Interview with Mary Kelly: 23 October 2015

Interview between Professor Mary Kelly & Dr Kathy Battista on the occasion of the launch of the New Hall Art Collection (4th ed.), held at Sotheby’s New York, 23 October, 2015.

Introduction by Professor Martin Roland, Professorial Fellow and Chair of the Art Committee for the New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge.  Additional comments by Eliza Gluckman, Collection Curator.


In 1985/6 Mary Kelly was Artist in Residence at Kettle’s Yard and New Hall, Cambridge.  The President of Murray Edwards College, then known as New Hall, was Dr Valerie Pearl, and was instrumental in Mary Kelly being selected.  Kelly lived in college whilst working on the installation, Interim. A series from that body of work, Extase, was acquired with the help of the Eastern Arts Board for the college. This acquisition was the impetus for the New Hall Art Collection, now the largest collection of works by women in Europe. 

Kathy Battista: Tell us a little about your time at the college

Mary Kelly:  When I was asked to speak about my work in the Fellows Drawing Room surrounded by Cuyp’s paintings from the 17th century, I was worried about how I would bridge that four hundred year gap, but because it was a college for women, they went straight for the subject matter and this was the beginning of absolutely wonderful, intensive conversations about art and feminism.  I think very specifically for me, Valerie Pearl was a wonderful influence and, I have to say – pardon me people in Cambridge – I wish every conversation was as erudite as you wished [laughs].  Sometimes at dinner, I got questions like ‘What do you think of the giant hamburger?’ Not a lot was known about contemporary art by everyone so the magical thing was the way that women came together round the subject matter [of my work] and then became interested in the issues of contemporary art. There were some other memorable conversations; one with Elizabeth Anscombe – people might know that she was Wittgenstein’s protégé and colleague – a discussion about blue.  And with George Steiner – he said artists only think with their hands, which put me in a perfect double-bind, if I speak it proves I am not an artist.  But then in my discussions with Valerie Pearl – in which she would take me around her garden and tell me which flowers Harold Wilson liked or how it was when she was writing the biography of Indira Ghandi – she said that with regard to history, everything you think about the past is wrong, and it absolutely stuck with me in my research for the rest of my life. Valerie commissioned me to do another edition of one of the sections in the work called Corpus for the collection, which is the very, very long work you see on the right.  This is from a show at the New Museum in 1990.  So the last piece which is shown there on the left; there is an edition which was made specifically for Cambridge and I think was installed in the Dining Room.

It still is

Mary Kelly: It still is? I like to think of it there and I’m very happy to do anything to support the collection because – Kathy, just as you said about the time – there was an atmosphere of total change then.  Already, outside of the academic institutions in the 70s, things had started to move in an interdisciplinary way – in questions that came from fields like psychoanalysis into other areas to do with, not only feminism but visual art.  At Cambridge, the art historian, Norman Bryson , offered a course that was called Literature and Art and it had the aura of an underground cult because of the kind of excitement it generated.  When I showed my work at Kettle’s Yard, Norman Bryson and Margaret Iversen, another historian, spoke and, I think, this was probably the first time we put sexuality, psychoanalysis, feminism and conceptual art together on the same platform.  Of course, we have come a long way since then, but the collection would not exist in my view without it.  It’s a combination of Valerie Pearl’s vision and the determination of the people who followed, who got things going in the 90s and made it into this monumental collection.  And now I’m able to tell you my little anecdotes about the beginning.

Kathy: And you will see when you get a copy of the catalogue later this evening that there’s quite a diversity of work.  There’s more painting and two dimensional sculpture but there’s figurative; there’s abstract; there’s photography and Mary’s work is, as she said, conceptual and involves some images but also text and I wondered if you could say a bit about Extase, tell them a bit about it …

Mary: So just to recap a bit why I’m here. It’s because Extase was the first work acquired for the collection and I was just saying a little about the context in which that happened and how Valerie Pearl, who was the President at New Hall at that time, was so instrumental in this happening.  The work is part of a very large project called Interim that was shown at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.  It’s one of four parts, and rather Foucaultian in its overview because it looks at different themes in the history of women’s lives during the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1970s– themes to do with the body and history and money and power.  Part I, called Corpus, is about the body. You have to remember in the 80s, people were looking at the problem of representation – what did it mean to make images of women?  I was trying to think about how I could do something that was still pleasurable but without using the figure. So I took clothes – dresses, jackets, my own clothes, and I posed them, had them photographed as if they were models, by a photographer, and then I juxtaposed them with panels of text. They are photo-laminates on Perspex and the narratives that accompany them are screen prints on Perspex.  I wrote them myself, in the first person indicative, miming the style of women’s magazines, they’re discussions about everyday life, what you wear and how you look.  When I look back on it now, it seems very blog-ish.  At the time, the theorist, Laura Mulvey and I were being accused of destroying pleasure because we were trying to raise questions about images of women and the objectification of women. So I wanted to get some of this women’s magazine-type pleasure back into the work but still make it address the woman as a spectator, where the joke is in-house – you know, it’s us laughing at our precocious femininity.  The works are very large, they’re about the size of, well, in England they’re called hoardings – the advertisements you get at the bus stop. It’s the type of one-to-one relationship you have with a shop window when you’re reflected in it.  There are thirty panels and they form this kind of wall of glass, reflecting you as you walk past.

