Gretchen Bender (1951–2004) was an influential figure in late twentieth-century American art and a key observer of the effects of the inundation of mass media on the human experience. The immersive “electronic theater” installations that she produced in New York in the 1980s are groundbreaking mixtures of sculpture, video, sound and performance that subverted the power of corporate imagery on collective consciousness and prefigured the practices of many younger artists in the post-Internet age.
Part of the first generation raised on television, Bender began her career as part of a feminist and Marxist screen-printing collective in Washington, DC. After moving to New York, Bender created The Pleasure is Back in the early 1980s, a series of wall-based works comprised of silkscreens and photographs printed on tin; in cruciform arrangements. She juxtaposed works by historical and contemporary artists with imagery shot straight from television screens—faces twisted in pleasure or pain, at times gruesome and difficult to view. This strategy of appropriation aligned her with artists of the Pictures Generation, such as Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince. Yet her emphasis on film and television as source material, and her embrace of spaces beyond galleries and institutions, set her apart from her peers.