S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Before we start, I want to let you know that this episode contains multiple descriptions of sexual assault and a reference to suicide.
S1: Sorry, I didn’t do anything.
S3: OK, my first words, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
S2: That’s the artist Ilona Granet. She’s greeting me and Ben Decoder ring’s producer as we arrive at her studio in New York’s East Village back in 2019.
S1: Are you taking me? Are you really a rule of recording
S2: as you’re supposed to tape?
S1: Because we had the
S2: whole thing Ilona lived and worked here since 1982 when she moved in. She was in her 30s, a performance artist, a sign painter and a part of what everyone called the downtown scene.
S1: I just walked by voices again,
S3: you know, the Bobcats there and the chocolate, these long cigars. And like
S1: you could die,
S2: I think, if you saw her today, a very petite woman strolling down Second Avenue in blue suede booties, her white hair piled atop her head, walking her very slight Italian greyhound, you’d think New York character. And you’d be right. I’ve known her my whole life. She’s one of my mother’s oldest friends.
S3: So, yeah, I thought I’d go like in order of the signs, you know,
S2: her studio is jammed with decades of work in stacks and piles and milk crates. There’s a bank of windows on one wall and a huge pale blue painting with small, ghostly figures on it on another. But most of Elena’s work is not paintings on canvas. It’s signs, graphic images painted onto metal.
S3: But this one is from a series men who were acting purely towards women. So they were actually about sexual harassment.
S2: Right now she’s showing us a light pink square street sign with black trim and black letters and three figures on it.
S3: First on the left is an incredibly strong silhouette of a very powerful man. And he is pulling back as hard as he can on a on a leash.
S2: The leash is restraining a humanoid wild
S3: animal and he’s got, like, wild hair coming out. He’s got enormous like Dracula hands. And his tongue is sort of like drooling out. He is grabbing for a very happy, sexy, beautiful woman. So basically, he’s like the ID and the and the and the man holding it back is the super end. And she’s the prey
S2: above and below. These three figures in English and Spanish is the text Curb Your Animal Instinct. The sign is made of baked enamel aluminum, exactly the material and thickness of a New York City street sign. And that’s because in 1988 it was a New York City street sign.
S1: There are signs everywhere in New York City, most of them warning you not to do things like parking and littering and horn blowing and so on. Now, artist Ilona Granet is going to add some new signs warning men not to be wolves or various other species of animal and in general, to stop bothering women on the streets.
S2: The Curb Your Animal Instinct sign and another darker pink sign reading no cat calls or hung by the Department of Transportation all over Lower Manhattan by the Brooklyn Bridge and Staten Island Ferry, the World Trade Center and City Hall.
S1: Good morning. Why did you decide to do this? Well, I thought that it was it was time for four men to start thinking of themselves as part of the human race and said part of the animal raising and treating women with a sense of dignity.
S2: The signs were highly visible public art about the street harassment of women, and that made them provocative, especially 35 years ago. As you just heard, they made the local news, but they also made CNN and the international news. They were written up in mainstream publications and art world journals in New York magazine and the AP in Australia and Italy, Germany and Japan.
S3: They had this moment of unbelievable success in getting an image out into the world.
S2: Up to that point, Ilona had been a performance artist, a feminist artist and a part of various artist run collectives and bands. She performed and shown her work at galleries, squats. Artist Run Space is an art centers like this one. Her career had a crude and organic momentum. One piece of work had led to another and another, and now the signs had really struck a nerve. It seemed like Ilona was on her way, not necessarily to fame and fortune, but to a kind of art world stability involving recognition, public engagement, the ability to show her work, to make a living. But that kind of upward trajectory, that’s not what this episode is about. Sometimes you have a moment. And then there are all the moments after.
S3: I mean, the only thing we could talk about the elephant in my homeroom is like,
S1: if the elephant in your room is
S3: I have a lot to do and I’m getting up there in the years I have all this stuff that I want to show
S2: it to. So what’s the elephant in the room?
S3: Well, the elephant is
S2: a death or success.
S1: Its success.
S2: This is Decoder bring a show about cracking cultural mysteries, I’m Willa Paskin. Today’s episode is about an artist that most people have never heard of and what happened to her as such, it’s a little different than usual. It’s not about a cultural mystery that you or anyone else has been wondering about, just me. But I’ve been wondering about Ilona for years. So back in 2009, I interviewed her a number of times for an episode and then I chickened out of making it, not because I didn’t think there was anything there, but because I was worried about talking about what was there and what’s there is the flip side of a story. We all know the story of making it out of struggling, following your muse, finding your voice and then success. That story, that myth. It’s the primary one we hear about artists, because if we’re hearing about them, chances are they’ve succeeded, even if it’s after years of trying, even if it’s after they’ve died. So that’s what we’re looking at today, not the familiar myth of making it or the mystery of not making it. What happens to an artist, to anyone when they’re good enough, but that’s not enough. So today on Decoder, bring that question and an introduction of sorts. Why don’t you know the artist Ilona Granet? So I said, I’ve been wondering about Ilona for years specifically, I’ve been wondering about her since I was nine before then, she was just one of my mom’s friends. Sometimes we’d visit her downtown or she’d visit us uptown, always with her long haired miniature dachshund who was named Dainty. My sister and I would play with dainty wattle Ilona talk to my mom and sometimes Drew for us, she would make us delicate little pictures of people, uncloudy or riding horses. That was pretty much the extent of my thoughts about Ilona the dog and the drawings. And then do you remember when I made you cry when I was little? Oh yeah. What happened? Come sit. Come sit close to the mic.
