For decades, Edit de Ak shaped pop art and culture with her criticism and curation. Why is she forgotten today?
A few years ago, I was trying to figure out how to get more involved in my community. As a designer and creator of artist’s books, I knew my expertise would be put to good use volunteering at the Getty in Los Angeles. One of the more unusual projects I was tasked with involved sorting through the ephemera of Edit deAk, a central figure in New York’s outsider art world. When I started looking through her mail from the 1970s, I couldn’t believe the artifacts I found. As the decades passed, however, I noticed something strange. The art world, and Edit’s relationship to it, changed drastically in a matter of years. What felt, at first, like a freeing, creative moment in art history quickly turned into a commercial deadlock between galleries and artists in the 1990s and beyond. What created this change, and how did de Ak respond to it?
As the 1970s transitioned into the hyper-capitalistic works of the 1980s, envelopes filled with glittery nightclub invites were replaced by corporate-sponsored events and prestige gallery openings. Art changed from being a celebration to being an investment.
Through reading Edit de Ak’s mail, I saw the art world transform. I also saw de Ak’s influence on that world change. An art critic, curator, and co-creator of the influential art zine Art Rite and the artist collective Printed Matter, de Ak came to America at age 18, in 1968, as a refugee from communist Hungary. In New York, she found a society of incredible visual artists waiting for her. Downtown fixtures like Warhol, Madonna, and Keith Haring were yet to be discovered.
It was a time in New York when everything seemed possible. Artists like Judy Chicago and the Guerrilla Girls were challenging the male-centric norms of the world through powerful art prop pieces and performance. de Ak, for her part, helped champion outsider artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. She regularly visited Los Angeles often and spoke on its important place in the art world.
A feminist before her time, de Ak wasn’t shy to speak up for art she believed in. Going through de Ak’s work wasn’t just eye-opening: it was moving. I saw many invitations from friends and artists that were left unopened toward the end of her life as her health continued to decline. Perhaps not everyone knows de Ak’s name, but everyone who’s familiar with the art world of the 1970s and 80s has already seen her incredible influence in action. Printed Matter, possibly her most important legacy, is still around as one of the leading non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving and exhibiting artist’s books, something that’s close to my heart as a creator. de Ak still wanted artists to be able to sell and thrive without giving into a completely corporate market, and the resource she created for us still stands strong today.
As an important feminist figure in the experimental world of the 1970s and early 80s, de Ak deserves her rightful place in American art history. We hope that her life and work will soon serve as inspiration for more scholarly work on her legacy.