Category: Artists

Art: The Body Extensions of Rebecca Horn

rebecca horn-birdcallsRebecca Horn: Twinkling, 1974-75. My screencap.

While working with toxic materials as a student, German artist Rebecca Horn contracted lung poisoning and was sent to a sanitarium for about a year between 1968 and 1969, during which time she was often bedridden and isolated from the outside world. Tragically, her parents also passed away while she was hospitalized. For two years afterward she continued to live in seclusion as she fully recovered, physically weakened for long periods of time and unable to visit with friends or family. This experience led Horn to experiment with individualized body extensions as a coping strategy. She sought new ways to engage with herself and with others, explaining that with extreme fever, “you crave to grow out of your own body and merge with the other person’s body, to seek refuge in it” (quoted in Body Landscapes, 190). Alone and incapacitated, Horn cautiously explored her personal space and how her body could interact with her surrounding environment, creating pieces out of fabric, feathers, and wood that allowed the wearer to expand their grasp of their surroundings through invented rituals. Many of her ideas were visually influenced by the hospital setting, including designs that involve large bandages, body trusses, and prostheses. Her staged performances, which were often produced as films, featured both her and actors in various roles executing specific movements. When incorporated into these studied, often intimate scenes, the objects themselves become imbued with symbolic, mythological power in their relation to the wearer, through which Horn forges ambiguous but weighty narratives.

Horn’s switch from a well-trod medium like pencil and ink drawing to less standard materials and formats is one many of her contemporaries- especially other women- made during the 1960s and 70s. These decades have become characterized by a surge of civil rights movements, including women’s liberation. Gerlinde Gabriel asserts that video became (and remained) a popular format for women artists due to its independence of operation and the “possibilities of a new aesthetic” (The Divided Heritage, 149). Horn’s favoring of everyday materials and use of sewing as a mode of construction recall the feminist movement to reclaim stereotypically “female” crafts like knitting and embroidery and elevate them to a high art sphere.

Horn engages with her body on a private, exploratory level, using her sculptural extensions to test its limits of expression and movement. She responds to some of the same issues as outwardly feminist body artists, but does so in a more introspective way, recalling her own experiences and bringing them forward as a representation of a possible everywoman. Blending personal history and universal experience, Horn’s body extensions are simultaneously restrictive and liberating. Joy Sleeman differentiates Horn from other feminist body artists of the 1970s, identifying her fixation with the exterior as opposed to the interior: “The body in Horn’s work is very much about an expressive, extrovert kind of body… even when Horn’s dealing with something that is to do with the body’s viscera, to do with the internal workings of the body… her way of working with that is to externalize it entirely” (Papers of Surrealism 5). She shields her body while also exposing it, intentionally restricting it as well as allowing it new possibilities through her extensions. In some works she calls attention to her body as female, creating specific roles for herself to inhabit that fulfill or reject specific incarnations of womanhood, while in others she fixates instead on a more generalized body, unfettered by gender.

cornucopiaRebecca Horn: Cornucopia, Séance for Two Breasts, 1970. My scan.

In 1970 Horn produced Cornucopia, Séance for Two Breasts, a sculpture composed of fabric stretched over a metal shell in the shape of two black horns that taper and fuse together at one end. Documenting its use through photography, she attaches the larger ends to her breasts individually, with the device coming upward to her mouth and affixed with straps around her back, neck, and forehead. Thus, her mouth is directly connected to her breasts, allowing her, in a way, to breathe herself in and interact intimately with a part of her body associated with nourishment. It is presumed to be autobiographical- a representation of the artist’s emotional starvation and physical weakening. Some of you might recognize the concept from Marilyn Manson’s video for “The Dope Show,” which references multiple Horn works.

Horn herself describes Cornucopia as a means for the wearer to experience their body differently, more closely. “The breasts are separated from the rest of the body and in direct contact through mutual isolation with the mouth. A constant communication between both takes place. This instrument creates a sense of communication with oneself” (quoted in WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, 247). Normally, most people would be unable to interact with their breasts in this way, and this creation forges a path from one sensory field to another. It is both a wearable sculpture and a functioning tactile enhancer, making the wearer’s body an integral part of the artwork. Most of Horn’s body extensions operate like this- only seeing their intended effect fully realized when paired with a human body. In this way she fully integrates the disparate media of sculptural object and performative body.

Einhorn_Performances_II_GesamtansicRebecca Horn: Einhorn, 1970-72. via Miss Parker

One of Horn’s first major body extensions and performances was Einhorn (Unicorn). Made of fabric, wood, and metal, the construction is a long white cylinder that tapers to a point like an animalistic horn, connected to the wearer by a series of straps that extend down the neck and torso in a bandage-like format. The wearer is physically bound and therefore limited in movement, but also lent the appearance of sophistication through forced maintenance of straight-backed posture and regal headwear. Meant for a woman, the object exposes the wearer’s breasts and lower body, and both are fused into one focus of the viewer’s gaze. Tapping into mythological associations of the purity and gracefulness of unicorns (as well as parodying her own last name), Horn elevates the wearer’s body into a symbolic representation of stereotypical womanly virtue, placing her in idyllic scenery for staged video performances.