S3: Oh, I’m going. You and your sister, we’re like I made I made these and we were on the porch.
S2: And it turns out she didn’t quite remember what had happened. But I did. Like I said, I was about nine, maybe ten. She was sleeping over with dainty Ilona always has a dog, but Dainty was the first. And what happened is that her beloved dainty sat on my beloved Blanky.
S1: Oh, yeah, vaguely.
S3: And you were mad at her for doing it? I was
S2: mad and you said,
S1: Oh, she’s just a dog or whatever.
S3: Oh yeah. She was like my daughter’s favorite time of day.
S2: I love to do. And I told you to get a life.
S3: Oh yes. You told me to get a life. That was the most horrible thing you could say to somebody. Me without a family.
S2: So I am mortified by this story now because I cannot believe how rude I was excruciatingly rude, but while I was being extremely obnoxious, I was not being pointed. I was mad at her. And I reached for an insult that I probably got from some TV character. But I didn’t know something when I said Get a life. Ilona thought that I did, though, that somehow I could see some ELAC in her and I was going straight for her weak spot. And she ran into the bathroom and sat on the dryer and cried,
S3: Yeah, get a life. What a horrible phrase. That is really, really terrible.
S2: But it is just like it’s funny because I just really I didn’t mean like I didn’t know what I meant. But you took it in a like you thought I knew secret things.
S3: Oh, it was just this thing that I said. And I thought, you certainly must know that we have a point of view that my life was was not a good enough life
S2: at the time. I felt really bad, but I also felt uncomfortable. I hadn’t wanted her dog on my blanket and had somehow spiraled into this highly fraught interaction with an adult, one who was so vulnerable. She had let me hurt her like I was a grown up when I was just a snot. And this incident marked her for me and made her stand out from the other adults in my life initially, not in such a good way. Ilona might not have remembered, but I did. And through middle school and high school and college, it just made me feel away about her like too much. I’d gotten this peek into the complexity of adulthood that I did not want. But as an adult myself, I’ve come to see her differently. When did you start doing art?
S3: When I was born. I was always in love with letters. I like the shape of letters and I liked all these different variations that they curved around, that they were jagged, they were complicated, like the I loved it. Why do you love something? You know. I know. Why do you love something? I loved it. It was weird.
S2: Ilona was born in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and moved out to Long Island when she was six. Her father was a design engineer for nuclear projects and her mother was a bookkeeper. She was an energetic kid, a performer. She danced, she sang, she designed clothes for her dolls. She loved horses and horseback riding. She wanted to be an artist, an actress, a ballerina, a cowgirl.
S3: There was no sadness in my house. We were a jolly family. So, I mean, you could have been intensely depressed, but nobody would have had words for it or talked about it or acknowledged it. I thought I had a happy childhood. I went to this fabulous summer camp. I had a gazillion boyfriends. I went through them all. You had a gazillion boyfriends? Yeah. I was said, well, I think with my early childhood development, I became very interested in boys.
S2: Ilona is referring to something that happened to her soon after her family moved out to Long Island.
S3: I was a little girl somewhere between six and eight. Our next door neighbor, he was like 14. He was sort of a tough guy. He decided to play strip poker, which is quite a con game. He put himself on the bed and then he had me on top of him. Sort of, as you know, like masturbating him, I had no idea what was going on.
S2: It happened a couple of times, and Ilona never told anybody about it. She tried to put it out of her own mind as she said she thought she had a happy childhood and she thinks of herself or wants to think of herself as a happy person. One of the ways that manifests is in how she talks about even really horrible things with some lightness, silliness, laughter, like the time she was in seventh grade and she went back to her neighbor’s room when she thought he wasn’t there to borrow the encyclopedia that was kept over his bed.
S3: And then he came in there and he attacked me and started ripping my clothes off. I started like punching and kicking. And he finally he stopped and then he took my clothes and he ripped apart and went downstairs and he sold them back together and his sewing machine. And I stood there behind him way. So they went back home never to be never to say a word to anybody about that. It’s kind of funny, you know. I mean, obviously, it took a lot to get through his head that I really wasn’t interested. And I accepted that he was going to go down there and sell them, which is cute that he knew how to sew, you know, this big bully. I never thought it was a big deal. And, you know, it was sort of my neighbor. It happened. It was over. I didn’t think it had anything to do with my life. Right. You know, but that I think had an enormous amount to do with my life.
