by Lisa Peet
The narrative is familiar, to readers of Bloom and, most likely, readers in general—the many ways in which late-in-life artistic blooming, particularly for women, requires a step away from the constraints of domestic life. More often than not, that step is a leap, or a violent shove. Adrienne Rich, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Rebecca West; the list of women who pushed back against lives of motherhood and housewifery goes on and on. Sometimes it was a choice, but often it was not.
Independent filmmaker Beth B’s newest documentary film, Call Her Applebroog, celebrates her mother, the artist Ida Applebroog. Applebroog, now 86, has had a long and marvelous career as a painter, sculptor, graphic artist, filmmaker, and writer, but it wasn’t until she hit a wall of depression and was hospitalized, at 39, that she truly came into her own as an artist.
Born in 1929 in the Bronx to Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents, Applebroog studied graphic design at the New York State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences and eventually took a job in an advertising agency—which she left after six months. “In those days sexual harassment was a day-to-day event,” she told Ms. Magazine in a 1998 interview. She married her high school sweetheart in 1950, and by 1960 she had four children.
The family moved to Chicago, where she took courses at the School of the Art Institute, and then relocated to San Diego. There she battled severe depression, her only artistic outlet involved locking herself in the bathroom with a full-length mirror and sketchpad and doing hundreds of drawings of her vagina.
In 1969, when B was in her early teens, Applebroog checked herself into the psychiatric ward of Mercy Hospital in San Diego. She stayed six weeks, and spent much of that time working on a series of drawings. On her release, Applebroog moved out of the family home.
“She needed to do this. Prior to that her priority had been the family. But if she was going to survive, her priority needed to be the work,” B told Vogue recently. “I have no idea why at age 14 I completely got it. I somehow understood her struggle. In some ways it helped empower me to put my work first always.”
Applebroog—who rechristened herself based on her maiden name, Applebaum—showed in her first group exhibit in 1972, and moved to New York in 1974, where she soon became known as a fiercely feminist pusher of boundaries. She has published in HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, shown with Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, exhibited as part of dOCUMENTA13, been the subject of a retrospective at Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery, and received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, among many other honors. Applebroog’s work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, and others. She was profiled in the PBS documentary Art 21: Art in the Twenty-first Century.
Later this summer, Applebroog will exhibit the drawings she did at Mercy Hospital 47 years ago for the first time at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. In a recent New York Times article, B described seeing the drawings for the first time—on camera, with her mother, for the film. “What a profound treasure,” she told the Times. “It was like seeing the shell of who my mother was when I was 13, then looking at her today as this powerful, strong artist.”
Call Her Applebroog premiered at the Museum of Modern art in February, and has had a limited run across the country; it’s currently held over at Metrograph in New York until June 23. The film’s distributor promises an eventual national release. Here at Bloom, we’re always interested in knowing more about the unfolding of the artists we love, and we’re looking forward to it.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Ida Applebroog in her studio photo credit: Emily Poole.
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