Barbara Zucker’s Beauty Myths

A lawyer friend told me the story of a medical malpractice case he tried in which a woman with breast implants was suing the hospital which performed the operation because one of the implants had ruptured. The woman had stated that her reason for getting the implants was to try to win back a boyfriend who had ended their relationship for a woman with bigger breasts. The hospital was found not liable because breast implants are regarded as having a “shelf life” of only ten years and the ones in question were twelve years old: the rupture occurred after the warranty expired, so to speak. This graphic tale of the double bind of beautification procedures is an instance of what writer Naomi Wolf terms “the beauty myth” (in her 1991 book of that title) of obsession, self-hatred, and the fear of aging-and of what sculptor Barbara Zucker has presented since 1989 in her series “For Beauty’s Sake.”

Breast Enhancement, 1994. Steel, (two units) 3.75 x 17.25 x 4.25 in. and 7 x 23.75 x 4. 25 in.

In “For Beauty’s Sake,” Zucker uses humor to address the radical changes in appearance created by cosmetic surgery. “Breast Enhancement” (1994), for example, juxtaposes on a tabletop the schematic profiles of two breasts, indicated simply by rounded steel rods that look like lines drawn in space clasped to a steel plate, the larger, rounded one set behind the smaller, flattened one. Like a painting, this work is meant to be viewed frontally. From this position, the forms become recognizable as breasts, especially when seen against the ground of the tabletop, and the meaning of their difference becomes apparent. We chuckle at the moment of recognition, when the title and the form coalesce. Zucker uses humor as a strategy to catalyze how we-men and women alike-think about the premium placed on physical desirability as a means of social acceptance and our often desperate, and sometimes sadly ridiculous, methods of making ourselves beautiful.

The 26 pieces that thus far comprise “For Beauty’s Sake” are humorous, but Zucker’s sculptures do not simply tell jokes in visual terms. They are structured like jokes in their binary “before” and “after” format, which corresponds to the question-and-answer format of one common joke pattern. Also, like jokes, they rely on the viewer-listener to complete the pieces; without reading the title, most viewers would not “get it,” the pieces would not make sense, and they certainly would not be funny. Perhaps most importantly, they leave open the question of whom the joke is on.

Undereye Tuck (large), 1993. Steel and black paint, (two units) 11 x 13.25 x 8.25 in. and 8.5 x 15 x 3.5 in.

A sense of the absurd abounds in “Undereye Tuck (large)” (1993). Two squat, handmade-looking elements made of steel and painted black are perched on the floor, resembling the numbers nine and zero. They seem a bit precarious, as though they might roll away or topple over. Then we realize that these are not numbers at all but enormous “eyes” on the floor. The feeling of absurdity is compounded when we realize that the element to the left represents a tired or baggy eye “before” surgery and the right element represents a fresh or cosmetically enhanced eye “after.”

The paradox of Zucker’s recent sculpture, which is also the paradox at the heart of all humor, is that it is quite serious and socially astute in its concern with surfaces and appearances. Zucker addresses beauty practices that millions of women willfully undergo, ranging from innocuous fingernail elongation, ear piercing, and leg shaving to invasive lip “advancement,” rib removal, and nose jobs. This work has a succinct elegance and a virtuosity that makes it delightful to look at and yet sobering to contemplate. The same can be said of Zucker’s first video “Tall Tales, Short Stories” (1997), a poignant work-in-progress about the stigma with which women who are either very short or very tall (like the artist herself) are forced to live. Zucker’s humor hits close to home; indeed, she admits that “humor is what’s kept me alive.”

Skin Peel: Acne, 1996. Cast resin, (two units) 40.75 x 28 x 14 in.

“For Beauty’s Sake” is minimal, but not Minimalist, work. Zucker came of age in the 1960s in New York City with the artistic generation of Minimalism and in the early 1970s cofounded A.I.R., the first all-women’s cooperative gallery in the United States. In opposition to some of Minimalism’s main concerns-an industrial aesthetic, antimetaphorical and antipictorial tendencies, “specific” and “primary” forms-and the Postminimalist and Postmodern irony of deliberately downgrading the skill used in making art objects in order to strip bare the museum’s role, Zucker’s work over the years has been marked by an equal devotion to skillfulness and conceptual rigor. But like many Postminimalists, particularly Eva Hesse, who was a friend, Zucker has approached the transformative process of making sculpture (as opposed to objects) by experimenting, and sometimes wrestling, with a wide variety of materials, which have ranged over her 35-year career from wood, steel, and aluminum to cheesecloth, hydrocal, latex, kapok, plaster, and, recently, cast resin, leather, and synthetic hair. In this regard-choosing materials for their evocative associations and reducing forms to ideograms-Zucker’s spare and economical work has been perhaps most profoundly inspired over the years by that of Louise Bourgeois, whose sculpture she first saw in a book reproduction in the 1960s.