S2: She didn’t know that then, though. She boxed up what had happened and thought it worked. She liked high school. She was popular. She had a lot of friends. She had a good time. By the time she was ready for college, she knew she wanted to be an artist. She enrolled at the Tyler School of Art, a part of Temple University that was outside of Philadelphia.
S3: I remember thinking I have to become much more than I am because I have just been a Playgirl. I thought, now I’m an article. I’m paying attention.
S2: She arrived at school with a lot of skill and talent for someone her age she could really draw. She understood shading and perspective. She had a beautiful line. She was also intense about her work and a perfectionist. And Tyler in the late 1960s was demanding an intense two, but also cold and quiet Ilona was brimming with theoretical and technical questions she didn’t feel she could ask for her junior year. She studied abroad in Italy, where, among other things, she met my mom. Pamela thought she
S4: was sitting across from me at the table and I really didn’t know anyone that I hadn’t really found my friend or the person who was. And she was across the way and she was hilarious and charming. And I just thought, oh, she’s the one I’m going to be friends with. I found her.
S2: And even as Ilona was having adventures and a love affair, listening to the news about Vietnam in the studio and dancing around in her room to the doors, she was increasingly anxious, consumed by formal questions about some of her first adult paintings. She was so worked up that, in her words, she started disintegrating, even more so after she returned to the States.
S3: By that time, actually, I had spent half of my junior year thinking about how to kill myself. Just kind of mind boggling. You know, I it’s really sad, although I’ve never really expressed this like this. And I couldn’t tell anybody because I was too isolated in my mind, it just took as many people as I could find.
S2: My mother was actually visiting the weekend right before this happened.
S4: I thought we had a delightful weekend and that’s when she made her suicide attempt right after I left, which freaked me out because I had no idea that she was suicidal. It was very scary. And I was very I mean, I’m getting teary here. You know, it was really painful that I didn’t know. Yeah. It’s really upsetting. I wasn’t reading her despair correctly, but I mean, I just saw her as this ppow this charming, appealing, talented. It was terrible.
S2: Ilona was hospitalized briefly and then went home for the rest of the school year. She went to therapy, she joined a group, she took some art classes where people chatted. She started singing to herself on the street late at night like she had when she was a kid. And all of these things helped her depression abated. She slipped back into a happier version of herself
S3: after undergraduate school and stuff. I became sort of like a cheerful person and and, you know, was having fun and, you know, played with played with the artwork.
S2: It was now the 1970s and as Ilona’s 20s unfolded, three events in particular would set the course of her life and work. The first is that she became a sign painter right after college. She went up to Boston, where my mom wants to live for a bit. She got her own studio space and a very unstable boyfriend. And to make money, she got a gig at a marina hand, lettering the name on the back and sides of boats off and yachts. She would go on to do some America’s Cup boats. The work could be exhausting, hanging off boats every day, sunrise to sunset. In all, whether it involved a lot of technique and skill, like drawing intricate letters freehand on open water. But by doing it, she taught herself a trade sign painting that she liked. She was her own boss, and it turned her love of letters into a living. The second thing that happened is that she found her voice as a performance artist. After Boston, she enrolled in graduate school at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her time in Italy had made her wary of painting, so she started doing installation art, which is when you create an environment, fill a room with objects made or found and people walk in and experience it. For one of her final projects, you put together a five story installation piece at a graduate school building. Friends of hers had been supposed to perform in it, but they bailed at the last minute and she decided to do it herself.
S3: OK, Ilona, we’re going to either have a nervous breakdown or we’re going to be we’re going to be an artist at the end. We’re going to be really for real. We’re going to be in her body. I started running through the whole floor is like reading things, singing, making things up, whatever it was like, I was free, you know, where you hear of artists, where they, you know, they spend their their adult life imagining their Picasso, whatever they’re and then if they’re very fortunate, they break into their own. Well, this happened when I was like 21. It was such a miracle to me
S2: at the time. Jerry Saltz, who is now the art critic at New York magazine, was a young artist in Chicago himself. He was also Elena’s boyfriend.
S5: She was way out in front of so many artists in the early 1970s who would later go on to get pretty famous.
S2: He says he’d heard of her before they even met. She was a star at art school. Her reputation, her work preceded her.
S5: She would incorporate a lot of made sculpture, painting, cartooning, politics, pop culture. Everything was integrated in these little operettas, really, with one of the most charismatic performers I have ever seen, pixellated audiences just sort of through fairy dust on people. And suddenly these sort of Qasm were open and you’d be with something very magical, but something very first, something that had a chaos to it.
