Barbara Hammer Maintained Her Curious Eye Until the End

The legendary lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer has died at age 79.


Images by Mickalene Thomas

Barbara Hammer was ebullient even as she was dying. After five decades as a cult figure in the art world and a fearless icon in the LGBTQ community, the experimental filmmaker spent the last years of her life putting her affairs in order. While dying she used her own life and work as a creative force, demonstrating that the art of death and the art of life are one and the same.

She also, for the first time, entered the global consciousness. She has shown work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. At the Whitney she performed a spoken meditation on living with advanced cancer. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is restoring more than 80 of her films, including her groundbreaking and inescapably explicit Dyketactics (1974), the first lesbian erotic film made by a lesbian. There is a lesbian experimental filmmaking grant in her name, and her archives have been deposited at Yale’s Beinecke library for others to explore. This April her work will be shown at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, and the following month Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts opens Barbara Hammer: In This Body, an exhibition centered around Evidentiary Bodies, Hammer’s first multi-channel, multi-screen video installation highlighting her ongoing and intimate exploration of the female form. “The camera becomes part of my body when I am letting it express how my movement feels, how my sightlines change direction, how passionate I am about texture and the body,” Hammer told me last November.

“In a culture that obsesses over beauty, health and youth, we are reluctant to confront aging, illness and dying,” says Wexner Center curator Jennifer Lange. “Barbara’s representations of every stage of corporeal becoming and potential—from menses, to the sexual exuberance of youth, to the pleasures of lesbian love and sexuality, to the realities of aging and living in a body that is designed to evolve and not intended to last forever—are unapologetically honest and undeniably political.”

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