The Pain of Visual Beauty: On Spring and Dorothy Iannone’s Art

By Sarah Eltantawi


Sometimes pain lays me flat.  Sometimes ambition (hope?) drags me up.  

jungle iannone

Untitled (1970)

For much of my life – especially a part of it that was lived largely in my head — my relationship to the visual, and therefore visual art, was distant and cloudy. This has begun to change of late, prompted in some part by, exactly a year ago, a special person saying to me: “you should really look around you more” because I would retreat into myself for long periods of time during long walks through lush forest and mountain.  I did slowly wake up and began to notice the green against green against green against brown and yellow and blue for miles at a time, getting more pristine at higher altitudes. And I’ll say nothing here of the sounds…

It wasn’t that I undervalued the visual, it was that I was not quite sure what to do with beauty.  I sometimes found beauty frustrating, overwhelming. Beauty places one under its spell. It was difficult to know how to surrender that control safely; but these days I make ginger attempts to come to terms with what I see.

For example, yesterday I very slowly walked along the canal I live near in Berlin as I do most days. Spring has sprung and my beloved landscape which across months has gone from freezing white and barren, to lush, muddy and cold, has now transformed  into one heart-stopping scene of aliveness after the next, like the half-reality of a firework’s last tendrils: a thorn bush with schools of gnats flying around it forming a cream mist against the sunlight; a green bush reflecting yellow in the still water with red flowers popping in and through it. Birds land, chirp, fly away, and land again.  Everything stretches and sings.

And the lady bugs. A brilliant red and black lady bug was playing on a leaf. A thought of possession arose: they are good luck, say all the sages, how does one harness that? Do you trap it? Do you take its picture? Do you speak to it? Do you send it a blessing? Do you attempt to somehow commune with it? How much effort do you put into this? Is it natural? To add to the madness a meta side of me was of course aware that to ask this barrage of questions was  precisely the wrong approach.

I then saw two more lady bugs, one pushing the other as if it was helping it along.  I thought, rather unromantically, of a UHaul.  It was a mesmerizing and fascinating scene. I zoomed out a bit and realized that there were dozens, hundreds, wait – tens of thousands and possibly even millions of lady bugs along the path – I had hit a lady bug universe! What do `you do with a lady bug universe of such immense beauty and complexity and color! I had to look at that strange feeling of violence that arises, the one that makes you want to pinch and bite the cheek of an adorable child, or the way kids smash snails when they don’t know better and haven’t been refined yet out of that point where passion and violence collide. I could only send them some feeble notes of respect, tame my own instinct to possess, vow for the hundredth time to take more pictures, and walk away.

So it was in this mode of slowly awakening to the visual that I set off recently with my beautiful friend Maritta to the Berlinishe Galerie for Modern Art to take in an incredible exhibition of the work of American artist (and Berlin transplant) Dorothy Iannone.

See the fantastic trailer for the exhibition here:

I can count on less than one hand the number of times I have been so moved as an individual — and as a woman — by an installation of visual art. I found Iannone’s work stunning; I  was  transfixed by her huge canvases of men and women as they are in their beautiful rawness but also at the same time as gods and goddesses.  Her colors and shapes.  It must be said that much if not almost all of the content was sexually explicit [to the point that it was censored in the late 60’s (!)] but it was never distasteful. It’s a sexuality that is alive and beguiling without ever being gratuitous.

As happens at a gallery with friends, especially when captivated, Maritta and I found ourselves separated for a couple of hours to take a journey through the art individually. When we met at the end I beamed and my heart filled with excitement when I heard that she had had the same experience of having been so moved and de-centered. But the strange thing was a de-centering that was born of validation.  Iannone’s work makes you brave.  It is OK, she makes it seem, to love so brightly, to paint it, to display it, and to invite others into it to contemplate something slightly more beautiful than a universal.

Dorothy-Iannone 1

Let the Light from my Lighthouse Shine on You (1981)

Iannone’s work is immediate and pure, and above all — alive — it runs over with tapestries of color and unapologetic tantric poses and moods. I was won over by these shrines to a specific voyage of love that was ecstatic, joyful and agonizing. The work is also playful, even with themes like sexual degradation, where the gentiles of one of the lovers might appear on the body of another with a hand written caption whose scrawl is almost child-like, “I begin to feel free.”


Human Liberation (1972)

I loved her portrayal of men — a rare one, I think: men are beautiful, even worshiped. Especially, for Iannone, one man, Dieter Roth – who was her lover and muse from 1967 – 1974, and about whom, through whom and inspired by whom she composed most of the worked displayed at the BG, among them a series of narrative panels called, An Icelandic Saga (1978) that was gorgeous and one of my favorite pieces:

Icelandic Saga 1

Icelandic saga 2

There is so much more I could say about the art. The tarot card set composed in the midst of the affair with messages like, “grief”, “suspension”, “breadth” and “solitude”,


Ta(rot) Pack (1968)

or the complementary and uncomplementary cards which included messages like:

“I’m sorry if I ever made you cry.”
“I love you because even when you imagine yourself less intelligent than I, you do not lose your erection.”
“In all the world I like your work the best.”

comp uncomp

But I’ll end this reflection on the visual by noting one … let me not quite judge it…. fact I learned after the show, when I began to research to learn more about Iannone and Roth, who is also a painter (he died in 1998.)

Much that has been written about Iannone emphasizes her relationship with Roth, which on one hand is fair enough, since a sizable portion of her work is inspired by their affair in particular and ecstatic love and union (in her later work with herself/the internalized divine instead of a male form) in general. But I could not find descriptions of Dieter Roth ‘s life and work that mentions Dorothy Iannone. Why isn’t it considered important to note, as is noted about so many women who serve as muses to men, that he was a muse to a talented painter?

I do not mean to presume Dorothy Iannone is bothered by this, as I have no idea if she is. But it does raise the question of whether the artistic expression of women’s love of men is considered in the end interminably subjective, her realm of experience,  and thus not a fact worth mentioning about the male lover in his obituary is it so often is in reverse.  Is the experience of ecstatic union  Iannone captures so beautifully  in the end a fantasy to live on in an individual heart or, if we are lucky, in a work of art? Does any transcendent quality of this experience of a woman’s love for a man depend on validation by male artists and critics; does it depend on being folded into narratives describing “higher” “universal” artistic purpose?

As it is uncomfortable in some way to stand still before exquisite world opened up by a bush of flowers in the heart of spring, understanding what should be done with memories of love that do not seem to serve a “purpose” is similarly painful and mysterious.  Indeed, such memories may not even exist at all absent their retelling or, in Iannone’s case — their painting, drawing, etching and carpentry — at which point, it seems, since these representation of carnal divine union originate with a woman, and thus, it can be stated, are less likely to be immediately folded into the protective cocoon of “important conceptual art”, her vulnerability is left there, literally naked, for us to wonder with that faintly violent and passionate discomfort what to do with.

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