S2: Most of her performances weren’t recorded, but this is a clip from one of the rare ones that was
S1: she wouldn’t know how history she would have thought it was even worse, a bit more like four times gone. Four times
S2: gone. That’s from a piece Ilona calls her rape performance. Which brings us to the third thing that determined the course of Ilona life and work in a few short years after graduate school, when Ilona moved to New York, part of a cohort of artists and musicians settling in the rough old industrial neighborhoods of Soho, Tribeca and the Lower East Side, Martha Wilson Ilona was raped four separate times.
S3: It was at night. It was winter that was on the subway. I walked a couple of few blocks to my house, so I was opening the gate and there was this. Voice from behind, and so he had the gun on me in my back, my first one, I thought, well, bad things happen to people all the time. This is my first bad thing. So grow up
S2: Ilona remembers each of these experiences and she talks about them all in her way, she laughs sometimes, but not to play down what happened to her
S3: the second time I had with lettering boats. By this time, this marina in Boston and this one person had not paid me, I had to hitch there because I didn’t have any money to get from New York to Boston to get the money. So there was no car, nobody was stopping. And finally, a truck stop stop. So I thought, well, OK, he raped me. He took out a knife. And I thought, oh, it’s the knife, it’s finally arrived, this is intolerable. So I pretended that I had an epileptic fit,
S3: he really buy it and it was really rough to like, you know, sort of like pretend you’re having a seizure, you know, while you’re sort of terrified. You know, the third time somebody came in through my window, I went to sleep and I woke up. Screaming. Not I had no idea I was screaming with this hearing this man, if you don’t stop screaming, I’m going to kill you. And he had a mask on and and a steel pipe. The finale. He then wanted to date me. He asked me if I would go out with him. I think I started laughing then. The last one was it was during the day on a Sunday, I was wearing a raincoat, I was looking for apartments or lofts or something and in Brooklyn and I and I went to the park to think about it. And there were there weren’t that many people in the park and this young. Sort of cute boy man came over, he was wearing a tennis, he was carrying a tennis racket and he was wearing like a green and white striped T-shirt and you looked perfectly. He asked me for directions and then he pulled out a gun and he told me to keep walking. I think I said something like, I don’t know, is there like a group where you all meet and find out, like where you’re going to go next? Because this was like two weeks later. So it was totally freakish. Yeah, it was totally I mean, it was surreal. You know, that’s when it was surreal. I know. You know, really, this is this is really nutty.
S2: In the years immediately after this, Ilona was, needless to say, totally destabilized. She was full of fear, but also of a strange kind of fearlessness, scared to walk down the street, petrified it would happen again, but also, in her words, a little wild, full of the perverse invincibility that comes when the worst things have already happened to you. Her experiences immediately entered her work.
S3: Part of my mantra was lucky I’m not the rapist because how how terrible to be that person who is that disturbed and that ugly inside, you know, that angry or just twisted? I had been through my own horrors already. I thought that I, you know, in certain ways by my, you know, the childhood experiences, I was a fighter. I wasn’t going to be turned into a puddle that was, like, so awful. I thought that it was actually kind of like my responsibility to do a performance about it, although my performance improved before, we’re we’re kind of fun and entertaining. I mean, they had some depth to them, but they weren’t terrifying. So this became a terrifying one.
S1: I mean, I’m in this hospital for a really long time by myself. Up to now, three at a time, I didn’t mind in mind so much.
S2: This is also part of her great performance. She’s talking about one of the nurses who
S1: treated her and then a nurse came in Texas Dagar, and she fell into my arms and I cried. And that’s what happened to time, because, like, you’re in this right empty room with this person that doesn’t even talk to you or look at you. She just get you when you start crying, tells you to shut up.
S2: The nurse told Ilona that what had happened to Ilona would never have happened to her. Ilona remembers thinking, yeah, you have the money to take cabs everywhere. We have a totally different life. What do you know? Ilona began performing this piece in the 1970s and kept doing so into the early 1980s, at which point her experiences began to make their way into her signs. But in order for that to happen, Ilona had to come to see her signs as art, which for a long time she didn’t. They were a job, a craft. But that started to change with a number of collaborations, basically spontaneous outgrowth of her being fully enmeshed in the downtown art scene, one where everyone was doing everything, making movies, making art, starting bands. Ilona joined disband, a no wave feminist outfit, a female artists who couldn’t play instruments started by the artist Martha Wilson.
S1: You know, we were political. We were doing songs about nuclear power, nuclear radiation poisoning and about being accosted on the street as a woman. But she was this gadfly who brought relief somehow the heaviness that went away and that.
S2: And one of the other members of Disband was Ingrid Fisheye, who was then the wunderkind editor of Artforum, she’ll go on to edit Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine for 20 years. She asked Ilona to do some signs for a show she was putting together. Meanwhile, Ilona was also loosely connected to CoLab, a downtown activist artist collective she participated in formed in their group exhibitions, some of which were staged in squats in my head.
