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Mary Beth Edelson, Totem Series: Snake Goddess via Metropolis, 1971Courtesy BlackBook Presents and Sotheby’s

Nan Goldin & Jenny Holzer feature in new exhibition about women’s pleasure

‘In art, the unruliness of women’s sexuality blooms’: A Woman’s Right To Pleasure features work by 30 artists exploring their desires

“If we could truly depict women’s desire, we might come to understand how it secretly rules the world,” writes novelist Erica Jong, author of the seminal feminist novel, Fear of Flying. In a world that still privileges male pleasure, female desire remains a threat to the status quo. “Men despise women’s sexuality because it is so different from their own,” Jong continues. “So men make rules about it – rules that make no sense to women. But, in art, the unruliness of women’s sexuality blooms.”

A Woman’s Right To Pleasure (published in 2020 by BlackBook) anthologised some of the world’s most potent artworks by women explicating, reclaiming, and asserting their sexualities. Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer, Carrie Mae Weems, Carolee Schneemann, Vaginal Davis and Kathy Acker are among the 77 featured artists and writers all exploring this “unruly” realm and, as Jong says in the foreword, the notion of “pleasure as a metaphor for so much more”... an expression of subjectivity, a declaration of power.

The acclaimed book was followed in 2021 by an eponymous podcast which continued to examine these themes. Co-hosted by porn actor and author Stoya, including conversations with guests such as artist Marilyn Minter, Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, and LA punk legend, Alice Bag, the podcast touched on ideas of sex education, emancipation, subjugation, and unbridled desire, creating a space for discourse and exchange around all aspects of female sexuality and pleasure. 

Now, A Woman’s Right To Pleasure has opened as an exhibition. Held across Sotheby’s LA and on, the show encompasses 104 works by over 30 artists, including Tracy Emin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Louise Bourgeois. Continuing in the spirit of the original publication, the exhibition examines expressions of female sexuality over the last century. Alexandra Rubinstein’s celebratory cunnilingus series imagines famous men, such as Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the Pope, in the act of giving head. Judy Chicago finds labia-like forms in flora and delicate butterfly-like shapes, while Penny Slinger’s “Read My Lips” (1973) is an erotic visual pun of parted lips within parted lips. Marilyn Minter takes a more explicit approach. Her photographs “Plush #2” and Plush #24” are gorgeous portraits of vaginas, each with a perfectly manicured hand resting proprietorially on the abundant pubic hair. 

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of the work featured in this pioneering exhibition. 

BlackBook Presents: A Woman’s Right to Pleasure is at Sotheby’s Los Angeles until August 12 2022