About Ida Applebroog
Ida Applebroog has explored the themes of power, gender, politics, and sexuality throughout the past six decades of her career. Across mediums of painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and writing, Applebroog creates fragmented narratives that investigate the lives and interactions of ordinary people. She records life as it is, representing her characters in ambiguous scenarios that do not differentiate between victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains.
Applebroog was born in 1929, in the Bronx, New York, to an Orthodox Jewish Family. She attended New York State University of Applied Sciences and later the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was married in 1950 and by 1960 she had four children. In 1969 Applebroog admitted herself to a psychiatric ward in Mercy Hospital, San Diego following a period of deep depression. While hospitalised, Applebroog was encouraged to try alternative creative therapies and during her six-week stay she produced over 100 drawings. This was a turning point and on leaving the hospital she changed her name to Applebroog, dropping her married name (Horowitz) and maiden name (Applebaum), to invent a new artistic identity that reflected her inner self.
Applebroog first came to attention in New York in the mid-1970s, with a series of small self- published books, of identical cartoon images, which she mailed to other artists, writers, and individuals. She has been the recipient of multiple honours including the MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius Grant’ in 1998. Her work resides in the collections of major museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. An exhibition of Applebroog’s acclaimed ‘Mercy Hospital’ works was on view at the Freud Museum in London in 2020, alongside a solo exhibition ‘Applebroog Birds’ at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street. Applebroog lives and works in New York.
What are the major themes within Applebroog’s work?
Post WW2 America saw a return to traditional gender roles, in which men were expected to provide for the family, leaving women at home to care for children and domestic tasks. As Betty Friedan discusses in her foundational Feminist text ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963), many women found domesticity suffocating. For Applebroog this restricted domestic life led to her depression and subsequent hospitalisation in 1969.
Towards the end of the sixties, women began to challenge these patriarchal constraints and re-evaluate their place in society. This process, led by the Woman’s Movement, is known as Second Wave Feminism. The movement used the slogan ‘the personal is political’, and many artists at the time, including Applebroog, explored this in their work by documenting the everyday experiences of women.
A prominent artist in the seventies Feminist Movement, Applebroog took part in ‘Anonymous Was A Woman’, a 1974 publication by the Feminist Art Program of California Institute of Arts and later, in 1978, she joined the New York feminist collective Heresies.
Applebroog’s ‘A Performance’ and ‘Galileo Chronology’ capture her characters in a series of repetitive scenes framed by curtains, window frames and sometimes half-closed blinds. These scenarios depict people amid everyday routines of dressing, sleeping, talking, and reading. The framing motifs force the viewer to peer in on private interactions between people who are seemingly unaware that they are being watched. With the repetition of these characters, their settings, and the routines that they perform, Applebroog replicates the suffocating reality of domestic life for women.
‘It’s hard to say what your work is about, but for me it’s about how power works: male over female, parents over children, governments over people, doctors over patients.’ — Ida Applebroog (Art in the Twenty-First Century, 2005). Watch here.
As seen in the ‘Marginalia’ series, Applebroog frequently depicts vulnerable characters that are caught within power structures. She represents people as players within the systems that direct their lives and choices.
Applebroog consistently documented her life in journals. She displayed this writing in the 2012 exhibition dOCUMENTA and sections frequently appear in her later work. In ‘A Performance’ and ‘Galileo Chronology’ she uses short phrases to sum up emotions, conversations, and events. Applebroog is fascinated by the uncertainty of communication and explores moments when it breaks down between people.
What does Applebroog’s work look like?
Applebroog frames and displays her drawings and paintings in untraditional ways. In the earlier series ‘A Performance’ she arranged drawings in a sequence throughout the pages of a book. In later works like ‘Variations on Emetic Fields’, paintings of varying sizes and colours spread out across the wall. She clusters smaller images together and allows larger figures to cross over various connected pieces of canvas. Applebroog edits her images together like clips in a film and crops her scenes as though they are photographs.
In the ‘Marginalia’ installation, Applebroog paintings are displayed as three-dimensional structures balanced on top of one another, leaning against walls or laid flat on the floor. This layout places the viewer within the narrative, making them aware of the passing of time and sequence of images as they walk through the space. In ‘Please Don’t Sit on This Work of Art’ she removes the canvas altogether, painting directly on to identical white folding chairs that are then arranged in a uniform line.
Applebroog’s drawings and paintings tell stories, however she describes her work as having no beginnings or endings, only middles. Applebroog leaves her characters, and their lives open to the interpretation of the viewer, asking them to make their own associations and meanings.
How does Applebroog make her work?
Applebroog works in a studio in New York with three assistants. Her early drawings are on vellum, coated in an acrylic emulsion which gives them a shiny skin like surface. These drawings resemble cartoon strips, with bodies and settings reduced to bold outlines. In the 1980’s Applebroog turned her attention to oil painting. She continued to depict characters in simplified forms and used a palette knife to build up thick layers of paint. Applebroog’s 2016 series entitled ‘Angry Birds of America’ combines colourful paintings and small sculptures of birds made from plaster that is then sanded down and painted.
The exhibition is predominantly populated with painting, drawing and sculpture. However, the installation ‘I see by your fingernails that you are my brother’ incorporates extracts taken directly from Applebroog’s journals and the earliest works exhibited are archival photographs and technical notes documenting the soft sculptures she made from muslin, shredded foam, and rubberised cheesecloth in the early 1970s.
Ambiguous To be open to more than one interpretation.
Anonymous Was A Woman A compilation of letters to young women artists published by the Feminist Art Program of the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California, 1974.
Archive A collection of documents or records that preserve information about a place, event, or group of people.
Call Her Applebroog (2016) A documentary about the life and work of Ida Applebroog, directed by her daughter Beth B.
Domesticity Activities relating to home and family life.
Feminism A range of political movements and ideologies that advocate for women’s rights and equality to men.
Fragmentation A process of breaking into pieces.
Galileo An Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and key figure in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century.
Heresies A New York based feminist collective that published magazines about art and politics, from 1977 to 1993.
Motif An image or idea that is repeated within an artistic work.
Narrative A spoken, written or visual story that is made up of a sequence of events or experiences.
Oil Painting A process of painting that uses oil to bind different coloured pigments together.
Palette knife A blade of varying sizes used in painting to mix colours or apply paint to a canvas.
Patriarchy A system of society or government in which men hold power over women.
Power Structures Systems of hierarchies between people in society, that define who can access power and what they can do with it.
Samuel Beckett An Irish novelist, playwright, and theatre director that Applebroog has discussed as influential to her work.
Sculpture Three dimensional artworks created using carving, casting, or modelling techniques.
Subtext Content or meaning that is not explicit and must be interpreted by the viewer.
The Feminine Mystique A book written by Betty Friedan in 1963, that is credited with starting Second Wave Feminism.
The personal is political A political slogan used in Second Wave Feminism to demonstrate the connections between personal experiences and larger social and political structures.
Vellum An animal skin or membrane that is used to write or draw on.
Practical activity prompts and ideas for discussion:
• What is power? • Who has power? • How does power operate? • Where do you see power structures in your life? • How do we represent power and powerful people?
• How do you tell a story? • Can you tell a story using only images? • Can you tell a story in one sentence?
Think about how you can use images to tell a story. Choose a story that you are familiar with, this could be from the news, from a book or film, or from your own life. With photography, collage or drawing try to tell this story in five images. Can you show a feeling or emotion in one of your images? Can you represent a conversation between people in one image?
Try rearranging your images, can you make a new story? Add a short sentence to each image. How does this change your understanding of the story?