S1: No matter what they told me, no matter, there was nobody that told me nothing up there in the in the land of nothingness. What could I think of it, my love? In the hopes of the future,
S2: the artist Jenny Holzer was also affiliated with CoLab, and she asked Ilona to collaborate with her on some pieces.
S1: Sometimes she would go from letter in Yats, one of her other occupations, and then come to me to work on these paintings.
S2: Halters work involves slogans and aphorisms and in one collaboration, Ilona letter to halters tacked onto images by the graffiti artist Lady Pink phrases like I am not free because they can be exploded any time and don’t shoot civilians and
S1: moments we would choose sans serif, very matter of fact letters. Other times she would do her patented wonderful fluid’s script.
S2: Things started to snowball Ilona’s work in a number of gallery shows, including one at P.S. one. She was getting more requests to make signs for other artists, including a set of signs for an avant garde theater that were so large. There is more to think about than just the letters.
S3: I thought, wow, this is like painting so interesting. This fun.
S2: For the first time since college, she really wanted to make aesthetic decisions about what she calls her flat art again. So she began making signs to go in her own performance pieces, specifically one called Is it work or is it war or are we all just waiting for the good fairy about global instability, nuclear war, economic injustice? In this version made specifically for video, she’s wearing a black shirt and skinny tie and sitting at a desk when she pulls out a rectangular sign. It’s all black with three blocky white figures on it, one adult and two children all folding up missiles. It reads missiles for minors.
S6: This is disturbing statement I have to keep. And you these little sign that I make that’s not going to pay a thousand dollars so I can get a pony.
S1: It’s not going to pay a thousand dollars so I can get a car. It’s not going to pay for anything. It’s not going to even pay for more missiles. It’s not going to pay for more babies. It’s not going to it could pay for more science. That’s true.
S2: She would give the signs out at the end of her shows as well as handing them out in Midtown so people could display them in public on buses and subways. And then Ilona noticed a sign on the subway herself, an advertisement for the 1981 James Bond movie, For Your Eyes.
S3: Only all you see is these long legs with nothing on them and maybe high heels and and maybe seven is somewhere. I don’t know. I just remember that and thinking it was so, so provocative and it was so sick, you know, a bunch of legs in a vagina.
S2: She found it so disturbing. She brought it up at the end of one of the great performances.
S3: I asked him if if anybody was a designer out there, would they please make some signs that addressed rape? To design something like that, it just seemed way above my my ability and then I then I finally realized that I really wanted to figure this out, that it was like a challenge to me and it was healing and it felt really important.
S2: So in 1982, she started trying to make signs that addressed rape herself.
S3: It started out totally hostile, saying stay away with men flying in the air and attacking. And then the next one was eight feet away. And the third one was basically like, fuck you. And I thought I should take a vacation because the whole point was I wanted to be out in the street
S2: for Ilona the signs being out in the street where everyone could see them, where they could change things was fundamental. They were activism even before they were art. But that meant they needed to be polite enough for public officials to agree to hang them. So over the next six years, she honed them, making them clearer and funnier. The phrase Curb Your Animal Instinct in particular, was a riff on then Mayor Ed Koch, his pooper scooper signs, which asked people to curb their dog. Ilona was asking men to curb their verbal excrement, a cheeky way of giving the signs authority, making them look like they belonged. Her strategy worked better than she could have hoped. The Department of Transportation agreed to hang Ilona signs in neighborhoods where the local community boards okayed it. Not all of them did. One board member in Greenwich Village told the newspaper there was a feeling that it was reverse sexism showing men as animals. But the Lower Manhattan community board, though divided on the signs, ultimately approved them. Not everyone was thrilled
S3: when we put them up in Wall Street. It was lunchtime. Yeah, total traffic jam down Wall Street. They slipped my tires and my beautiful old mercury Montclair. Some like man in a suit who is screaming out that we should just go back to the kitchen if we don’t want to. He was like all these caricatures and then this little guy rips it down, steals the sign, then runs into the Wall Street building that they’re building and holds it up like he’s one. He’s holding the sign up. He’s so proud and everybody’s cheering. You know, it is demented.
S2: Wendy Olsoff, a co-founder of the gallery O.W., remembers the hostility to
S1: there was anger from the men on the street seeing these signs going up a little scary, scary, threatening anger.
S2: PEBO W, which was then located in the East Village, had just begun to represent Ilona around the time the signs were going up.
S1: What she was doing for feminism was way ahead of her time. And it was and it really resounded. She definitely hit a nerve and there was success and she got press and we sold them. There were inexpensive like seven hundred fifty dollars. But still she had Saltz, she had press, she was making political actions that had meaning. She had something to build on for sure.
