crimson heart shaped figures containing text reflecting on deep commitment to another:
“I am your deepest lover
You cannot resist me
You cover my body with kisses
You touch me as often as possible. I am infinitely adorable
My face is bright and wise and intelligent and beautiful.
I am the only one . . . ”
In an interview with critic Trinie Dalton, Iannone says that when she spoke of “ecstatic unity” in the past, she thought that such a total union between oneself and the other could only happen erotically, but later realized that wasn’t true. “Much later, I glimpsed that this sense of completion was already within myself waiting to be realized […] When I read more recently that in Tibetan Buddhism, another word for enlightenment is ‘ecstatic unity,’ I was still as I let the pleasure of that knowledge silently and without thoughts spread through me,” she said.
Iannone’s art should be read neither as simple memoirs nor as mere erotica despite their frank references to sex and her personal life. The best art always begins with what we know and then expands — a concept Iannone seems to understand well. Although deeply personal, disquieting, and revealing, Iannone’s work somehow manages to make room for the universals in life: the sex, love, “death and taxes” of life. You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends helps provide context and unifying arc to Iannone’s oeuvre, one focused on personal growth and discovery revealed through a blurring of public and private worlds.
Trinie Dalton and Dorothy Iannone, Dorothy Iannone: You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends (New York: Siglio, 2014). Ed. Lisa Pearson. ISBN 978-1938221071, 320 pages, $31.30print