“Joanna Frueh, a ground breaking scholar, writer, and performance artist, died on Thursday morning, Feb. 20, in her home in Tucson, Arizona. She was born in Chicago in 1948.
The cause was breast cancer. Frueh’s latest book, Unapologetic Beauty, 2019, University of Minnesota Press, went beyond responding to the state of her body with cancer and deep into discussions of aging women’s beauty, sensuality, and wisdom. In it she examined the question: “What is beauty without pain?” and re-imagined beauty at its most fetishized locus—the female breast.
Frueh’s work has been called trailblazing, inspiring, seductive, innovative, liberating, and playful. In 1976 The Feminist Art Journal published Frueh’s first piece of art criticism, and in 1979 she presented her first performance at the Deson Gallery in Chicago. Frueh’s interests included the erotic, the spiritual, the body, the soul—and in ever-clearer articulation over the years, they comprised her philosophy of love.
Frueh discussed sexuality and the body long before they became accepted—indeed, fashionable—areas of study in contemporary art and academia. Her thinking about those subjects, along with breaking away from standard forms of academic and critical writing, shaped what she called a critical erotics, which she developed in publications and performances. She showed in them that a scholar can write both sensually and accessibly and that a woman can be both attractive and smart.
The concept “soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body” underpins all of Frueh’s writing: “People tend to think of the body as profane and the soul as spiritual, yet the phrase soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body indicates that the sacred and the sexual are unified. A person’s genuine awareness of soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body entails what I call dreaming the world into being, which is a process not only of personal transformation but also of social transformation. Dreaming in this way is activist.”
Joanna Frueh received her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College in 1970, and at the University of Chicago she earned her MA in Art History in 1971 and her Ph.D. in History of Culture in 1981. In Chicago during the 1970s Frueh was the director of Artemesia Gallery, one of the first women’s galleries. As a professor of art history, contemporary art was her area of expertise, and she taught studio courses in performance art. Between 1997 and 2006 she was Professor of Art History, and then in 2007, Professor Emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno. She also taught at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY; University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH; University of Illinois, Chicago, IL; and Columbia College, Chicago, IL.
Frueh received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2008. Her books include Erotic Faculties (1996), Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love (2001), Swooning Beauty: A Memoir of Pleasure (2006), Clairvoyance (For Those in the Desert): Performance Pieces, 1979–2004 (2008), The Glamour of Being Real (2011), A Short Story about a Big Healing (2013), and Unapologetic Beauty (2019). In 2005 the exhibition Joanna Frueh: A Retrospective, curated by Tanya Augsburg, was at Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery at UNR.
Recognized as a powerful, provocative, and articulate performer, Frueh presented her pieces at museums, galleries, universities, and conferences in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK. A few of her seminal performances include BRUMAS (1982), Justifiable Anger (1984), and Clairvoyance (For Those In The Desert) (1987) which she performed with Thomas Kochheiser, her first husband; Pythia (1994); Erotic Faculties (1996); Dressing Aphrodite (1997); The Aesthetics of Orgasm (2002); Ambrosia (2005); Goddess of Roses (2007); Sexual Advances (2009); The Glamour of Being Real (2012); and The Specificity of Things That Don’t Matter (2016).
The self-portrait photos of Frueh display the same qualities that characterize her writing: beauty, intellect, and sensuality. She collaborated primarily with three photographers throughout the years: Russell Dudley (her second husband), Jill O’Bryan, and Frances Murray, whose photos appear in her latest book Unapologetic Beauty (2019).
Frueh also published fiction and creative nonfiction as well as having written extensively on contemporary art and women artists. Her articles, reviews, and performance texts have appeared in scholarly journals and in numerous art publications including Artforum and Art in America. She also contributed chapters to important books on contemporary women’s art, including her essay on Hannah Wilke in Wilke’s 1989 retrospective catalog.
Joanna Frueh’s personal archives are at Stanford University. She is survived by her beloved spouse Kathleen Williamson of Tucson, Arizona, and her sister Renee Wood, of Willow Springs, Missouri. Her parents were Florence and Erne Rene Frueh.