The roots of Zucker’s humor can be explained in part by looking at her own roots. As a Philadelphia native, Zucker often visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the famous Arensberg Collection of works by Marcel Duchamp is located. By the time she left to attend the University of Michigan in 1958, she was piqued by the “odd mystery” of Duchamp’s painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (a.k.a. The Large Glass) (1915-23) and by the dry humor and “outrageous simplicity” of Dadaist readymades.

Pipe Without Ruffle, 1979. Steel with flocking, 45.25 x 27 x 2.5 in.

But it was not until the late 1970s, after digesting his work for 20 years, that Zucker began to pay homage to Duchamp and his sly sense of humor in her own work. In her 1976 work “The Bride”, an arched piece of conduit sheet metal covered with flocking connects the wall and floor, topped by a proportionally large metal form resembling an open fan. Zucker’s “The Bride” is, in title and in formal allusion, an homage to Duchamp’s 1912 painting, “Bride”. In Duchamp’s version, the female body is rendered as a quasi-mechanical apparatus, drained of all eroticism. Zucker has simplified, abstracted, and fragmented the body even more. Her later work, “Pipe Without Ruffle” (1979), is both a Duchampian readymade and an alteration of her own 1976 “Bride”: an arched piece of steel pipe as “sculpture.” It is playfully redundant-after all, it is just a steel pipe (with flocking).

Although Zucker’s is deeply concerned with issues affecting women, her work is not overtly feminist, and she has not sought the soapbox that feminism has provided certain women artists, such as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Hannah Wilke, and groups like the Guerrilla Girls. In “For Beauty’s Sake,” perhaps the most manifestly feminist work of Zucker’s career, she neither represents women simple-mindedly as the oppressed, unenlightened victims of the beauty myth, nor does she shift all the blame onto “men’s institutions and institutional power,” as does Naomi Wolf, so that the beauty myth “is not about women at all.” In “For Beauty’s Sake,” a feminist-social critique extends beyond the coding of femininity in beauty rituals to include practices that could apply to men and women alike, such as “Hair Straightening (small)” (1992). This steel piece, like a few others in the series, refers to a feature of the artist’s own body: her long, curly, dark hair. (Another self-referential piece is “Tweezing” (1993), which was inspired by a mole on her upper lip.) “Hair Straightening” also addresses issues of race and ethnicity, which for Zucker are tied up with feelings of embarrassment and self-hatred accompanying the recognition of how one’s appearance deviates from the straight blonde-haired and blue-eyed ideal of Western popular culture.

.Liposuction: Buttocks, 1989. Steel, 12 x 8 x 2 in.

Contrary to what some critics have written about “For Beauty’s Sake,” Zucker does not concentrate only on the female body. A work such as “Waxing: Back (After Matisse’s The Back, 1909-30)” (1996) pertains more to men’s than to women’s beauty practices. There is also the art historical precedent and homage to Matisse that Zucker incorporates: the delightful twist from Matisse’s purely formal, serial exploration of a rather amorphous body part cast in bronze to her schematic pair of three thin steel rods pegged into the wall suggesting the backbone and the back’s contour narrowing from shoulders to waist, representing the procedure of hot wax hair removal. One “back” has individual strands of hair represented as two- and three-inch steel cylinders, the other does not. In its typical fragmentation, abstraction, and monumental scale, “Waxing: Back” renders the body uncanny, simultaneously familiar and alienating; this is another source of the disarming humor in “For Beauty’s Sake.”

Zucker and other feminist artists have confronted the dilemma of humor as a strategy-how to be taken seriously. California conceptual artist Eleanor Antin’s ironically titled “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” is a 1971 photographic documentation of the artist’s own weight loss. She facetiously draws a parallel between dieting regimens and carving a (marble) statue of the traditional (thin, ideal) female form: both are a process of subtraction. Antin photographed her own nude body from the same four positions (front, back, right, and left profile) every morning for 37 days in front of a door. She then wrote the day, the time, and her weight underneath each column and stacked the columns to form a grid of 148 photographs. Antin’s 10-pound weight loss is barely perceptible in spite of the vigilance of her effort to document it-the piece is both poignant and funny primarily because of its documentary obsessiveness and anticlimatic sense of drama. Antin does in photography what Zucker does in sculpture: both make pointed statements humorously and with an economy of means.

