Once during a visit through Gallery 899 in the Met Museum, I came face to face with a portrait by feminist American artist Alice Neel titled “Marxist Girl” in parenthesis the name (Irene Peslikis). My Greek American Girl antennae immediately went up. Who was this Marxist girl with a Greek last name? The portrait was completed in 1972, just about the time I was born. Who is this woman dressed in purple, my favorite color, languidly reclining in an armchair, quite open in her body language, her armpit hair exposed?
If you have not heard of her spoken about in your neat Hellenic Philoptochos women’s societies, that is because Irene Peslikis carried a double anathema—a feminist and a communist—two labels that would keep any respectable media, woman’s association and good Greek girl club away. In fact, even though she was active in the Greek community, especially around political left-leaning organizations, very little is broadcast about her in the male-dominated media machines.
But here, at this little hut on the outskirts of the wild forest of the digital galaxy, I am going to bring her name and her legacy the attention they deserve. In fact, after reading her story, I feel quite a bit of affinity with Irene who shares my name, my values, and my Queens working-class upbringing.
Irene Pesilikis was born in Queens to a working-class family in 1943. She grew up in Flushing, Richmond Hill and Jamaica. She probably went to Greek school and did all the typical Greek girl immigrant things she was expected to do. After graduating from high school, she attended Pratt Institute. But as a rebel who had trouble following rules, she broke out on her own to found the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in 1963. She eventually graduated from Queens College (another thing I have in common with her) in 1973 and then with an MFA from City College ten years later in 1983.
While Irene Peslikis is not that well-known for her art, what she is famous for is her activism in both feminism and the arts. She was a fierce socialist agitator and quite vociferous as a feminist. (Theos na filae–may your daughter never grow up to be these things–ftou ftou.) Peslikis was a radical feminist who organized the first show of Second Wave women artists and was a recognizable force in the NYC art scene in the 60s and 70s.
This is from the Wikipedia entry for her:
She was a founder of the New York Feminist Art Institute, which ran a full-time radical feminist art education program for women for years. She founded one of the first feminist groups called New York Radical Women which eventually led to the Redstockings (more about that below).
Irene Peslikis revolved around other leading female feminist artists and activists including Cindy Nemser, Patricia Mainardi, and along with artists Marjorie Kramer and Lucia Vernarelli, they started Women and Art, which they deemed the “first women artists’ feminist-oriented journal.” She was also instrumental in founding Redstockings, a communist-leaning consciousness-raising organization that served as a collective receptacle for avant-garde women artists. (It was a spin on the disparaging title of “Bluestockings” to signal its leftist leanings.). This experience helped Cindy Nemser, who officially joined Redstockings, solidify her position as a feminist critic and activist. Irene Peslikis acted as a guiding force and mentor for younger women artists that came into her circle. It was thanks to her encouragement that Alice Neel advanced to becoming a famous feminist artist. The two were close friends, with Irene acting as a mentor-muse for Alice. Her involvement in Redstockings is legendary. She was a key organizer and participant of the Redstocking abortion speak-out at Washington Square Methodist Church in 1969.
Irene also eventually went on to found the NoHo Gallery in Manhattan, one of the first cooperative feminist art galleries. Her political cartoons, widely circulated in the early Women’s Liberation Movement years & published in feminist journals and in collections of the feminist movement like Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement . She was also active in the Greek community.
Irene is listed with the Veteran Feminists of America. Her obituary on their site reads: She wrote “Resistances to Consciousness” paper (printed in Notes from the Second Year), so important to the understanding of CR, and was a key organizer and participant of the infamous Redstocking Speak out on Abortion at Washington Sq Methodist Church. Anne Forer, an old friend from NY Radical Women described her as, “a loving, lively girl with spectacular generosity and helpfulness. She loved encouraging beginning artists. Because she loved art and the experience of doing art, she wanted everyone who wanted it to have it too. She was unique in understanding the uniqueness of each individual, and cherishing it above all.” Before she became disabled she was a karate giant and long distance biker.
She taught at the City College of New York, the College of Staten Island, the College of New Rochelle and Ramapo College, was active in the Greek community and published art and art history and criticism in Rozinanta, Demokratia and Eleftheri-Patrida.
There will be a memorial dedicated to her at the Studio School sometime in the future.
My big regret is not having found out about Irene Peslikis earlier. I feel she would have been a great mentor to me, especially since we had so much in common. Irene Peslikis does not get the proper due she deserves, especially among the Greek immigrant community she was a part of. She was the first do accomplish many firsts: she started an art school still in existence today,
Links to more info: https://nyfai.org/boardofdirectors.html
From the Redstockings Manifesto:
II Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor. We are considered inferior beings, whose only purpose is to enhance men’s lives. Our humanity is denied. Our prescribed behavior is enforced by the threat of physical violence.
Because we have lived so intimately with our oppressors, in isolation from each other, we have been kept from seeing our personal suffering as a political condition. This creates the illusion that a woman’s relationship with her man is a matter of interplay between two unique personalities, and can be worked out individually. In reality, every such relationship is a class relationship, and the conflicts between individual men and women are political conflicts that can only be solved collectively.
Alice Neel: People Come First at The Metropolitan Museum of Art March 22- August 1, 2021