Dorothy Iannone: You Who Read Me With Passion Must Forever Be My Friends is an invitation into a world filled with eroticism, candor, and swelling tenderness. Iannone immediately invokes a relationship with the reader as we are beckoned into her life much like a new friend.
The book as an object pops—it is patently alluring but is not to be mistaken for an open-and-skim-through coffee-table book. To fully realize its idiosyncrasies and moving portrayals of the quotidian, Iannone asks us to read and consider, to break into laughter, and to give in to moments of surprise.
Iannone has been called a complicated feminist, sex goddess, art’s original bad girl, lioness, and matriarch. Now eighty-years-old, she began making erotically charged art in the 1960s when her work was met with censorship and was subsequently ignored. During a time of protest and collaborative action tied to second-wave feminism, Iannone stayed in her bedroom and studio to seek liberation. Her work pushes boundaries of the domestic and the erotic—therefore challenging what it meant to be an empowered, sexually liberated woman during that time.
Now fifty years from when she began as an artist, Iannone is only beginning to receive the attention her work warrants—this book being one of the platforms for reaching a wider audience. An American self-taught artist, she began by painting alongside her former husband James Upham, whom she married in 1958 and lived with in New York for nine years. In 1967, she took a trip to Iceland where she met Dieter Roth, who soon became her lover and muse. The first section of the book, which Iannone refers to as An Icelandic Saga, traces her journey with Roth. The work continues by chronicling Iannone’s personal search for “ecstatic unity,” which she explores by embracing paradoxes that arise in relationships. Throughout the book, Iannone is a friend and a partner, but mostly she is a lover. She explores what it means to be devoted to someone, all the while asking if amidst this devotion there is room for self-empowerment. In a section of the book named Berlin Beauties, Iannone quotes Bob Dylan: “To dance beneath a diamond sky with one arm waving free” And proclaims: “To give oneself and yet to remain free.”
Maybe it’s just my twenty-three year-old self who is constantly confronted with the same question, or maybe, as Iannone suggests, it is a question for everyone (and more pointedly to us as women): can we commit ourselves to someone else and still remain empowered, independent beings?
Our uncertainties are quelled as soon as they arise. Her display of power resides in an act of surrender, in the obliteration of boundaries, and in the inextricable nature of opposites. In “Flora and Fauna,” Iannone writes, “Is not the opposite of all I say also true? I am dangerous.”
Iannone’s work is vivacious and decorative. A lot of pieces are playfully bordered with patterns of stars or hearts and allude to the characters being put on display. There is an element of performance involved with Iannone’s portrayal of sex. The awkwardness of limbs and the way in which almost all of the figures engage in sexual acts are facing forward, seemingly aware of a third party, play into Iannone’s fusing of the public and private.
Iannone has a way of turning the female body inside-out. Female genitalia strays far from the often portrayed image of the vagina as representing absence or a facade. In Bluets, poet and critic Maggie Nelson critiques the traditional portrayal of the female anatomy, stating: “a woman might appear more ‘tucked away’ (pussy-as-absence, pussy-as-lack: out of sight, out of mind). But I am inclined to think that anyone who thinks or talks this way has simply never felt the pulsing of a pussy in serious need of fucking—a pulsing that communicates nothing less than the sucklings and ejaculations of heart.” Iannone’s portrayal of the vagina does just this; it protrudes beyond the body and swells with desire. It pulses vividly.
Eroticism as a political critique becomes palpable to the reader. We are beckoned in as more than just witnesses; we become co-conspirators in Iannone’s search for unity. Still, much like the unfolding of a serious relationship, it seems the erotic-ness of her art melts into a form of intimacy by way of repetition and familiarity. Vulnerabilities seep through the in-betweens of image and text. Some of the most revealing pieces are the most subtle. For example, the dialogue of two people in bed quibbling over which one has to turn off the light:
“Put out the light”
“I can’t it’s on your side”
The work is broken up by Iannone’s personal “Cookbook.” Recipes are strewn across the pages in colorful ink and range from “sweet and pungent squab” to “orange bavarian cream.” Lists of ingredients and directions for preparation are peppered with humor and inner ramblings, such as “Where would I find someone else who thought I could make a fortune on my ass” and “Do you still love me?”
This portion of the work is playful, revealing. It marks a shift from how we have encountered her from the beginning, as Iannone draws her power not only from her counterpart but also by her ability to inhabit a multiplicity of personae. Here, Iannone presents herself as fallible, as human.
In “Culminations,” which serves as a kind of addendum to this book, Trinie Dalton states “that a woman can freely adopt and activate personae as she desires to do so, is one of her most evocative, complex, and excitingly progressive themes.” I believe, as Iannone would say, the opposite is also true. One of the most powerful conclusions Iannone finally arrives at is best described as a singularity of self. When I attempt to pull apart this conclusion, I can only think back to one of her cookbook scribblings: “Drifting into oneself is not as painful as not.” Both are hard, Iannone says. But the latter is a distraction—from ourselves, even from our relationships—while the former brings us closer. In an interview with Dalton, Iannone mentions that she once believed she could only reach “ecstatic unity” through eroticism, but “much later I glimpsed that this sense of completion was already within myself waiting to be realized.” Dorothy Iannone: You Who Read Me With Passion Must Forever Be My Friends is a reification of this: it is Iannone’s attainment of ultimate union within herself.