Kathy: And can you tell us where some of the other parts of Interim have wound up – which other collections?

Mary: Well, one is in the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the one in the Mackenzie, which is in Regina.  Another is in the Helsinki City art Museum.

Kathy: And Mary always works – I think it’s fair to say – on large research projects, so her practice is very much based on research and her subject matters include motherhood, aging, war and representation.  I think it’s such a wonderful thing for Murray Edwards (New Hall) to have this work and, for me, it’s interesting too because I don’t know if any of you have been following some of the debates in the media about women’s art and women artists.  There has been a re-evaluation for sure – for example Maura Reilly recently wrote in Art News about a number of different statistics; one of which was the amount of women artists represented in institutions and it’s still painfully small.  I think what’s extraordinary about your work and this whole collection is that it’s all women artists.

Some of you may remember a couple of years ago, the Pompidou took this very radical step and they showed only women artists from their collection.  It was called Elles at Pompidou – but it’s a very rare, rare thing to have a collection of only women’s art.  Most collections are, say, 95% male.  I wonder, Mary, because you have done so well with really breaking through any gender barrier in terms of acceptance of your work and being put into important big collections, if you could say something about that battle.  Is it still a battle?  You were very much ‘one of the boys’ in a way in your time.

Mary: Well I wouldn’t go as far as to say that [laughter]

Kathy: No, but in the amount of recognition you had I mean.  I can’t think of another woman artist…

Mary: Yes – a lot emerged in the 80s

Kathy: Yes – but in the 70s?

Mary: I think my own position is, as Martin [Professor Martin Roland, Chair of the Art Committee] was saying in my introduction, art informed by feminism.  I’ve always felt that that was the way to look at it, and that means men’s work, anyone’s work, can be and should be informed by feminism.  As you can see in the collection, just to be a collection of women’s art means it’s very, very diverse right, but it isn’t necessarily feminist if its women’s art; these are different issues.  The way I think of this is that we have a rights issue and this is always kind of a quota thing – when you need to change the law, even though in some sense it might encourage a certain kind of essentialism, it’s something you have to do.  At the same time, I think it’s necessary to think about this not as something separate, entirely separate, this is my own view.  But when you do call attention to this, as the collection does, it can redress the historical imbalance that’s just not possible in any other way.  I always think, for a young woman who is an artist now, it’s so different, because in my time, everything was coming together at once. We were trying to change our personal lives, we were trying to change the law, and we were trying to find theories that would fit, that would make sexuality pass into the grand narrative of social change.  Now we know a lot but it doesn’t mean that the institutions have kept up with it; it doesn’t mean that women are represented.  It just means that they’re very confused, I mean, knowing so much about sexuality and its complexity, and then being faced with the fact that there’s no necessary evolution towards perfect equality – if that makes sense.

Kathy: And women artists are still painfully undervalued in comparison to male artists.  Your work is represented by galleries and institutions, and I personally feel that the quota thing is not a good idea because it is not a resolution to the problem. But I think that people like you, especially through your teaching and your art, have been a mentor to younger women – younger women just have so many more mentors than you did. And I wondered, when you were in England, who were your mentors – did you have any female teachers or role models that you lived up to?

Mary: That’s a very interesting question because I’ve been asked that before and I can honestly say I didn’t have mentors. There just weren’t any out there. My mentors were really my male friends; they are my contemporaries, like Dan Graham and Victor Burgin.  But as far as another generation, no, it was just the beginning of many things. Somebody has to start from scratch, right?  But now, hopefully, it’s different in a good way.

Kathy: And I think it’s interesting the whole discussions on gender too – which is something you and your colleagues, and Laura Mulvey (who we spoke about) worked on.  Gender is not a strict binary issue.  I find it fascinating now – I wonder if you do – that, with the emergence of trans-culture, we now have TV shows about trans-people – even Vanity Fair did a whole magazine on the subject.  Many of them are looking to feminism as an ideology, so there a lot of attention again on feminism.  I wondered how you felt about that or if you hadn’t been thinking about it?

