Life In Berlin: Call Her Applebroog

Oct 14, 2016

“I was born in the Bronx, New York, I was the child of immigrant parents, I learned very early on from living in this rigid household how power works.”

Since her religious and repressive childhood in New York, Ida Applebroog has had a long and impressive career as an artist — she won the MacArthur Genius Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the late 90s, her work is in the collections of New York’s MOMA and Met museums. She’s 86 years old. And still making art about how power works.

Now “No wave” filmmaker Beth B has made Applebroog the subject of her first feature documentary, "Call Her Applebroog." The Doku.Arts festival hosted the film's European premiere, and it will be shown again here in Berlin on October 18th. The film tracks Applebroog’s work over the course of 15 years, and it’s clear that the filmmaker and subject have an unusual chemistry.

Artist Ida Applebroog.
Credit Courtesy of Doku.Arts

Here’s the spoiler: Beth B is Ida’s daughter.

According to Beth B, “When she did the exhibition at documenta 13 in Kassel she declared there were no more secrets, so I just took her at her word and I said, 'Okay, now you’re going to talk about your secrets!'" “Indeed, I did,” Applebroog says.

Opening Applebroog’s journals was the key to the process. In the film, she reads aloud a passage from her journals which deals explicitly with her depression and hospitalization before launching her career as an artist. It’s very raw and personal, and therefore surprising to hear out loud:

“There are all sorts of things which are taboo in our society. It’s taboo, first of all, to talk about mental illness,” Applebroog says.

Watching "Call Her Applebroog," it's clear that the artist has broken many taboos, for example, displaying drawings of her own vagina she had made in private as a young mother. Perhaps the biggest taboo that Applebroog breaks is for a mother of four children to make a career as an artist. An artist with her own name, and not just Mrs. Gideon Horowitz, as she was called in the 40s. The film comes at this obliquely, but in person, Ida Applebroog is very clear:

“Motherhood and being an artist — taboo. Males have been artists for centuries. But a woman, a mother, being an artist? Still today it’s a big, big taboo.”

Beth B shares the same urgency around the question:

“It continues to be a struggle in terms of motherhood and career. Trying to find that balance is still extraordinarily difficult.”

It’s the importance and ongoing relevance of these questions that caused Beth B to prod her mother for answers, despite Applebroog’s clear aversion to being filmed.

Still, according to Applebroog, “It worked. It worked very well.” And when Beth says, “I’m glad you feel that way,” Applebroog replies, “It’s the first time you’ve heard that.”