S2: And over the next couple of years she did. Ilona was in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. She got commissions to make a set of signs and a series of billboards in 1989. These works were featured at Ilona first solo show at PBS W, which at the time was a scrappy newcomer that represented a number of political artists. The show was well reviewed in places like Artforum and The Village Voice. Ilona wasn’t making much money at this time. In fact, she was still painting boats to make a living, but things were going well. She was known in the art world. She even did a panel at Cooper Union about what it’s like to be a famous artist. And moreover, her work was out there alone as priorities are right there in her medium. She makes signs they are for people to see and people were seeing them for Ilona getting to this point had happened naturally. She’d worked really hard, but without thinking about having a gallery based career. But now she had slipped into one. It seemed reasonable to imagine that going forward, her professional life would continue to ascend, that there would be growing interest in her work, that she’d show in more places, get more grants, have more collectors, more name recognition, more money, maybe even enough to make a living just from her art. But that’s not what happened.
S3: If this would have ended earlier, I would have been happy with my life. I would have been happy where I would have been proud of what I’d done. I would have enjoyed I would have thought I did a, you know, a good enough job, you know, and I should count my lucky stars that I was fortunate. And now I don’t feel that way.
S2: The more I spoke with Ilona, the more details I learned about the chronology of her life, the more I started to wonder if I had missed something about the time I made her cry. All these years, I’ve always thought that when I said that to her, I hadn’t meant anything by it. You heard me talking about it with her. I really thought I’d just as easily could have said, eat my shorts or gag me with a spoon. But working on this piece, I started to wonder if that could really be true. I definitely didn’t know I knew something. But kids pick up on lots of things they don’t understand. And I was a little pitcher with big ears when I was a kid. There was nothing I liked more than sitting under the kitchen table and being quiet and seeing what my mom and her friends would get into if they had forgot that I was there. Maybe I had heard something, a conversation, a tone of voice. The reason I wonder about this is because it’s almost too much of a coincidence. Otherwise, when I told Ilona to get a life, it was the early 1990s, right around a transitional moment in her career. It’s when things started to get harder. That’s why what I said provoked such a reaction, why she couldn’t just brush it off as the bad behavior of a mouthy kid. Maybe for the first time, the life she was starting to see stretching out ahead of her wasn’t going in the direction she wanted. After her first show, Ilona worked on a number of other side projects, one about domestic and child abuse, one for an imagined all female park. Another inspired by the first Iraq war of gas. Masked figures dancing, eating, lounging underneath falling missiles. And she could have kept going in this vein. Another artist might have the signs, after all, were what she was known for. But Ilona found she didn’t want to hop from hot button issue to hot button issue making signs. All the while,
S3: they wanted me to continue to make these political signs. Basically, I think in some ways I got off of my track
S2: Jerry Saltz again,
S5: she couldn’t go into production and just paint endless series. Each one of these came from a deeply ruptured place in her. A lot of them dealt with male aggression, hostility, abuse, nuclear war and a real fear. So each one of her things exacted a lot from her. And that generally frowns on a big series like I’ll do another show of men yelling at women. It just doesn’t work that way for an artist like that. Plus, she had a craft level that was extremely unusual, that she was making her own work, painting her own signs, doing everything herself. And this took time.
S3: And I thought it was like being a prostitute, just like it, you know, just doing it, you know, coming up with it, like the next subject, you know, for the moment, you know.
S2: So instead of just making more signs, Ilona decided to do something totally different. She started making Wedgwood. Wedgwood is a neoclassical style of ceramics inspired by ancient antiques that was created in the mid 1980s. It’s the first modern mass-produced tableware and you’d probably recognize it. The most famous examples of it are cups and plates in a soft periwinkle blue called Wedgwood Blue. It has white figurative ceramic freezes along the edges and they have a visual clarity that’s almost sine like Ilona, who has always been interested in the accessories of the rich and the habits of the regular, became fascinated by Wedgwood. And so she set out to make Wedgwood urns and vases from scratch. These two foot tall, graceful ceramic sculptures detailed with her own iconography fighter jets and realistic looking, muscular women lifting barbells and soldiers with their arms and legs blown off. There’s some of my favorite of her pieces, but they were time-Consuming, even more so because she had to take time away from them to paint boats and signs to make a living.
S3: I must say, financially, it’s never felt really good. Signs were really hard to make and I worked really hard for it. So I was always really hard and I only had a few months to do anything.
S2: And so here she is. She’s been working hard on good work, but it’s been over a decade since her big splash. In that time, New York has gotten more expensive and the art world has gotten more professional. She’s seen peers get famous, a relationship has fallen apart, and she’s now a woman of middle age who’s worried about money. All of this is the context of her next gallery show at Ppow w in late 1998. Of her Wedgwood earned at a number of related, ambitious paintings is the culmination of almost a decade of work, and she needed it to go well. And instead, nothing much happens. It doesn’t get a lot of attention. There’s no sales. Ilona is getting frantic, feeling frustrated and panicked with her gallery and she starts trying to drum up a press herself. She calls one of her galleries Wendy. We heard from earlier to talk about why an image hadn’t been sent to the listing section of The New Yorker, and it escalates from there.
