A woman in a shawl shrugging her shoulders

Hermine Freed, Art Herstory, 1974

Hermine Freed, Art Herstory, 1974

22:00 min., color, sound
Courtesy of Video Data Bank,

Although Hermine Freed’s (born 1940, died 1998 in New York City) education at Cornell University (BA 1961) and New York University (MA 1967) focused on painting, she is known for her video works. Freed owned a Portapak, one of the earliest Sony portable video recorders, and was among the first generation of artists to create and define video art in the late 1960s. And, in 1972, she became a professor of video art at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Early in her career, Freed produced a series of unaired video artist portraits for WNYC, for which she interviewed James Rosenquist, Lee Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Morris, Roy Lichtenstein, and Joyce Kozloff, among others. However, Freed’s own, non-documentary work expressed her visions of concepts such as time, history, self-perception, and female subjectivity. For example, in Two Faces (1972), one of the first videos Freed made, we see the left profile of her face looking at her right profile, like two separate people, through a split screen. In response to feminist discourse of the 1970s, Freed appears to be intimate and in dialogue with herself—rather than feeling alienated from herself as a woman in a patriarchal society. As she has written, "It [Two Faces] is an unfolding psycho-drama, first trying to adjust to my own image and ending with me kissing myself. It closes with the split image resolving into a single persona." Two Faces serves as a symbolic attempt by Freed to reclaim her body and self-image.

Water Glasses (1972) is a simple but provocative work in which Freed poured water into six glasses lined in rows of three on a reflective surface. She shot the repetitive act of pouring water from close up and at various angles. The resulting imagery is bent, layered, and fractured in a way that serves as a visual, theoretical negotiation between television pictures and painted ones.

Another experimental work, Space Holes (1973), shows four white squares revealed to be mirrors. Freed placed them in the grass parallel to the video plane, thus the viewer can see her, dressed in a white robe, and her husband, the architect James Ingo Freed, in a black robe, as they walk behind the camera. However, the mirrors are placed in angles that render their paths unclear. They might appear in mirror one, then three, then four, then two.

Freed’s investigational works demonstrate the freedom of video art in the 1970s. She worked with the bluescreen technique, image overlays, and electronic color changes as well as with mirrors, optical devices, lenses, and magnifying lenses. The video medium had no history that precluded or restricted women’s contributions, thus female practitioners could start from scratch and play a role in shaping its foundation. The art form also spread simultaneously with the rise of second wave feminism, and the concerns of the movement often were direct or implicit references in the making of women’s videos. Indeed, in Freed’s video Art Herstory (1974) she takes on more than five hundred years of the treatment of women in the Western art historical canon in twenty-two minutes.

The video was made while Freed was an artist in residence at the TV Lab of WNET Channel 13 in New York. She used the cutting-edge technology of a bluescreen to film herself (and friends) within several famous images, occupying the position of each painting’s female subject. The works range from medieval illuminations to modernist paintings. We see Freed pose as the Madonna, an angel floating in clouds by Raphael, a naked odalisque by Ingres, a kitchen maid by Chardin, “L’Arlesienne” by van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe by Warhol, and so on. The viewer also hears Freed converse and crack jokes with her colleagues, comment on her appearance and the placement of figures in the imagery, and speak as if she is the characters she is imitating. She also smokes, plays with props, and often pulls out a handheld camera to film her friends and the audience. All these humorous asides lend a light tone to a work that avoids the didacticism commonly associated with feminist art.

At the same time, Freed does pose many philosophical questions in the voice-over that plays intermittently throughout the work. She said of Art Herstory, “I play the contemporary woman at odds with her depiction in the past.” Thus, each segment of the montage figures as a dialectical exercise in which Freed draws attention to processes of historicization by past artists as well as herself. At one point, she asks if she is altering history for her own needs and to fit her view of the present, just as countless artists have done before her. She also wonders if those alterations have become more important or real than the actuality itself. While Freed offers more questions than answers, her examination of a male-dominated art historical canon nonetheless renders the woman more than just a subject of artwork, and as an active participant in the making of a new “art herstory.” —Kanitra Fletcher