Eric Firestone & Martha Edelheit

Nina Blumberg | January 17, 2019

If you’re familiar with Eric Firestone and his eponymous gallery, you’re probably aware of the gallerist’s boundary-breaking tendencies when it comes to curating and exhibiting art. If you’re not familiar with Eric Firestone and his boundary-breaking tendencies, you should be.

According to Firestone, he always had a creative streak. He took art classes himself while growing up in Miami, Florida, but quickly realized that he wasn’t good enough to pursue being an artist as a full-time career. His particular brand of creativity lies not in the making of the art itself, but rather in his impeccable eye for spotting artistic talent in others. Once he realized his knack for this, his career path seemed inevitable.

“I don’t think there are any boundaries on what a gallerist can and can’t be.”
-Eric Firestone, founder of Eric Firestone Gallery

Firestone first established his gallery in the Hamptons in 2010 at 4 Newtown Lane, and he’s been helping to shape the art scene there ever since, maintaining a delicately balanced roster of both emerging and already-established artists. Of course, many galleries exhibit both postwar and contemporary artists, but it is the Firestone’s particular commitment to re-examining historical work and presenting major figures in need of reintroduction that may have been largely forgotten or overlooked in the art historical canon that sets his gallery’s program apart from others. His exhibitions often mix different styles and periods to create a conversation between new and older works that Firestone feels complement one another in surprising ways.

The gallerist tries to do what feels right, rather than worrying about the status quo and what others in the art world might be doing, or whether or not they approve or agree with what he’s doing. For Firestone, curating an exhibition is about telling a story, rather than simply presenting a group of works to garner sales. He sees himself as a “storyteller,” who likes “working with narratives so you can come in and work off a concept and see the playfulness or seriousness of that concept.” Firestone carried this strong curatorial approach over into the more recent 2015 opening of his East Village, Manhattan gallery space, Eric Firestone Loft at 4 Great Jones St. There, he continues to focus on creating an aesthetic experience rather than pandering to art market trends.

With Eric Firestone Loft’s last show of 2018, Martha Edelheit Flesh Walls: Tales from the 60s, the gallerist again accomplished his goal of bringing an otherwise largely overlooked artist back into the spotlight. The Edelheit show, which ran from October 17- December 15, 2018, featured a selection of the radical 1960s artwork of Edelheit, ranging from large paintings to smaller works on paper. It reintroduced Edelheit as the pioneering artist that she was at the time-- her artistic subject matter ranges from elaborately tattooed female figures to wild, erotic scenes of circus performers, to paper dolls reimagined into adult fantasies. The erotic nature of these artworks would’ve been much more shocking to viewers in the 1960s contemporary art world than they would be for viewers today, inundated as we are with nudity and sexual imagery from all sides.

Installation view of Martha Edelheit, Flesh Walls: Tales from the 60s, 2018, Eric Firestone Loft New York
Image provided by Eric Firestone Gallery

In fact, Edelheit’s work became known for its both latent and overt sexual references. She was creating art during a time when erotic art as a genre was just beginning to be taken more seriously and gain traction with a wider audience of viewers. And outside of the art world, as a woman making this kind of art, she was implicitly challenging society’s notions of the accepted ways for women to act, dress, and behave-- both in public and in private-- by forcing viewers to face what would’ve previously been seen as taboo or inappropriate sexual and gender topics.

Edelheit was born in New York City in 1931 and left the city briefly to study at the University of Chicago from 1949-1951. However, she returned to New York during the height of its cultural coming-of-age. She took classes with American abstract expressionist Michael Loew and studying with distinguished art historian Meyer Shapiro at Columbia University, who were both influential figures on her artistic practice, particularly the way she perceived pictorial space and constructed images visually.

Edelheit then became a part of a downtown avant-garde group of artists that founded an artist-run gallery space on Tenth Street called the Reuben Gallery. She and other members of the group-- including Jim Dine, Rosalyn Drexler, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenberg and more-- invented “Happenings” and “experimental objects” in an attempt to expand the conventional definition of art. It is evident that this group of open-minded individuals helped influence Edelheit’s art-making, as with her “extension” paintings that incorporate found objects in assemblages, breaking out of the work’s frame and into a three-dimensional plane.

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady, 1962, Oil on canvas, 45h x 50w x 1.50d in. (114.30h x 127w x 3.81d cm) Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York

Edelheit’s vividly-colored and highly-detailed paintings and drawings contain many references to non-Western imagery and erotica, such as the practice of tattooing. Her refusal to adhere to the established formalist paradigms of nude figurative painting also proves the artist to have been far ahead of her time and definitely worthy of the long-overdue attention that Firestone has reinvested in her with this comprehensive solo show.

The VR exhibit of Martha Edelheit, Flesh Walls: Tales from the 60s at Eric Firestone Loft, New York (Oct. 17 - Dec. 15, 2018) :

For further information about Martha Edelheit :

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