Dorothy Iannone: radical artist celebrated female sexuality

Few female artists celebrated sexuality as unashamedly as Dorothy Iannone. The American, who died on Monday at the age of 89, created an oeuvre full of genitalia and copulating characters. While her paintings, films and texts regularly fell victim to censorship in the sixties, seventies and eighties due to their explicit nature, in the last twenty years of her life Iannone was embraced as a pioneering artist, and the museum exhibitions added up.

Curators and critics have looked at Iannone’s old work with new eyes in this millennium. For example, for her installation I was thinking about you (1975), a man-sized box painted with a nude couple making love against a celestial background. The woman’s head is a built-in screen with a video: a close-up of Iannone’s head as she masturbates. The Tate Modern in London and the Whitney Biennale in New York showed the three-decade-old installation in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

Dorothy Iannone, I was thinking about you1975. The screen shows a video where the artist filmed himself masturbating.

Photo Dorothy Iannone

In an interview with the art magazine Flash art Iannone said of his installation six years ago: “I’m always embarrassed when I see this film, even when no one is there. I wonder how I managed to make that video, but I’m so glad that I did it.”


Dorothy Iannone was born in Boston, studied American literature and began painting in 1959 without training. She traveled the world with her husband James Upham, a painter and wealthy investor.

In 1960, Iannone made headlines. US Customs had their copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer confiscated, a novel banned because of its obscene nature. With help, Iannone fought the seizure all the way to the US Supreme Court. With success: from 1964, Miller’s novel was no longer allowed to be sold under the counter, according to some cultural historians a link in the chain that led to the sexual revolution.

For Iannone, her personal life was inextricably linked to her art. In both cases, she often said, she was trying to fight censorship, follow her heart and reject society’s expectations. She did that with some naive, cartoonish artwork with a lot of text in it.

How radical she could be became clear in 1967 when she met the German-Swiss artist Dieter Roth during a trip to Iceland. Madly in love, she decided to leave her husband within a week to continue living with Roth. She described him as her muse, he called her his lioness.

Together, Iannone and Roth became prominent members of the Fluxus art movement. He with his chocolate pictures exposed to mold and decay, she with sexually oriented works of art. Long before the British artist Tracey Emin made a name for herself with the artwork in 1995 Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995 Iannone was already creating a piece of art where she recorded which men she had ever made love with.

Genital organs

In 1969, Iannone again made headlines. She participated in a group exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern. Just before the opening, the genitals in her paintings had to be covered. Her ‘muse’ Dieter Roth removed his artworks in protest, and the famous director of the Kunsthal, Harald Szeemann, resigned.

Dorothy Iannone, Flora and fauna1973.

Photo Anja Elisabeth Witte / Berlinische Galerie

It took a while for the art world to catch up with Dorothy Iannone. But eventually it worked, and Iannone, who lived in Berlin for the last 25 years of his life, was given the first retrospective exhibition in his homeland at the New Museum in New York in 2009. The French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou had already seen its significance in 1975. At the time, he described Dorothy Iannone as “a freedom fighter and an energetic and dedicated artist who pursued nothing less than human liberation.”

Also read this obituary: Vivienne Westwood: from safety pins to opulent evening gowns

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