First off: Marjorie Cameron is not a contemporary artist; she died in 1995. Secondly, she’s not a New Yorker, which would normally exclude her from appearing on this blog, which covers contemporary NYC artists, but a retrospective of Cameron’s workopening next week at Deitch Projects in Lower Manhattanis worth mentioning for several reasons.

(1) She is arguably the first female artist in America to approach occultic subjects in art from what we now recognize as a proto-feminist stance; and (2) the gallerist putting on the exhibitionJeffrey Deitchhas a long history of controversy, both in NYC and L.A. Let’s start with him first.

Deitch was one of the first ’80s art dealers to bring street-art and graffiti to gallery audiences and buyers. For better or for worse, look it upthe guy represented many of that genre’s stalwarts and later mounted one of the largest ever museum exhibitions on street-art to date. It happened in Los Angeles, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Deitch was appointed director in 2010. He shut down Deitch Projects NYC that same year and headed west, though trouble soon followed.

Despite championing other forms of pop culture art, including exhibitions of skateboard artists and photographers, as well as a host of nu-pop-art (Jeff Koons, et al.), many of the industry’s entrenched saw Deitch’s curatorial style as nothing more than promotional gimmickry. That reputation followed him to SoCal, where he never entirely outlived it. By 2012, MOCA fired Deitch.

He’s now back in NYC and Deitch Projects is recycling one of his last exhibitions from L.A.: “Cameron: Cinderella of the Wastelands” (originally given the equally abysmal title of “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” in a show held at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center). Phew!

Anyway, what should we expect from it?

For one, given Deitch’s history of hyperbole, press releases are sure to trumpet Cameron as a major artist, too long overlooked. The latter is true, albeit I’d assert she’s more a minor artist with a major presence in the ’50s counter-culture.

Notoriously, Cameron married Jet Propulsion Lab founder Jack Parsons in the 1940s and starred as a witch in Kenneth Anger’s underground film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1956). It was no mere role, however. Cameron was an ardent occultist and her Aubrey Beardsley-esque tributes to figureheads like Aleister Crowley show the artist attempting a style beyond her muse-like status in underground L.A.

Aleister Crowley’s Guardian Angel (detail seen above) was one such work, which, I’d argue, is as much German Jugendstil as it is Beardsley, especially because late 19th century Germany, more than any other European country, went beyond an intellectual obsession with ancient pagan ideas. A rather large movement formed around re-enacting its total lifestyle.

This may seem off-topic, but many of the 19th century German neo-pagans (also referred to as wandervogelin, literally “wandering birds”) emigrated to Southern California in the early part of the 20th century. By the 1940s, their reformist lifestylenudism, vegetarianism, meditation, naturopathy, feral livingstruck a chord with the growing pacifist movement amongst American youths. These called themselves California Nature Boys and their idealism agglomerated around the breakout hit “Nature Boy,” penned by proto-hippie Eden Ahbez in 1947.

While the Nature Boys were living out their philosophy in a somewhat ascetic existence in the caves around Palm Springs, a more intellectual version took root amongst the equally fringe subset of scientists and writers then living in the Los Feliz/Silver Lake area, including authors Aldous Huxley and Manly P. Hall. Jack Parsons, Kenneth Anger, even L. Ron Hubbard (pre-Scientology) were acolytes and the newly-arrived Cameronfresh from Iowabecame born again, as it were. “Re-invented” is probably the preferred nomenclature.

By 1952, her hubby blew himself up in a home laboratory experiment. The widowed Cameron pushed forward with their mutual obsession for the occult and by the mid-’50s had attracted the attention of artist/guru Wallace Berman, whose early assemblages were themselves no stranger to mysticism (especially Kabbalistic symbology). Berman put Cameron on the cover of his Semina magazine twice and, in 1957, got himself arrested for exhibiting her illustration, Peyote Vision, in his first show at the fabled Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood. Neither Berman nor Cameron ever exhibited again publicly during their lives.

Sixty years on, Vision remains startlingly modern, even proto-feminist, with its skinned male figure mounting a nude woman, whose bifurcated tongue flickers outward with erotic pleasure. Afterwards, Cameron continued to paint witches and demons filled with evocative textures, especially their flowing drapery, which is never less than bestial in ways even the best horror caricaturists failed to achieve. Part of that is because the Vampiras and Elviras of the period were going for camp; Cameron took her black magic deadly serious.

Later works in the ’70s and ’80s show the artist attempting an abstract style, both in acrylic and, more evocatively, watercolor. None were particularly original, however. But then Cameron’s work itself was never the key to her significance. She transcended such objects by making her life her greatest work of art. Such notions get bandied about a lot these days, but in Cameron’s case, she was truly “a piece of work.” (Brian Chidester)