Tag Archive | feminism

In Memoriam: Barbara Little Horse (1934-2012)

Barbara Little HorseIt’s deeply distressing when a close friend and contemporary dies, and perhaps even more distressing when you learn of the death online and never get the chance to say goodbye.

I’ve been  mourning a death that hits me particularly hard. Barbara Little Horse, one of my closest friends from New York City, died last summer, but I only learned of her death last week. On March 12, Facebook said it was her birthday, so I sent her a message, then decided to check out her page, since we’d been out of touch for a while. There I found a birthday message from her sister saying how much she missed her, reading ominously like one of those In Memoriam messages that follow the obituaries.  

I sent the sister, Judith Baller-Fabian, a query and while I waited for an answer, I Googled Barbara’s name. I found professional contact information related to her career as a psychotherapist, and even the abstract of a research study – probably the dissertation for the Ph.D. she earned when she was well into middle-age – titled “Psychoanalytic Aspects of Charismatic Charm.” But only when I did a search for “Barbara Little Horse death” did I come across a paid death notice from the New York Times stating she had died on July 22, 2013, “after a brief illness.” Judi later wrote back, telling me Barbara died of a “very aggressive lung cancer that her doctor believed was caused by her working so close to Ground Zero.”

I’d love to read Barbara’s study on “Charismatic Charm.” The phrase perfectly describes my friend, who embraced life with enthusiasm and verve. She was born in 1934, and according to her obituary, “Until her death she was a strong swimmer and avid wind surfer as well as a frequent participant at Cajun and Zydeco dance festivals.”

I vividly remember the night we met, because I’d come dangerously close to suicide. The year was 1970, and I got unusually high on marijuana, something that rarely happened because I’m a nonsmoker and have never liked to inhale. I’d been smoking with a studly young artist/carpenter in my fifth-floor SoHo loft, and after he left, I felt strangely drawn to the rear windows and barely fought off a sudden impulse to hurl myself down to the courtyard below.

Fortunately I came down safely, in body and in mind. I descended the stairs to street level, began walking, and the impulse passed. By purest serendipity, I had a destination: the very first meeting of my new Redstockings consciousness raising group, in a Greenwich Village apartment. These were the early days of the feminist resurgence, and after the excesses of the Sixties, the group was a true lifesaver. But perhaps meeting Barbara Little Horse was the best, most enduring thing about it.

The Redstockings were radical feminists, and our group spent many hours dissecting our relationships with the male chauvinist pigs in our lives, past and present. Barbara and I were both between relationships, both previously married. (She had three children with her first husband; her second, a Native American biker, gave her the exotic last name she continued to use thereafter.) Though we may have dissed men in our meetings, we by no means gave up on them, but feminism encouraged us to build strong relationships with women rather than viewing them primarily as rivals in the hunt for the masculine other. 

Together we crashed countless parties. I dragged her to rock concerts and jazz clubs; she turned me on to Waylon Jennings, whose macho outlaw image reminded her of her Indian ex, and whom we heard at The Bottom Line. I swam with her at the YMCA and we shared countless dinners in the Italian restaurants near her walk-up apartment just south of Washington Square. One of those nights, she introduced me to a new and unfamiliar dessert called tiramisu. All those times we spent together were brightened by Barbara’s enthusiasm and laughter.

In 1975, I married and gave birth to a daughter, but Barbara and I stayed close. We both moved on in our professional lives, acquired graduate degrees in human services. When my husband and I traded our Prince Street loft for a house in the woods near New Paltz, she came to visit, and she loved cross-country skiing at the Mohonk Preserve with its glorious panoramic views.  

Barbara Little Horse sailingAs time went on, she traveled the world. She was especially excited about her trips to Maui – or was it Fiji? – to study with Tony Robbins. But to the end, she kept her Manhattan pied-a-terre, the little rent-controlled walk-up on Thompson Street in the Village. When I visited the city, I sometimes camped out on the sofa bed in her living room, with her Abyssinian cat watching over me. Gradually, those visits tapered off. Occasionally we touched base on line, but I never knew she was ill – not until I read her sister’s message on Facebook.

I’ll be 72 in July, and Barbara was seven years my senior, but I think of her as my contemporary, and I wonder how many other old friends have passed on without my knowledge. Now and then I’ve Googled some of their names, but many leave only the faintest of footprints online. Should I type the word “death” into my searches? No, not yet – the death of Barbara Little Horse is more than enough to cope with. But writing about her has brought her vividly back, and she’ll always remain forever young in my memories.     




In memory of feminist sculptor Louise Bourgeois


Louise Bourgeois

Sculptor Louise Bourgeois died on Memorial Day at age 98. Her death brings back memories of the feminist artists’ consciousness-raising group I joined in SoHo in the early 1970’s. Bourgeois was ever present, an eminence we younger artists all admired. She hadn’t yet come into the full flower of her later fame, but she showed us what was possible.

Those were heady times in the New York art world, especially for women, who were organizing and demanding exhibition opportunities on a par with men. Discrimination was still rampant when I came of age as an artist in the 1960’s; more than one of my male cronies advised me to give up art and concentrate on baby-making. In the 1970’s, with the darkening of flower power and the birth of feminist groups like Red Stockings, we women began fighting back.

Louise Bourgeois, Blind Man's Bluff

That consciousness-raising group with Bourgeois gave birth to some tangible offspring in the form of inspired new artwork. For the “Erotic Garden” group show at the Women’s Interart Center on Manhattan’s West Side, I created a geodesic dome ten feet in diameter, lined with reflective mylar and shaped canvases depicting couples engaged in explicitly erotic activities, along with images of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop shirtless on hands and knees howling “I want to be your dog.” The floor was pink polyester plush, and several people could convene inside at one time to enjoy the view.

After the Erotic Garden bloomed its last, I reassembled the geodesic dome inside my loft as an alternative bedroom complete with mattress. There I entertained my husband-to-be. Within two years, I was a wife and mother. Another two years and I became an art therapist. My life took different turns.

Meanwhile, Louise Bourgeois continued to create. Although she’d been a serious artist since her twenties, her work remained relatively unknown until she was 70 years old, when the Museum of Modern Art gave her a solo retrospective. The year was 1982. In the 30 years following her debut as a sculptor in 1949, she’d had only four one-person shows, but her international reputation grew exponentially throughout her senior years.

Bourgeois used a wide variety of materials to address themes of the human body and a full gamut of emotions including anger, betrayal and fear. In the New York Times obituary (June 1, 2010), Holland Cotter describes one major work:

Her nightmarish tableau of 1974, “The Destruction of the Father,” for example, is a table in a stagily lighted recess, which holds an arrangement of breast-like bumps, phallic protruberances and other biomorphic shapes in soft-looking latex that suggest the sacrificial evisceration of a body, the whole surrounded by big, crude mammillary forms. Ms. Bourgeois has suggested as the tableau’s inspiration a fantasy in which a pompous father . . . is pulled onto the table by other family members, dismembered and gobbled up.

To think the petite, self-effacing woman from my consciousness-raising group was creating this work at the very time I knew her – and to think she continued inventing such impassioned projects into advanced old age. Bourgeois was still creating art up till the time of her death. According to the Associated Press, she had just finished some new pieces when she suffered a heart attack on May 29th.

On the far side of 60, I often fear I’ve passed my prime, but the life and career of Louise Bourgeois are a moving testament to the fact that the best years in a creative life may be those of advanced age.

Louise Bourgeois, Maman