Nancy Brooks Brody, fierce pussy Cofounder, Dies at 61 – ARTnews.com


Nancy Brooks Brody, a founding member of the artist collective fierce pussy and an artist whose work in multiple mediums reflected on how one’s body navigates the world and the impressions they leave behind, died on December 8 in New York at 61 years old.

A posting to fierce pussy’s website said Brody had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021, and they “went through every step of illness and [treatment] as they had lived, with dignity, humor, grit and grace. They remained true to themselves all the way through. Brody died at home, peacefully, surrounded by their loving chosen family.”

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A white man in jeans, a button down shirt, and a black jacket standing amid a room filled with rough-hewn stones on its floor.

The posting begins, “Extraordinary artist, beloved friend, fierce comrade, sister. Gatherer of mushrooms, connoisseur of oils and scents, numerophile, lover of games, agile handstand cartwheel tumbler, itinerant dj, firefighter, dancer, fan of candles and matches, activist, mentor, debonair dresser, native new yorker, poetic list maker… and all these words fail.”

Brody is best-known for their association with fierce pussy, which was formed in 1991 after an ACT UP meeting. At the time, the AIDS crisis had been raging for about a decade; more than 100,000 people had died. Among them were women, but they were rarely, if ever, diagnosed with AIDS. As Gran Fury, another ACT UP-affiliated artist collective, pointed out in a poster from that same year: “WOMEN DON’T GET AIDS…THEY JUST DIE FROM IT.”

With fierce pussy, its members wanted to counter the invisibility of women, lesbians in particular, with regards to HIV/AIDS and AIDS activism. “We did an open call on the floor of ACT UP, for all lesbians who wanted to,” Brody recalled in a 2018 oral history with Svetlana Kitto for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

A photo of a child holding a camera with the words 'Lover of women' below.

Poster by fierce pussy, from “Family Pictures and Found Photos” series.

COURTESY LESLIE-LOHMAN MUSEUM OF GAY AND LESBIAN ART AND FIERCE PUSSY

Zoe Leonard, a longtime friend of Brody, joined and hosted one of fierce pussy’s first meetings, as did Joy Episalla and Carrie Yamaoka; these four founding members would reunite in 2008 to relaunch fierce pussy, which remained active until Brody’s death. Other artists who would at one point be members of fierce pussy were Pam Brandt, Jean Carlomusto, Donna Evans, Alison Froling, and Suzanne Wright.

That first meeting would ultimately lead to what would become one of the group’s most iconic series, “List Posters,” which they would quickly wheatpasted across Manhattan, primarily downtown but also in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. The aesthetic was deliberately lo-fi: blown-up typewritten words. The content, however, was deliberately shocking. “I AM A,” the list would begin, followed by slurs like “lezzie,” “butch,” “bulldagger,” “pervert,” “dyke,” ending with “AND PROUD!” These women wanted to powerfully reclaim the words that had been used against them; they refused to be invisible any longer.

“The worst language that we have is against the female body. … This stuff is real, and that’s why, after all these years, we’re making this work,” fierce pussy, who is quoted as a collective, told ARTnews in 2018, when several of their most well-known works were restaged as part of a commission on the street-facing windows of the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York.

Subsequent works by fierce pussy would continue this aesthetic but adding in pictures, like “Family Pictures and Found Photos,” in which childhood photos of the collective’s members would be paired with phrases like “lover of women” or “find the dyke in this picture.”

In an email to ARTnews, Leslie-Lohman executive director Alyssa Nitchun said, “fierce pussy unapologetically seized space for lesbian visibility in NYC in the early 90s with graphics and poetry that have become a touchstone for generations of queer artists since. Brody and the rest of the collective’s radical and resolutely anti-market ethos with their freely given and infinitely reproducible work, is among the most valued in our collection and in our exhibition history.”

A photo of a dancer with their body outlined in black.

Nancy Brooks Brody, Merce Drawing, 2012.

Courtesy Klaus von Nichtssagend

In their solo work, Brody explored the theme of visibility-invisibility differently, looking at how negative space manifested. A series begun around 2011, “Merce Drawings,” shows low-res printouts of photographs of dancers performing works by choreographer Merce Cunningham; to these, Brody has outlined the dancers’ bodies in a simple black line. A series from around the same time took a more painterly approach to this. For it, Brody would paint oddly-shaped pieces of lead with brightly hued oil enamel paint; then, they would embed the works directly into the wall. Both were exhibited at Andrew Kreps Gallery in 2014.