Mary: Well, in the area that I started at UCLA called Interdisciplinary Studio, I’ve done many projects with transgender artists recently, and in my view, this is where the legacy of anti-essentialist feminism really has fallen, and I think it’s very interesting.  But I wonder if it might be more interesting for people to ask questions and talk about the collection.  I just wanted to mention some of the women in the collection from this same time –  like Alexis Hunter, who was a friend of mine, who has work in this collection and who was a really extraordinary artist because she always asked questions about masculinity as well from the very beginning.  You also have the classic feminist essentialist, Monica Sjoo and Rose Garrard, who is someone I knew at that time, who was one of the first women to do installation work and crossover with performance.  And then, of course, Jo Spence who was a force, and a friend, and someone whose work is now getting more and more attention.

Kathy: And Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro

Mary: Yes.

Kathy: It’s fascinating; the collection is full of iconic women artists and it’s amazing how it was amassed from gifts and donations.  It’s not an easy thing to amass a collection these days.

Martin Roland: While people are thinking of questions, can I just ask one and then we are all going to field questions.   Just tell us, what do you say to your students about – I can’t remember the word you used – the lack of representation of women artists in all sort of domains? What should they be doing?

Mary: Interesting, I don’t address it in that way. My concern is that students actually find what it is that they want to say, what their project is, and that is something they can maintain over their lifetime.  The art world is part of the entertainment business and this is not something that’s necessarily that stable.  You have to be very committed to what you do and not everyone is committed to making feminist work.  But what I think has happened, is that somehow feminism has become synonymous with women so all those artists who then don’t do work which is feminist aren’t really women.  They are pushed into another camp. So I will always be trying to break down that camp, ghettoization of identity and subject matter, by pulling it into this wider frame of project-based work.

Kathy: Well for me – because Mary teaches Fine Art, and I teach Art History and Professional Practice – one of the things I do when I give my History of Twentieth Century lecture on the iconic curators you need to know, is put up a list.  It says Walter Hopps and Harald Szeemann and Hans Ulrich Obrist.  It’s this list of all men and I just ask them what’s wrong with it, and they get it immediately. Also I say (because I have 95% females in my classroom), I want your name on that list in twenty years.  I try to make them feel urgency; that they need to work hard to be. I always say to them, I don’t want to walk into a gallery and see you behind the reception; I want to see you directing or owning the gallery. I never had a mentor like that.  I worked at the Courtauld and came out and I had this Master’s degree, and I was like, what do I do now? There was no mentoring of any sense.  I found a Phd that was interdisciplinary with Mark Cousins and Colin MacCabe, and I found my people, in a way. I try to get my students to find themselves and to be confident much earlier perhaps than I was. I also think that if they have to do hypothetical exhibitions or papers on, say, abstract expressionism and they didn’t mention Joan Mitchell, I would take exception to it.  I also bring them to a lot of female artists’ studios.  At the beginning of the school year, we went to two older female artists including Mary Beth Edelson, who’s eighty two, I think, and being kicked out of her loft after forty years.  I think there’s a real emphasis today on the kind of hot shots and the zombie formalists as we call them – the twenty-six year olds selling for $500,000 – and that’s terribly exciting, but it’s also speculative. The young people who come to my Institute are interested in that so I try to work against it a little and take them to an older woman’s studio but I don’t say anything like were going to an older women’s studio; I say, we are going to Mary Beth Edelson’s studio and let them talk to the artist.

Mary: From the point of view of criticism and history, I mean that’s absolutely essential what you’re doing. Since we are in Sotheby’s, I suppose the biggest marker here is that the prices of women’s work are nowhere near what men’s are.  This is partly to do with how it’s positioned historically.  If you look at most criticism that’s written about women’s work,  it is unlike criticism for most established men who are artists; there will be no historical line, for example where they came from and who they influenced.   It’s almost like an isolated moment.  I find that with my work all the time – they zoom into the subject matter  – the mother-child relationship, for example, – as though this came out of nowhere and then it went nowhere. Whereas if Benjamin Buchloh was writing something about Dan Graham, he would say oh well that’s where that came from in conceptual art and what it was polemical with and what it influenced on the other side. So that is absolutely crucial – the process that evaluates and changes.

Kathy: I always tell people the biggest bargains in the art world are the female pop artists and the female conceptual artists; they are so interesting to me.  The new show at the Tate, The World Goes Pop [Tate Modern 2015], it’s a new look at Pop using people like Evelyne Axell, looking at women who were left out of Pop for example, or perhaps parts of the world.  As Mary says, the prices are much lower, particularly when you looked at a renowned woman artist of the 1990s compared to a renowned male artist; John Currin’s work is probably up the $5million mark at auction and Lisa Yuskavage is only selling for $1million. Progress has been made but it’s not equal.  I don’t think a quota making everything equal is the way forward; it’s just bringing attention to it.  Are there questions you want to ask?

