Ida Applebroog is awash in prints. There are offset posters—they will eventually number 750,000—that she is producing as a component of her contribution to this summer's Documenta. There is also a new pair of etchings, Vellum Sketches I and II, in small editions of 25 each, published by Diane Villani, with whom the artist has worked since 1985. Printed by Jennifer Melby in Brooklyn, each print presents multiple scenes of ambiguous interactions between a man and a woman, executed in pale blue lines. The scenes appear at times to overlap, as if we are seeing through one sheet of sketches onto another.
For the past few years, the 82-year-old Applebroog has been mining her own work for new content-literally decades' worth of material. On a scaffolding in "Ida Applebroog: Monalisa," her 2010 inaugural exhibition at her new gallery, Hauser & Wirth, in New York, she mounted 150 scans of drawings of her own vagina that she had made over a period of a few weeks in 1969. The works were her escape from the demands of work and family. As she recently told A.i.A., "Every night—and night was my sanctuary—I would go into the bathroom and sit in front of my full-length mirror and sketch my crotch." When she moved to New York in 1974 she stored the vagina drawings, only rediscovering them in her basement some 35 years later.
At Documenta, she'll create a room-size installation for which she is presently poring over diaries and sketchbooks. Once again, she will use digital scans of disparate and fragile source materials to give this highly personal material a public life. There will be pieces to be torn from walls and wire stands of takeaways, free to all comers. Everyone can have a piece of Ida. The understated violence of her art, the psychological darkness couched in delicate, faux-naïve drawing, is surfacing in multifaceted, sometimes confessional, images and text.
In spring 2011, Applebroog had a second exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, this time in London. On the occasion, she published a superb artist's book, the scan of a 1974 vellum sketchbook with spare, linear scenes in blue or brown felt-tip ink. Some of the scenes are violent (a seated woman being choked by a man); others are funny (a woman exposing her bikini-clad body with the caption "yes, I'm woman of the year") or tender (a man, a woman, a puppy). Because they are on vellum, the images bleed into each other, so that the book becomes a veritable society of overlapping vignettes.
It was this sketchbook that formed the basis of the "Vellum Sketches" etchings, which are in fact composites of images scanned from the sketchbook. Working with a digital technician, Applebroog overlapped selected scenes. Melby then produced the digital composites as two large, luscious sugar-lift aquatints in turquoise, the ink bleeding slightly along the edges of the lines to produce something like a blueprint effect. The prints are on a warm Hahnemühle Bugra paper that looks somewhat aged, an effect in keeping with the spirit of images recycled after decades of neglect. It is a quality the artist deliberately cultivated. "When we pulled out some of the boxes with the vagina drawings," says Applebroog, "they had mold, rat bites. I had to give them to a conservatory to clean them all up, to get them to be useable."
Vellum Sketches I (23-1/2 by 27-1/2 inches) presents scenes of what looks like a drowning or near-drowning. At left, a couple is swimming, and at the center and right, the man carries the unconscious woman out of the water. At the center of Vellum Sketches II (20-5/8 by 29 inches), we see a woman in bed pulling the coverlet around herself as a man stands watchfully nearby. They are seen unhappily conversing in two images, and, in a third, the man stands by a car holding a small dog on a leash as, nearby, the woman lies on the ground.
It is impossible to know exactly what has happened in either print, but they suggest a raft of interpretations. "They're like Rorschachs," Applebroog says. "You can show five different people the same thing, and everyone will see something different. You say, ‘Drowning.' She says, ‘Saving'; ‘Rescue.' Everyone sees something different in ink blots."