In another work from the early 1970s, French conceptual artist Annette Messager compiled an ensemble of 86 photographs appropriated from mass media advertising called “Voluntary Tortures” (1972). All the found and rephotographed images are of women submitting their bodies to a variety of beautification treatments. Although Messager considers these practices to be forms of voluntary torture, many of the women are smiling. The ironic contrast between the title and the photographs is at best mildly humorous but also implies that perhaps women are willfully ignorant of the sheer folly and the health risks involved in some of these procedures. Or, as Zucker sees it, we are subject to the inexorable pull, in spite of what we know, to embrace cultural standards of femininity and masculinity. Either way, this willful ignorance or knowing complicity points to the mythologizing power of advertising and the media. In representing women as the consumers of the late capitalist Beauty Industry (cosmetics, plastic surgery, weight-loss programs, home fitness equipment, health clubs, “gurus” like Susan Powter, and magazines galore), Messager, Zucker, and, more generally speaking, Barbara Kruger during the 1980s, posit feminist/Postmodernist critiques of the collusion of patriarchy and capitalism.

Hair Straightening (small), 1992. Steel, 9.25 x 7.38 x 4 in.

Messager, Zucker, and Kruger also mimic the mass media’s pervasive fragmentation of, and hence metaphorical control over, the female body in their own work. Through the strategies of appropriation, parody, and abstraction, the artists displace the images’ original context and hence transform their meanings. These strategies then become complex gestures of critique rather than in-your-face opposition or dogma. The French multimedia performance artist Orlan’s plastic surgery/performances also come to mind here. Orlan says she is not “against plastic surgery, but rather against the norms of beauty and the dictates of the dominant ideology which are becoming more and more deeply embedded in female…as well as masculine…flesh.”

Artist Beth B’s 1995 exhibition, “Trophies,” deals with cosmetic procedures, but is an example of what Robert Hughes would disparagingly call “victim art.” Using life-size cast wax and resin replicas, Beth B presented a variety of cases in which women’s bodies have been sacrificed to conform to patriarchal standards of femininity: mutilated genitals, a deformed breast (revealing a ruptured implant), a deformed foot (exposing the effects of footbinding), and an emaciated, anorexic female body. Like Zucker, Beth B showed the “before” and “after” results of a facelift and a healthy, normal ribcage alongside a shrunken ribcage deformed by corseting. Beth B’s cast wax replicas of real specimens confront us with the dogma that women under patriarchy are limited to the closely aligned status of victim and sex object, with no possibility of agency or subjectivity. But by presenting life-size replicas of afflicted female body parts as if they were medical specimens, B. seems to enact a second victimization. In contrast, Zucker foregoes Beth B.’s didacticism when she chooses to abstract and simplify the form of the (female) body, even while addressing similar surgical interventions.

Perhaps Beth B. did not push her point far enough, making it easy to dismiss “Trophies” as flatfooted feminism. But as Alice Walker sees it, and as Beth B. tried to show, a cross-cultural continuum of violence against women has long existed, with genital mutilation on the far end as a form of torture and human rights abuse to high heels, hair dye, and constricting underwire bras on the near end as means of “shaping a woman in the image that men think they want. . . The assault on women is worldwide..It varies only by degree.”

Waxing: Back (After Matisse’s The Back, 1909-30), 1996. Steel, 52.5 x 120 x 2 in

“For Beauty’s Sake” is revolutionary, according to Jo Anna Isaak’s understanding of laughter as a metaphor for transformation, a strategy of liberation, an emancipation (if only temporary) from the norm and from tradition, a gesture of resistance, a recognition of shared repression. (Feminism and Contemporary Art [Routledge, 1996]) In its formal brevity, which is the soul of wit, lies the crux of Zucker’s success: her ability to make viewers-both male and female-chuckle at their own foibles while also recognizing their voluntary and unwitting complicity in the beauty myth. This type of discomforting, ambivalent response is also a fundamental acknowledgment of how our body comes to be gendered-as the accumulation of its experiences as a social, sexual, psychological, and material construct.

Humor, for Zucker, is also a catalyst with which the double-edged scalpel of gender roles is played out, in which women are simultaneously empowered when they meet the cultural ideal of femininity and yet are made vulnerable (and even victimized) when they become sexually objectified by that ideal.

Amy Ingrid Schlegel is Curatorial Fellow at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.