Late last week, the artist Judith Bernstein stood on the top rung of a 15-foot ladder in the New Museum’s lobby gallery, painting a thick horizontal line on the wall. She was crossing the Ts in a 66-foot-long mural of her signature. Nimble in her purple sneakers, she descended the ladder and raced around the lower areas of her name, thickening the curve of an N after hassling the two men sitting at a table who were in the way.
Ms. Bernstein, who has been making art for long enough that she’s earned the label “proto-feminist,” turns 70 this month. The show in the lobby gallery, which opens this week, is her first solo museum exhibition. In 1972, when she was a founding member of A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) Gallery, the first space in New York devoted to showing only female artists, her career seemed poised to take off. She was refining what would become something of a trademark—her “screw” drawings, massive curved charcoal scratches on paper that converge into an abrasive, bulbous form, the combination of a screw and a phallus. Her first solo show at A.I.R., in 1973 (she remembers the exact date of the opening, Oct. 1), featured the screw works and “was a bit overpowering to visitors when they came in,” she recalled. “Which is what I wanted.” The following year, a 9-foot by 12.5-foot screw drawing called Horizontal—it was particularly coarse—was censored from a large group show at the Philadelphia Civic Center called “Women’s Work—American Art 1974.” She didn’t show much after that.