MOTHER WATER, dedicated to the memory of Mary Beth Edelson (1933-2021)

Works by Andrea Chung, Nancy Cohen, Meredith Drum, Mary Beth Edelson, Merritt Johnson, Mikayla Patton, Sandra Ramos, Alicia Smith & Jane Swavely


In memory of Mary Beth Edelson (1933-2021)

It is with deep sadness we share the news of the passing of Mary Beth Edelson. Kristen and I have been honored to work with Mary Beth for more than a decade since first opening Accola Griefen Fine Art in 2011, hosting a number of solo exhibitions and projects including the first exhibition to focus on her participatory socially engaged practice. Previously, as the director of A.I.R. Gallery, I had the pleasure of engaging with Mary Beth in her studio over a number of years, interviewing her for a video on the history of the first all-women’s gallery with which Edelson was deeply involved in the 1970’s and 1980’s. – Kat Griefen


Mary Beth was a rare individual who understood the significance of her work, both as an individual and collaboratively authored in the feminist community.  Mary Beth documented everything. Throughout her career she thrived on feminist community and friendships with artists including Carolee Schneemann and fellow A.I.R. Gallery artist, Nancy Spero. Before national and  global art world connections were the norm, Mary Beth initiated A.I.R.'s National Artist Program and also established an international network of women artists, organizing their unrealized but fully planned habitation/occupation of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. While Edelson was deadly serious about the “Death of the Patriarchy,” she also emanated trickster mischief and feminist fun - she wanted everyone to know feminists have humor too!

Many stories of Edelson’s life and work can be found in visual and/or written form in her archive which is located at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University and, thanks to the work of the Feminist Institute and art historian, Kathleen Wentrack, some of these materials, including a 360 visit to her former SoHo studio can be accessed online through a Google Arts and Culture exhibition. Placing Mary Beth’s dynamic documentation of feminist art and its community with the Fales Library and Special Collections had been one of the highlights of Accola Griefen’s decade of work, which we were pleased to share with Mary Beth on our last visit with her. We anticipate many future exhibitions, articles and books that will come out of the research provided by her archive. We are grateful Mary Beth had the foresight to document her art and the communities she was involved with and we know she was pleased to be remembered for this work.


A matriarch and mentor to many, we have dedicated our upcoming exhibition, Mother Water, to Mary Beth. This group exhibition will include work from Edelson’s Lifesaver/ Black Spring Series, which highlights her interest in eco-feminism and the Green Movement. Also included are works from her iconic Woman Rising Series, some based on performance rituals enacted at the water’s edge. Writing in the 1970’s Edelson described this series as: “a profoundly political act against the patriarchy and for spiritual liberation—the ramifications of which are still unfolding.” Turning to her own words, Edelson’s career in itself was a profoundly political act. With her broad sphere of influence and significant early contributions to multiple major artistic movements we know that the ramifications of Mary Beth Edelson’s work are still unfolding.


In fall 2021 there will be a memorial for Mary Beth Edelson hosted by A.I.R. Gallery.  We will share more details on the format and date when we have them.


MARY BETH EDELSON (1933-2021) An originator of the Feminist Art Movement and longtime resident of New York City, Mary Beth Edelson, passed away peacefully on April 20, 2021, at the age of 88. Mary Beth’s children Lynn Switzman (nee Strauss), Nicholas Edelson and wife Berit, grandchildren Benjamin and Liza Switzman and Oscar Edelson honor their mother and grandmother, the “Woman Rising.”Mary Beth’s practice was a call to action. Through painting, collage, drawings, photography, performance and her iconic posters from the 1970s she was integral in asserting women’s agency in the arts and actively contributed to exposing injustices, oppressive structures and boundaries that had been created to disempower women. Begun in the early 1970s, Woman Rising was a series of work in which MaryBeth photographed her naked body in nature as a way of reclaiming her body as her own and empowering other women to do the same. Through this historical body of work, Mary Beth became the Warrior Goddess of the Feminist Art Movement – political, cultural, eco-conscious, mischievous, powerful, revolutionary, and embracing – reconfiguring femaleness on her own terms, creating a contemporary feminist sacred practice expressed through her art, to be shared and celebrated amongst community.Mary Beth’s work has been exhibited at museums throughout the United States and internationally, and is in the permanent collections of major institutions including the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Malmo Kunstmuseum and the Tate Modern. Significant works from her oeuvre include: Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1972), which appropriated Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper to create a clever visual map of women artists in the absence of other such resources. Kali Bobbitt (1994), is a life-size monument to Lorena Bobbitt, who famously castrated her abusive husband in 1993, Selected Wall Collages (1972-2011), is a wall-based installation of 146 collages, each exploring the representation of women across time and culture.

Born in East Chicago, Indiana in 1933 to Dr. Albert Melvin and Mary Lou Johnson, Mary Beth was the eldest sibling to Jayne (Glass) and Allan Johnson. Mary Beth began formal art studies at age 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later attended DePauw University earning her Bachelors of Fine Arts, and then her Masters of Fine Arts from New York University. Mary Beth’s thesis exhibition at DePauw was controversial and ultimately censored; this was just the beginning for the ways in which Mary Beth would challenge and push the boundaries of the status quo. It wasn’t until 1993 that Mary Beth received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from DePauw University, a testament to the progress she initiated forty years prior.

Mary Beth was a lifetime advocate for the betterment of those marginalized in society, a pillar for human rights, women’s rights and women in the arts. At a young age, she organized the sponsorship of a Romanian D.P. family’s emigration to the US, and went on to become an active participant in the civil rights movement, speaking out for the rights of mothers and child custody. Mary Beth was at the forefront of the women’s feminist art movement - dedicating herself to the rightful acknowledgement and furtherance of women and of women in the arts, challenging dominant patriarchal values and their viewpoints of women.

In 1972 Mary Beth spearheaded the first National Conference for women in the Visual Arts (CWVA) and went on to be instrumental in the creation of many collectives including Heresies Magazine and WAC (Women’s Action Coalition). Starting in 1976 Mary Beth was an active member of A.I.R. Gallery, the first all-women’s gallery in the United States, where she exhibited much of her most impactful work including Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era. In 1994 Edelson produced Combat Zone: Campaign Hq. Against Domestic Violence, with Creative Time, creating a dynamic campaign headquarters and safe-space for battered women behind the façade of a shoe store. Her papers documenting these and other collaborative projects are located at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University.  For her enduring contributions to the cultural field, in 2019, Mary Beth was presented with the National Lifetime Achievement Award by the Women’s Caucus for Art.