‘Rated RX’: Book Review

Lucy Weir reviews Rated RX: Sheree Rose with and after Bob Flanagan (Ohio State University Press, 2020) edited by Yetta Howard.

One of art history’s most frustrating tropes is that of its invisible woman. Linda Nochlin’s landmark 1971 essay probed the various institutional barriers for female artists achieving ‘greatness’, setting in motion a new wave of feminist scholarship, and sparking interest in the work of women historically overlooked by critics, or overshadowed by peers and romantic partners. In Nochlin’s wake, academics have laboured to reinscribe figures such as Camille Claudel, Jo Hopper (whose work lay unattended in a museum basement for more than 30 years), Hannah Höch, Lee Krasner, Ana Mendieta, and Sophie Taeuber – women whose respective oeuvres, to varying degrees, were eclipsed by their proximity to celebrated male counterparts.

When my own research interests began to diverge from ‘mainstream’ art history, it was profoundly disappointing to see that this tendency persists across seemingly radical countercultures, where women find themselves relegated to the role of wife, lover, and muse once again. Anna Brus, for example, has yet to be acknowledged for the role she played in devising the performances of Viennese Actionism, though her husband Günter’s place in the canon is assured. [1] Sheree Rose, the subject of Yetta Howard’s new volume, has been subject to the same treatment by institutions and researchers alike, her substantial body of work relegated to a footnote in most discussions of her deceased husband, Bob Flanagan.

Flanagan’s practice centred on the intertwining of pain and pleasure. He openly, and joyfully, identified as a ‘super-masochist’, using a combination of poetry and performance art to explore his sexual and creative identities as a person living with severe chronic illness (cystic fibrosis). Yet even though a significant proportion of Flanagan’s work was devised and performed collaboratively with Rose, her own performances and extensive photographic practice are almost absent from most critical writing. While scholars such as Amelia Jones (1998) and Linda Kauffman (1998) provide important exceptions to this rule, all too often Rose has simply been a passing reference point in the narrative of Flanagan’s career.

Howard’s Rated RX endeavours to redress this imbalance, providing both a critical framework for analysing Rose’s work, as well as constituting a miniaturised archive of her performances, photographs, and writings. The book marks an important milestone in the rediscovery and restitution of Rose’s role in the history of live art. It comprises an eclectic collection of critical essays, interviews, personal writings (and some of Flanagan’s hitherto unpublished work), alongside photographs, flyers, and other performance documentation and ephemera. This latter element is especially welcome for the prospective Rose/Flanagan researcher, and includes rare archival materials from the Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose Collection at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries.

Lines of Summer by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1941)

The text is divided into two broad sections, ‘Words’ and ‘Images’. The latter charts a chronological walk-through of Rose’s career with and after Flanagan. The preceding textual section, however, adopts a more disjointed structure, beginning with Rose’s own voice, before introducing critical interventions from contributors such as Tanya Augsburg and Amelia Jones, as well as artists’ statements from peers and collaborators Rhiannon Aarons and Martin O’Brien. Howard’s decision to structure the book “in a curatorial rather than a didactic manner” (p.15) reflects the sheer diversity of its content, but also leaves the reader in the challenging position of assembling the material into a recognisable narrative. Unfortunately, this achronological composition results in some key information being omitted, while other elements are repeated across different chapters.

Rated RX opens on a jarring note, with Howard stating that, at the time of writing, Rose was in hospital, recovering from a heart attack. Underscoring her vulnerability from the outset, the character of Sheree Rose is rewritten, from the sick Flanagan’s healthy Domme to a more complex figure reckoning with her own mortality. In her self-penned contributions, Rose is frank in addressing her struggles with depression, ageing and its related health issues, as well as her abundance of losses and grief. Perhaps most striking, however, is her unabashed discussion of past and present financial difficulties – Rose’s candid accounts of economic instability reveal an enduring societal taboo when it comes to talking (honestly) about money.

After guiding us through Rose’s own writings and personal memories, Howard shifts into a subsection of ‘Collaborations and Critical Perspectives’. Here, a range of contributors offer their readings of Rose’s practice, covering her performing career with Flanagan and, crucially, the work she embarked upon after his death. Tanya Augsburg’s account (pp. 65-77) provides a depressingly familiar account of the difficulties of staging Rose’s work within the context of higher education institutions, and outlines the author’s anxieties over the impact of platforming ‘extreme’ performance upon her academic career. Each contribution in this section helps to further contextualise Rose’s erasure from the history of live art, but again, the lack of a coherent chronology diminishes the potential impact here. Perhaps it is my inner traditionalist art historian speaking, but I desperately wanted a more vivid, visceral, visual sense of Rose’s intermedia work, which spans writing and sculpture as well as performance.

