Barbara Hammer: Experimental Filmmaker, Experimental Lesbian, and a Mentor to All

Image by Eric McNatt for the 2017 Queer|Art Community Portrait Portrait

Image by Eric McNatt for the 2017 Queer|Art Community Portrait Portrait

BARBARA HAMMER, May 15, 1939 - March 16, 2019

“It has been the goal of my life to put a lesbian lifestyle on the screen. Why? Because when I started I couldn’t find any!” This is Barbara Hammer speaking (with a wicked twinkle in her eye) during an interview for the video we made in 2017 to help promote The Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant—or “experimental lesbian" filmmaking grant as she says at another point in the video—which she established that year with Queer|Art.

For those of us fortunate to have known and have had the opportunity to work with Barbara, it is perhaps no surprise that these two words—“lesbian” and “experimental”—would take turns coming first in how she spoke about her life and work and the kind of work she wanted to make sure would continue to receive support after she died. 

Barbara Hammer began making films in the 1970’s. She is most well-known for making the first explicit lesbian film in 1974, Dyketactics, and for her trilogy of documentary film essays on queer history: Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995), and History Lessons (2000). Her cinema is multi-leveled and engages audiences viscerally and intellectually with the goal of activating them to make social change, often through an exploration of the materiality of the filmmaking process and its relationship to the body’s potential as subject, form, author, and screen. She has been honored with seven retrospectives, including a forthcoming exhibition later this year at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Previous retrospectives took place at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Tate Modern in London, Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Toronto International Film Festival, Kunsthalle Oslo in Norway, and The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City. Her book Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life was published in 2010 by The Feminist Press at The City University of New York. 

Barbara passed away this weekend from endometrioid ovarian cancer, which she approached with the same experimental and fearless spirit that she did everything in her life, and through which she ultimately found peace, acceptance, and new purpose. In her final years, she worked very hard to make sure we were prepared for this moment: speaking out through lectures, performances, and interviews about one’s right to die when living with terminal illness; arranging for her archive of personal papers, research, and films to be safeguarded by the Beinecke Library at Yale; and establishing with Queer|Art, in her name, a grant for lesbian experimental filmmakers (the only one of its kind!). Her willingness to engage head-on and without shame or despair in the process of dying gave us the opportunity to bear witness, all over again, to the love, generosity, passion, and brilliance that were the hallmarks of her life and work. It was a gift to know Barbara in these last few years and a privilege to be invited to witness and take part in the creative energy with which she prepared for her death.

Barbara Hammer—experimental filmmaker, experimental lesbian, whichever you prefer (we like both)—was a mentor and pillar of the Queer|Art community. She is survived and celebrated by Florrie Burke, her partner of 31 years, and countless friends, collaborators, and chosen family. We will miss her terribly. 


“…Working as a lesbian filmmaker in the 70s wasn’t easy in the social structure — the educational institution that I was in. It was difficult. And I want this grant to make it easier for lesbians of today.  So you can make work that you want to make.”

Before her death, Barbara shared with Florrie her request that donations in her memory be made to Queer|Art specifically to support the furtherance of The Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant. 

Should you wish to make a donation to this grant in Barbara’s memory, please click here.

When prompted to make your donation in honor of an individual, please write in: “Hammer Grant.” We’ll be sure to acknowledge the gift accordingly and will record the income directly to the grant and its future. Florrie and Queer|Art will work together to ensure the money is spent according to Barbara’s wishes.

Thank you, friends and family, for your support - and thank you, Barbara and Florrie, for everything you have taught us. You touched the hearts of so many and we are forever changed by your love and creativity. 

Much love, here and beyond, from your Queer|Art forever-family.