File Note 76: Dorothy Iannone - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Oliver Koerner von Gustorf



Love, Unconditionally Dorothy Iannone’s Fearless Art Images References Quote Biography Credits

Love, Unconditionally Dorothy Iannone’s Fearless Art

‘Follow me, it’s growing dark. Do we both mistake our way? The air is bad, the food impure, our very earth is sinking; everyone fears, few can love and language has been degraded. You who have tried refuse to be whole beings. Abandon your reign before our promise goes under.’ — Dorothy Iannone

‘He rose out of a mediocre existence. Love called forth the greatness he had in himself.’ So begins the love story that Dorothy Iannone relates in The Last Train (2010). The painting-sculpture is inspired by the 1973 film of the same name, which portrays the fateful encounter in a World War II refugee train between the married Frenchman Julien (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Romy Schneider), a German Jew engaged in the underground resistance. The work resembles a miniaturised blend of billboard, movie poster and altar. Embedded in fields of filigreed calligraphy, one sees an image from the movie’s last scene: Julien tenderly holds Anna’s face in his hands, they are wholly engrossed in each other. As Iannone describes, this union is at once their triumph and their death sentence. They are under interrogation by a Nazi officer. Anna had been picked up with papers falsely identifying her as Julien’s wife. She is already lost, yet he could still escape by denying he knows her. But his love is absolute. Avowing his love for her, he sacrifices his life. 

The Last Train is part of the Movie People (2009 – ongoing), a series of painted cut-outs mounted on wood that depict scenes from Iannone’s favourite films such as Morocco, Lolita and Brokeback Mountain. All exemplify themes that have defined the work of the artist from the outset: unconditional love and devotion, the desire for ecstatic, absolute union with the beloved. While this yearning may correspond superficially with the romantic ideals of enlightened Western culture, in truth it is radical. Because in the films, and also in reality, it leads the lovers into conflict: with reigning conventions; with powers of representation and status; with ideological, religious, sexual and political regulations. The path inevitably leads beyond society’s stable but suffocating walls: into death, the desert, imprisonment – into the unknown. At the same time, such unconditional love always denotes a moment of transcendence, a liberating emergence that signifies the surpassing of an individual self.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1933, Iannone has devoted her life to unconditional love. For more than half a century now, her art has illuminated her own path – a journey of ever-increasing sexual, political and spiritual awareness that has been no less adventurous than that of her cinematic heroes. Her work testifies to a life lived beyond the bounds of conventions, one that, in her own words, “is not possible within the city gates”. A life constantly in search of union – with the beloved, the viewer, listeners, the world. In order to attain the greatest possible closeness, even intimacy, Iannone has created completely new forms of storytelling that incorporate the most disparate disciplines: visual and applied art, literature, film, video, music. In the 1960s, emerging from Abstract Expressionism, she developed an ornamental, flat, yet richly contrasting style of painting that accords equal weight to text and image. Here the flowing line has central significance – from it arise bodies and words, it embraces colour and plane and defines them.

Iannone’s works are captivatingly clear, fully unequivocal. They brazenly express female desire and speak  out for human and artistic self-development, which is indispensable for fully loving relationships. In 1960, she successfully challenged the United States government in court, demanding the return of Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer (1934), which had been confiscated by U.S. customs because it was considered to be pornographic. Yet over the decades her own work would also repeatedly fall victim to censorship, dismissed and ignored as obscene and peculiar.

With the People, her first painted cut-outs made between 1966 and 1967, Iannone confronts and destabilises the proprieties of an inhibited culture. The small wooden figures are inspired by Japanese woodcuts and Egyptian, Byzantine and Indian art, which she had studied while travelling the world with her husband James Upham. They portray media personalities, such as Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy, the Rolling Stones and Vogue models, outfitted with genitals: stylised penises and vulvas that look as if they had been stuck onto the suits, miniskirts and Chanel ensembles. These organs turn out to be an ambivalent ‘trademark’. As Iannone recounts, for instance in 1970 in her book Story of Bern (or) Showing Colors, they got pasted over by exhibitors who were afraid of police crackdowns and her books were burned by British customs. 