S3: So I called up Wendy upset, and then she got very angry at me and she was like, no, you know, said, you don’t you can’t tell us anything. We know our business. And she said, I’m going home to play with my children. And she hung up the phone.
S2: I asked Wendy for her perspective on what happened.
S1: Then we had a fight. I remember there was a fight, which is not typical, I have to say, with our artists, but with Ilona, there was a lot of anger. And I would say in Ilona case, I mean, she had a serious psychological trauma in her life. There was a lot of triggers that kept bringing up trauma. And I think moving from the signs to the vases to bigger pieces, there was a struggle. She couldn’t get the help she needed, maybe for financial reasons, and maybe we were too young at that time to and didn’t have the money ourselves to provide that umbrella. And if you have someone who’s very, very angry, no matter what, and you have no support at that point for that artist, because the sign thing was five years ago or 10 years ago, and really no one knows who you are now. And there’s not a lot for us to do. I hate to say it, and it seems so cruel, but there’s a careerist art thing going on in the art world, and it’s not the fantasy art thing where you think you can be crazy and you could be Vincent Van Gogh, so to speak.
S2: So you dumped her
S3: and I sat on that bench with the phone thinking, well, that’s the end of it. That’s the end of me. I guess that’s certainly the end of this career. I thought I’d die. You know, it was I felt disgraced.
S2: Getting dumped by your gallery. It’s like getting dumped, even though it’s business. It feels personal and especially for an artist who’s not so young anymore. If there’s gossip, if people say you’re a handful, maybe no one gives you another chance. There’s so many factors that got Ilona to this place, timing, money, the market art, world trends, psychology, sexism, bad luck, the intangible. But once she was in this position, it was like a bamboo finger trap. The harder she tried to get out, the more stuck she was. Ilona is not some smooth operator, and she couldn’t suddenly effectively become a strategic cheating man who could sell themselves. But it didn’t work for her. Our world gatekeeper’s seemed put off by her, and that only made her more off-putting, more desperate, more vulnerable. And that’s the thing about Ilona she can’t always help but reveal her vulnerability to people. She showed it to a nine year old. And people don’t always like that. Jerry Saltz again,
S5: I believe in radical vulnerability and Ilona Granet is the embodiment of radical vulnerability and that is a great plus, but I think it has a downside, unfortunately, in the workaday world.
S2: There have been a lot of very hard things about the last two decades for Ilona, many of them financial. She never had health insurance until she qualified for Medicare. She has two roommates, a changing cast of 20 and 30 somethings off Craigslist. She sells her work for less than it’s worth, both the art and the sign painting because she needs income. And that was before the sign. Painting itself started to dry up in the 2000s as technology made it easier to use less skillful replacements. Ilona calls her financial circumstances a nightmare. But as difficult as they are, as anxious about money as she is all the time, the more painful part is her work not being seen.
S3: A lot of artists say, well, it’s done. If I like it, it’s done. You know that it’s really mostly it’s the artist’s engagement with the work.
S2: But you don’t feel that way?
S3: No, I don’t. And people would say that, you know, they say, oh, this should be up. They should be everywhere, like they would say all the time, you know? And it’s like, yeah, but they’re nowhere. They’re in my house. I can’t bear not being able to to get through the door to get things going to fix things, you know, to move it along. It feels so like not being a human being. It’s like a failure as a human being that you can’t you can’t get what you need. It’s like being a doctor, like, you know, you’re a great doctor, but you somehow can’t get any patients.
S2: Compounding this is that she’s seen friends, colleagues, peers from the 70s and 80s thrive have the kind of careers that once seemed possible for her. Jerry Saltz won a Pulitzer Prize for art criticism. Jenny Holzer is one of the rare artists who’s almost a household name. Since the 2010s, Martha Wilson has been represented by Ppow w Ilona former gallery. And that’s just the people we’ve mentioned in this episode. There are plenty more. Pamela Hart, my mom, again,
S4: I think as she aged as her as her career didn’t happen. It’s one thing to be a struggling artist at 38. It’s another thing to be a struggling artist, 58 friends who she knew made it. She was alone. You know, I think it got harder as she aged and as her career didn’t happen and. And it’s it’s painful,
S2: it’s painful for Ilona is there anything that’s good about getting older?
S3: Not that I know of. I know a lot of people seem to like it a lot, they feel like they’ve they’ve made it there, they’re comfortable. They feel proud of themselves. No, I could start weeping now. I can feel the tears right behind them, but I don’t really cry much anymore.
S2: I had started on this episode knowing that Ilona’s life hadn’t turned out how she hoped and also knowing that she was brave, but I hadn’t fully considered how exploring the first to show the second might actually make her feel. You’ve been thinking about this a lot, probably too much. But like what? So what do you think about your life?
S3: It’s depressed me. I have never used the as I told Pamela, I have never used the word depressed with me. I was raised to be this happy girl, as my mother was, and they sent me down when I was three years old to entertain the lady down the hallway. And so that’s my personality. But at this point, it feels like I guess I’ve, you know, knocked against walls for so long without, you know, without getting being able to get through that. It just seems like. Sad, really sad.
