Gretchen Bender, the Late Media Art Pioneer, Will Get Her First Posthumous Retrospective This Spring

“Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless” will open in March at Red Bull Arts New York.

Gretchen Bender, Total Recall (1987). Courtesy of The Kitchen. Photo: Jason Mandella.

To mark the 15th anniversary of Gretchen Bender’s untimely death, the innovative media artist is getting a long overdue retrospective. Bender died at age 53—at the height of her career—from cancer. But despite her tragic passing, and the fact that she’s often lumped in with the Pictures Generation of artists who have been the subject of resurgent critical interest in recent years, Bender is not a household name.

That may be about to change, though—and it’s about time.

This March, Red Bull Arts New York will mount “Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless,” the first posthumous retrospective of the prescient artist. Included will be works from all stages of Bender’s prolific yet short career, from the wall-hung silkscreened sculptures and appropriated photo-panels of her early years, to the TV-based installations and performances from the mid-’80s and ’90s.

Gretchen Bender, 1986. Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © Hans Neleman.

Such a show is quite the undertaking. Many of Bender’s works are monumental—difficult to even get through a New York doorway—and incorporate now-outdated technology.

But for Max Wolf, the chief curator of Red Bull Arts New York, it wasn’t a question of fitting everything into the Red Bull space—which, as far as exhibition spaces go, is both large and unconventional. Rather, the process was an exercise in thoughtful moderation.

“Unlike other surveys we’ve done, it’s not about how much we can squeeze in. It’s almost the opposite—how we can pull back, refine this body of work and make it digestible to the audience,” Wolf says. “Her pieces, they take up a big footprint logistically, but also they need space. The audience needs the ability to confront them. There’s a forced intimacy with some of these works.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by an equally ambitious slate of programming. Red Bull will restage Total Recall (1987), Bender’s best-known—and largest—piece of what she called “electronic theater”: an 18-minute-long suite of video clippings played on 24 TV monitors and 3 projection screens. Programming will also include reprising an excerpt from Still/Here (1994), a performance by Bill T. Jones that featured a video score and set design by Bender, in collaboration with New York Live Arts and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. 

Gretchen Bender, 1986. Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © Hans Neleman.

Wolf notes—as other artists and curators have—that Bender’s inclusion in the Pictures Generation cohort is dubious. “As our research and our understanding of the context of when she was making this work has evolved, I’ve come to consider her more [as a] post-Pictures Generation artist,” he explains. “Hers was more of a TV generation, an entertainment generation, a moving image generation.”

For this reason, he predicts, the show will connect in a special way with viewers—especially younger ones.

“I think it will resonate with today’s youth—the smart phone generation of kids who are fluent with the ways and velocity with which we consume imagery.”

“Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless” will be on view from March 6 through July 28, 2019 at Red Bull Arts New York.

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