Crucially, a significant proportion of Rated RX is given over to Rose, with the artist speaking about her own life and work, rather than relying upon critics and theorists to determine the course of the narrative. This is a central feature of Howard’s strategy, asserting explicitly in the introduction that the book is “a feminist project” (p. 3). As a result, we learn about Rose’s early life, and her pivotal decision to leave a “safe and comfortable” existence as a suburban wife and mother (p. 35). Rose’s life has been characterised by her struggle to escape heteropatriarchal norms of female obedience and subservience. It seems a cruel irony, therefore, that after playing such a pivotal role in her husband’s subversive career, she has been consistently marginalised by scholarship, institutions, and audiences alike.

This has also meant that, in the years following Flanagan’s death, many presumed that Rose simply gave up art. Howard’s book presents a more complex version of events, giving voice to Rose’s traumatic losses within a short period of time (Flanagan, her ex-husband, and her parents) and exploring her post-Flanagan oeuvre, focusing on works such as Bob Balloon (censored upon its unveiling in Japan, and completely ignored by the art press back home in the US). In a telling soundbite which will doubtless become the most quoted line from this text, Rose firmly states that “The thing that people don’t understand is that Bob was my invention” (p. 48). The uncomfortable truth, Rose insists, is that she was never taken seriously as an artist in her own right, despite the fact that she played such a pivotal role in Flanagan’s celebrated creative endeavours.

At times, Howard’s desire to put right past wrongs edges into uncomfortable territory. In a short yet excoriating essay, ‘Why Kirby Dick is a “Sick” Prick’, Rose tells her account of making the documentary that introduced Flanagan to mainstream audiences, claiming that Dick, the director, was in dereliction of his duties by failing to film Flanagan’s final moments (as contractually agreed with Rose and Flanagan), and that he left her financially destitute by erasing her name from the contract. This essay left me feeling uneasy – the story is likely a complex and unpleasant one, as financial arrangements and broken promises so often are, but Howard presents only Rose’s version of events, which raises questions about editorial responsibilities and, realistically, potential libel.

Howard’s intentions with this volume are, nonetheless, admirable, and her passion for the project – and for Rose’s work – is unambiguous throughout. This does, however, lead to lapses of judgement, and the book would benefit from further editing, not only to catch instances of repetition, but also to create a smoother overarching structure, a clearer sense of chronology and coherence throughout the sections. There are lengthy, personal accounts that could be trimmed back for greater impact, and likewise some of the critical treatment of Rose’s work is overwrought. Nonetheless, Rated RX represents a crucial starting point for future scholarship on Rose’s work. It tells a frustrating yet fascinating story of censorship, shame, sexuality, joy, and fetish, while also addressing experiences of sickness, trauma, and loss. The tenor of discussion brightens considerably with each mention of Rose’s current creative partnership with British live artist Martin O’Brien, who also lives with cystic fibrosis, and it becomes clear that this represents an important, evolving, and life-affirming new stage in her process. In the end, however, the star of Howard’s show is Rose herself. For the first time, she has been permitted to occupy centre stage, with Flanagan and O’Brien as her admiring and happy supplicants.

References

Hummel, Julius and Jaklitsch, Silvia [eds.], Amor Psyche Aktion – Vienna: The Feminine in Viennese Actionism (Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2013)

Jones, Amelia, Body Art, Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)

Kauffman, Linda, Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998)

Nochlin, Linda, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ in Women, Art and

Power, (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 1-39

Dr Lucy Weir is Chancellor’s Fellow in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Pina Bausch’s Dance Theatre: Tracing the Evolution of Tanztheater (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) and co-editor of Performance in a Pandemic (Routledge, 2021). Her forthcoming second book explores the relationship between gender and self-injury in live art. She tweets at @LucyGWeir.

[1] See, for example, Anna Brus in conversation with Andrea Schurian, ‘We were hidden under some kind of invisible Burka,’ in Hummel, Julius and Jaklitsch, Silvia [eds.], Amor Psyche Aktion – Vienna: The Feminine in Viennese Actionism (Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2013), pp. 281-288.

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