Yet it is not only the explicit depiction of eroticism and sexuality that scandalises, but also the fact that Iannone records the unfolding of her own relationships in great detail, depicting real people and incidents from the art scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her love for Dieter Roth, whom she meets in 1967 on a trip to Iceland with James Upham and the Fluxus artist Emmett Williams, marks a cathartic watershed. The two fall in love with each other on the spot; Dorothy leaves her husband and proclaims the beloved her muse. Inner and outer experience overlap in works such as At Home (1969), the Eros series created between 1968 and 1971, and An Icelandic Saga (1978 – 86). The lovers appear in everyday surroundings as well as in the roles of archaically stylised mythological beings, celebrating sexual union as a cultic rite. In later works too, woman appears as a white goddess, slave, priestess – a harbinger of the return of matriarchy. But Iannone’s stance might ruffle some feminist feathers, for she also postulates female as well as male submission, classical seduction and unabashed voyeurism – all, however, under the banner of free will and self-empowerment.

Art for Iannone is always a way to be together with the beloved, to communicate with him, even when apart. And she is always inventing new ways of reaching him. She designs artist books and cookbooks, a (Ta)rot Pack, and sets of cards with Insults and Compliments. The painted video boxes she created in the 1970s are pioneering achievements; Iannone was probably the first artist to integrate video into her painting as a “picture within a picture”. I Was Thinking Of You (1975) gained notoriety. On the box’s monitor, framed by delicate feathers, appears the face of the artist who, filming alone, brings herself to orgasm, showing us a state of ecstasy. 

Although her works are almost always addressed expressly to an actual beloved well into the 1980s, by mid decade a change is already taking place with a turn towards Tibetan Buddhism. The longing for union becomes more universal and is decreasingly bound to a subject. Devotion and attention are no longer directed at a specific person but, as with the Movie People, to the entire spectrum of human experience. 

Iannone’s artistic works have long been considered reductively in terms of autobiographical and sexual elements. In the process, the political – spiritual nature of her art has been overlooked. Starting from the profound conviction that goodness is inherent in every human being, as well as in all of nature, her work is also a form of protest. Iannone continually critiques the social and cultural state of affairs that practices rigid moral coercion and censorship via academies, institutions and organised religion, and robs individuals of their innate innocence. Which is not to say immaculate purity, but rather a very primal self-confidence, unbowed curiosity and openness that allow us to perceive the world without fear and reservation. The fact that Iannone abolishes the divisions between art and love, private and public in her body of work is done not in service of her own exhibitionism. Rather, it is meant to offer an example – to encourage the creation of a truly loving society that can only be shaped fearlessly, by free individuals.


Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky Penguin Classics (2004)

Johannes Brahms The String Sextet Sonata, Opus 18 in B-flat Major (1860)

Robert Graves The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth Faber and Faber (1999)

D.H. Lawrence (all works)

Norman Mailer Advertisements for Myself Harvard University Press (1992)

Norman Mailer Armies of the Night Plume (1994)

Louis Malle (Dir.) Les Amants (The Lovers) (1958)

William Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra (1606 – 07)

Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina Harper Perennial Classics (2012)

Louis Untermeyer (Ed.) Modern American and Modern British Poetry Harcourt, Brace & Company (1935)

Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde (1857–59)

 ‘To give oneself, and yet to remain free. Irreconcilable polarities meeting in art, meeting in love.’ Dorothy Iannone


Dorothy Iannone (b. 1933, Boston, Massachusetts) now lives and works in Berlin. She has forthcoming solo exhibitions at Galerie de Multiples Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Berlinische Galerie, Berlin. She has had numerous solo exhibitions including: Sunny Days and Sweetness, Peres Projects, Berlin (2010); Lioness, New Museum, New York (2009); Dorothy Iannone, Anton Kern, New York (2009); Follow Me, September, Berlin (2008); She’s A Freedom Fighter, Air de Paris, Paris (2007); Seek the Extremes, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2006); Dorothy Iannone, The Wrong Gallery at Tate Modern, London (2005). Group exhibitions include: Météorologies Mentales, Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris (2012); X, Gió Marconi Gallery, Milan (2010); Seductive Subversion: Contemporary Women Artists 1958 – 1968, Brooklyn Museum, New York; Power Up – Women Pop Artists, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (both 2010); Heaven, 2nd Athens Biennale; Rebelle. Art and Feminism 1969 – 2009, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem (both 2009); Bodypoliticx, Witte de With, Rotterdam (2007); Day For Night, Whitney Biennial, New York (2006) and Dieter Roth & Dorothy Iannone, Sprengel Museum, Hanover (2005).


Oliver Koerner von Gustorf is an art writer based in Berlin where he also runs his gallery, SEPTEMBER. Translation from the German original by A.K. Lerner.

Kindly supported by the Dorothy Iannone Exhibition Circle.
With thanks to Valeria Napoleone.