S2: This is about when I chickened out of doing this piece back in 2019, not because the story is sad, but because it seemed like it was making her sad 30 years after I’d done it the first time I was making her cry again. And they really didn’t want to do that. So I backed out. She was gracious about it. And then I just kept thinking about it, about her, about how being an artist is like a more high stakes version of being a person, where what it’s all for and what you have to say and what you leave behind. It’s all front and center. And so is how completely out of your control it all is. Artist don’t get to decide if their work is valuable, if it’s meaningful, if it moves people, all they get to do is make it in the face of so many material and psychological constraints and hardships. Most of us do everything we can to get whatever scrap of control we can manage. We give up our dreams and callings. We change jobs, careers. We find other things, partners, children, interests that can matter to us. But Ilona hasn’t done that. She sat with her lack of control for decades, and that’s been painful and disappointing. But that’s not all it’s been as hard as it is to make it as rare, it seems to me, just as hard, just as rare to keep trying so single mindedly when you don’t. Because Ilona is still trying
S3: I mean, I’m not stuck in in this world where I don’t know what to do, we’re, you know, like I’m not I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to do it or I’m trying to hide and I can’t do it. My you know, my studio’s and clean. I don’t have enough money or whatever kind of excuse I live, you know, like I’m not there. I have work. You know, I have more than enough
S2: for the last 20 years, despite everything she’s been working. Among other things, she made a piece inspired by Donald Trump. And she’s also finishing up the series of five beautiful signs, riffing on Little Red Riding Hood, a different way of approaching the theme of danger and safety for women and girls. The text on one of the signs says, Wonder and giggle at the fantasy of freedom and discovery. And meanwhile, her work is out there. The Whitney bought the two original street signs for its permanent collection in 2015. Unofficial, non sanctioned anti cat calling signs went up in New York City and Philadelphia. They weren’t Ilona’s, but once following in her footsteps, showing how ahead of her time she was. And this is the thing about Ilona that’s always been there all along, not just the difficulties, but the perseverance. She’s struggling, but she is also in a struggle every day to get her work into the world. And we don’t really know how to value that, how to think about that, how to look at that, we prefer to avoid it altogether by talking about people like Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh came up so much when I was talking about Ilona people usually meant it in a kind way. He wasn’t famous in his lifetime. And look, we all know his work. Now, if you look at it closely, it’s a weird thing to say. He was miserable. He killed himself. He didn’t enjoy any of his success. But it’s not really meant to be looked at closely. It’s just our culture’s way of thinking about people who don’t make it or really our way of not thinking about them. It’s nice to imagine that Ilona his work might be discovered before or after her death. But the only person who gets to be Van Gogh is Van Gogh. For the rest of us, there has to be meaning in something less eternal and how we actually live our lives.
S3: My art dealer basically said, you’re dead. I’m supposed to be dead, but I’m not dead here. I am talking to you. And I don’t know. And I still wish to be alive because I still have ideas, energy, and it has a it has an arc and I’m not finished. I’m still not finished. So I’m going to finish whether anybody wants to know whether I’m finished doing it. And it’s like this childish hope that still I will be, you know, one of these hundred and twelve year old ladies that they say, here she is.
S1: Look at this great work. I don’t know what she’s going to do with this money because she’s going to go to a prom now with this delightful money and buy
S3: yourself a maybe a Muslim, because what else am I going to be able to buy? You know, because, you know, I’m still hoping that this will not go down a garbage can.
S2: I also really hope it doesn’t go down the garbage can. But I just have to insist that’s not all that matters because almost everything goes down the garbage can eventually. Art, fame, money, none of it is forever. The myth of success is really powerful, but failing in little ways and big ones. That’s the fact. Figuring out how to sit with that, figuring out how to try in the face of that, that’s not nothing. That’s a life
S3: I’m still trying,
S1: you know.
S3: You know, I’m still alive. That’s what being alive is.
S2: This is Decoder and I’m Willa Paskin if you’d like to see Ilona’s art, you can find it at Ilona hyphen Granet dot com that’s i l o and a hyphen are a and eat dotcom. You can also find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin. And you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode. You could email us at Decoder. Ring at Slate dot com. If you haven’t yet subscribe and read our feed an Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin. It was edited by Benjamin Frisch and Gabriel Roth. Decoder is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. Cleo Levin is our research assistant special thanks to Jared Holt, Alicia Montgomery, June Thomas, Lucy Lippard, Marion Menaker and everyone else who gave us health and feedback on the way. If you are already a slate plus member, thank you. You can listen to the entire season of Decoder right now. If you are not a slate plus member, we would love your support. Please sign up for Slate plus at Slate dot com slash Decoder plus. It means a lot and we’ll give you access to this whole season of
S6: Decoder and otherwise we’ll see you next week.