Klaus von Nichtssagend, the Lower East Side gallery, started working with Brody in 2018 and mounted a solo show of their work the following year. (The gallery had been working with Brody to mount a second solo show of new work at the time of their death; it will open in 2024.) For the 2019 show, Brody installed a work titled 18 feet 8 inch Line into the gallery’s wall, which was also activated by a performance by choreographer Kim Brandt.

In an email to ARTnews, the gallery said, “The deceptively simple embedding of a length of thin lead directly in the wall and around a corner of the gallery transformed the visual and psychological space completely, taking what could be seen as an empty room and filling it with vibrating energy and active thought. This reflected the thought that Brody brought to all of their work, which was pared down to elemental honesty and beauty.”

The gallery said the work’s installation, involving several people, spoke to how Brody approached their collaborations: “Brody acted as director, conductor, and choreographer in this process, while everyone at the gallery and several extra helpers who were called in to carefully lift and move the delicate material. It was one of those experiences that reminds us of the meaningfulness of true artistic collaboration and practice.”  

A piece of lead embedded into a gallery wall.

Nancy Brooks Brody, 18 feet 8 inch Line, 2019.

Courtesy Klaus von Nichtssagend

Nancy Brooks Brody was born on September 12, 1962, in Manhattan, and grew up in the Upper West Side. Though they grew up making the family’s holiday cards, Brody said they never had the natural ability to draw: “Drawing for me was always a struggle, and it still is. I’m still that kind of an artist, where it’s not —I don’t have like this God-given ability to render,” they said in the SAAA oral history.

When Brody was around 10 years, their mother enrolled them in a pottery class, and then in middle school they took back-to-back art class periods. That eventually encouraged them to apply and then attend the High School of Music & Art, located on City College’s campus. It was there that they first learned printmaking. “I really loved the repetition. I still really love working in series, and that idea of multiples and being able to apply an image to all different kinds of surfaces,” they said.

After graduating from high school in 1980, Brody briefly attended the School of the Visual Arts, where one of their teachers was sculptor Hannah Wilke. At SVA, they also met Mario Fernandez and Nina Seigenfeld, who founded New Math Gallery in 1983. They would have their first solo at the East Village gallery the following year. Through mutual friends, they met photographer Zoe Leonard, who became a close friend. “She agreed to be a live sculpture in my first exhibition, where I covered her in clay” for the opening reception, Brooks said.

Lead sculptures by Richard Serra or Joseph Beuys’s Fat Chair (1964–85), were “making me aware of negative space in a certain way … it’s funny because I hadn’t thought about this. But I still am very much interested in negative space in space, and the body in relation to it,” they said.

Window installation showing text-based artworks.

Installation view of “fierce pussy: And So Are You,” at Leslie-Lohman Museum, on view through June 2019.

©2018 KRISTINE EUDEY

Brody didn’t get involved in AIDS activism until the late ’80s after they attended an ACT UP demonstration at City Hall. “By then, I had known that people were dying, and that this thing was upon us,” they said. “I didn’t understand it in full, but I knew enough to want to go to this protest about it, you know, and demand. And I was amazed by this, all this outrage, and amazed by all these—you know, this gathering of people, with all this knowledge and information.”

They soon began regularly attending ACT UP meetings on Monday nights; Leonard was also attending them and soon they met two of fierce pussy’s other founding members Joy Episalla and Carrie Yamaoka. Brody would become an active member in ACT UP, attending protests like the Day of Desperation in 1991, in which the group effectively shut down Grand Central Station during rush hour as well as working with some of its advocacy programs. “With ACT UP, I was definitely involved in—I was interested in how AIDS manifested in women, and how it manifested differently in women.”

In her email, Nitchun, the Leslie-Lohman director, added, “Nancy Brooks Brody gifted our world and our queer communities with their radical creativity while creating a path for newer generations of queer artists interested in exploring the phenomenological space of the body through drawing, architecture, and time. By invoking the corporeal outside the space of figuration, Brody gave us new ways to self-define queerness and the queer body.”

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