by Sukanya GargMay 12, 2020
Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless is the first posthumous retrospective of the life and work of the influential, multi-disciplinary artist. Presented by Red Bull Arts New York, the exhibition opened on March 6, 2019, and remained on view until July 28, 2019. The ambitious exhibition returned the spotlight to one of contemporary art’s most prescient figures, detailing her historic importance and contemporary relevance.
Gretchen Bender (1951-2004) was a pioneering artist who worked across video, sculpture, computer graphics, photography, print and installation to interrogate the accelerated age of mass media. Moving to New York in 1978, Bender quickly fell in love with the post-Pictures Generation scene, centered around the artist-run gallery Nature Morte, as well as a milieu of artist and performers connected to The Kitchen. She befriended and collaborated with artists like Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, the choreographers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, and musicians Stuart Argabright and Vernon Reid. Building upon techniques developed in her years of running a feminist-Marxist screen-printing collective in Washington, D.C., Bender’s early two-dimensional work, made in New York, abstracted and juxtaposed images appropriated from across the visual spectrum: from other artists, the news cycle, and corporate and military advertising. The effect was a disturbing barrage that spoke to the accelerating power of the image in the coming digital age.
Bender’s later shift to moving-image work, first with single-channel videos, and then with her immersive ’electronic theatre‘ projects — massive installations such as the 13-monitor, four-channel Dumping Core (1984), and the 24-monitor, 3-projection, 11-channel Total Recall (1987) — predict the near totalising image-saturation of the coming decades, and find the artist further infiltrating modes of cultural transmission. Bender understood society to be on the precipice of a vast change, with the technologically mediated image less a warning sign than a guide. Speaking to this complicated dialectic between critique and embrace, alongside her art practice, Bender went a step further into subverting and infiltrating mainstream media platforms through her hired commercial work, including the now-iconic intro sequence for America’s Most Wanted, and developing music videos, often in collaboration with Robert Longo, for bands like R.E.M., New Order, Megadeth, and Babes in Toyland.
“Gretchen Bender was one of the most radical, and perhaps the least known artists of her generation,” says Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, representative of the Gretchen Bender Estate. “This retrospective, the first in nearly 30 years, presents Bender’s oeuvre as a whole. In particular, the study and inclusion of archival material, and the careful restoration of certain media components have been vital to making this exhibition of Gretchen Bender’s work an exemplary accomplishment.”
Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless serves as both critique and map of the contemporary landscape, a guide to how viewers might navigate through their world. Developed in close collaboration with the Gretchen Bender Estate, and bolstered by extensive oral histories with many of her notable peers and friends, the exhibition included examples of every major body of work in Bender’s oeuvre, from her early photographic installations to the studies and archival material surrounding her magnum opus, which was to be entitled So Much Deathless, left unrealised due to her untimely death in 2004. The exhibition also featured Bender’s monumental work of electronic theatre entitled Total Recall (1987), and artworks and videos that have not been exhibited since the 80s or 90s, newly restored with the support of Red Bull Arts New York.
“Gretchen was a brave and uncompromising artist whose prophetic body of work feels like an urgent message from the past, yet somehow impossibly contemporary,” said Max Wolf, Chief Curator of Red Bull Arts New York. “With our program in its 5th year, it is an honour to be entrusted by the Estate of Gretchen Bender to organise this survey, which aims to shed light on her work’s historical significance, and establish a better understanding of her impact as an artist today.”