Q: Since your initial artist in residence term, have you been back to New Hall and if you have, have you seen the progress of the collection? How would you improve it or change it? What would you like to see in the additions to the collection?

Mary: It took off in the 90s when I moved back here.   I’m very intrigued by where things are installed and I like the idea so much that the work is not put in storage, that’s its actually really up; it’s there.  It really made me want to go and see it. And I’m glad my piece is still up where it was 30 years ago – amazing.  And as far as additions, it’s like asking someone whose got the candy bag totally full, what else they want. It’s such an outstanding collection.

Martin: Maybe Eliza would like to answer that question, the newly appointed, very recently arrived curator. Where would you like to see this collection going? What would you like to see it doing?

Eliza Gluckman: I have been there for four months and I’m still working that out. I think we need to slow down and look at everything. I think we are in a very interesting moment in terms of conversations about gender and whether we address that within the collection. We are having conversations now and there’s quite a big movement about paying artists whereas we have always relied on donations from artists. We are happy to rely on donations from other people, but I feel that we should possibly be making gestures where we are paying women artists as this is a big issue. So I think there are a lot of different things we can do. Another discussion we are having at the moment is collecting more Asian artists who really reflect the student cohort within Cambridge and the visitors to Cambridge which we were talking about. So there’s so much we could do it’s a bit overwhelming.

Q: And medium?

Eliza: Yes, medium is a big discussion because most of the work is wall based.  It’s great that it is hung around the college and is seen by everybody – the students live with it, it’s down their accommodation corridors, it’s where they eat, it’s what they walk past, it’s in the Fellows rooms, so they really are surrounded by this work all the time. But therefore a lot of it is wall based because those are the restrictions we have. So we are looking at collecting film, and installation is just really tricky because of conservation and storage. And I think we have to operate as a living collection that can be seen and not take anything too tricky which is a shame as well.

Q: There is a lot of sculpture though?

Eliza: There is sculpture and mainly outside in our incredible gardens.

Kathy: Well, the great thing about video is that all you need is a built in screen and you can have a rolling programme. But as you said about paying artists, I had thought when I first saw this – if this was all male artists, would 400 artists have donated their work? And it again ties back into this thing about the price of women’s art and it made me a little bit sad.   For me, the collection is so amazing but it’s also poignant, as all of these women gave, or somebody gave the work, and it’s such an outstanding achievement, but it’s also interesting to think about would that have happened with all male artists.

 Q: Have there been any other artists in residence in Cambridge’s colleges since Mary?

Martin: We still have the occasional artist in residence. Lots of colleges do have an artist in residence.  Girton College has quite an interesting collection of art; it’s a former women’s college. They have the People’s Portraits exhibition, which is supported by BP. I don’t think they have had a female artist in residence for quite a while and their current artist in residence is a man. Is that right Eliza?

Eliza: Yes and Jesus College do something called Sculpture in the Court every 5 years which is always quite amazing.  It’s run Dr Rod Mengham – this year they did have an incredible Eva Rothschild sculpture but I think everything else was by a man.

Q: In the collection can you give us a sense of how much is English artists and other welsh, Scottish, Irish, other places.

Martin: Mostly British.

Kathy: Its very British heavy, which is what I like about it. .

Q: Can you talk about the percentage of women in art schools?

Kathy: It’s like 55-60% compared to the men. I know because I have a student writing a thesis on this, about the disparity between women in art school then women represented by galleries, it’s a very interesting thesis.

Q: I’m interested in whether you think an institution and collection like yours affect the way that women create art. Do you think it will affect the way their practice develops? Is there something we should be doing as a collection to improve art by women?

Mary: Well I don’t… I think that would be the tail wagging the dog.

Q: What do you think the role of the collection is when working with artists?

Mary: The role of the collection is in the distribution of the work. If we think of this as entertainment industry, to have a public collection is the most utopian and important project you can have.  This means you have work to be seen, which is available to the public, and this serves and encourages the work of women.

Kathy: There’s this extraordinary history of contemporary British female artists.  If you look at the Tate’s collection or the National Collection of Britain, which Tate is part of, you would not get this comprehensive representation.  When I look through the catalogue, I’m amazed at the names and how cohesive it is.  It’s a real feat; it’s second only to the National Museum for Women in the Arts, which you know is a much bigger organisation and more infrastructure than a college. Colleges aren’t normally collecting institutions.