The Unicorn object was built specifically for a woman who caught Horn’s eye by a certain way of walking. Her stiff upper body and expressive leg movements reflected a certain trope the artist had envisioned. Horn emphatically describes the final scenario: “Her consciousness electrically impassioned; nothing could stop her trance-like journey: in competition with every tree and cloud in sight…” (quoted in Rebecca Horn, 11). The video piece was filmed in the early morning, and features the woman silently walking towards the camera, head perfectly erect as she traverses a tree-lined dirt path devoid of any pedestrians. She later wades through a field of high grasses. Her figure mirrors the tall foliage surrounding her, but her pale skin and long white horn separate her from her environment, conjuring images of the fabled creature the title references.

Unicorn 1968-9 by Rebecca Horn born 1944Rebecca Horn: Einhorn, 1968-69. via Tate

Jenni Sorkin encapsulates Horn’s early works’ general theme as interest in “the interaction between the body and the environment – especially in processes of constriction and isolation that render the body vulnerable” (WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, 247). Unicorn is a clear example of these motifs. Through an act of exhibitionism combined with the liberating effects of costume, this woman seems to move freely within her natural environment- recalling clichés of female connections to nature and so-called “mother earth”. However the bondage aspect of the horn contraption and its restrictions on her movement speak to the limitations placed on women in general, as they are often physically constrained by clothing and assumptions of “feminine” presentation. Her presence in the space is just a performance, her appearance as a mythical creature is fabricated with man-made materials. As the personified unicorn the performer inhabits an in-between space, societal expectations of elegance and purity thrust upon her while she is barred from full acceptance within that society. Such a layered performance piece further situates Horn within the larger context of body art in the 1960s and 70s. Like the works of her peers, it “insists upon subjectivities and identities (gendered, raced, classed, sexed, and otherwise) as absolutely central components of any cultural practice” (Jones, Body Art / Performing the Subject, 31).

hornRebecca Horn: Two Hands Scratching Both Walls, 1974-75. via Distorted

In her video piece, Mit Beiden Händen Gleichzeitig die Wände Beruhren (Two Hands Scratching Both Walls) (1974-75), Horn dons white versions of her 1972 Fingerhandschuhe (Finger Gloves) extensions and stands in the center of an empty room in her apartment clad in a black shirt and pants. A large mirror is placed opposite her between two rounded windows. She begins with her back to the camera, slowly extending her spindly beige finger extensions to the parallel side walls. She walks slowly and deliberately in a straight line away from the viewer, echoing the earlier performance of Unicorn. Lifting up her hands to the ceiling she carefully rotates to face the camera, stretches them out to the walls and again walks slowly in a straight line. She repeats this process several times, always silent except for the natural sounds of outside traffic, footsteps, and the grating, scratching noise of her finger extensions.

Repetitive in nature and simplistic in premise, Two Hands Scratching Both Walls is nevertheless propelled by narrative questioning. The viewer is forced to look beyond the surface of the action, as Horn appeals to the our imaginations. The Finger Gloves themselves, composed of wood, fabric, and painted metal, are somewhat vicious-looking instruments, recalling animal claws or the lethally sharpened nails of cartoon villains. When strapped to her hands they “both enable and disable her, and it seems as if she is looking for the possibilities and impossibilities of the extension of her body schema and of her sensitive, sensory body” (De Preester, Janus Head 9). Horn’s use of them is seemingly benign, lightly scratching the walls of her empty apartment. Through her invention she explores the boundaries of her space, likening her home to a prison as she paces back and forth in the almost bare room. There is no one with whom she can interact save herself, as tauntingly reflected in her large mirror. This again likely references her time spent in isolation, perhaps giving her a sense of empowerment through extended reach while she is confined.

Untitled 1968-9 by Rebecca Horn born 1944Rebecca Horn: Untitled, 1968-69. via Tate

As seen in this piece, a common theme in Horn’s work is sensory perception and especially the experience of physical touch. When using the Finger Gloves she says, “I can feel, grasp, touch anything with them, but keep a certain distance from the objects. I feel me touching, I see me grasping, I control the distance between me and the objects” (Gabriel, The Divided Heritage, 153). She cannot actually feel anything with her finger extensions but there is a distinct sensation produced for both her and the viewer when they scratch the walls. The sound they create, the visual of the interaction, and the sensory memory of how painted interior walls feel all merge to create the illusion of actual touch. The barrier between her and her object of touch is also what allows her to reach it in the first place, thus ultimately creating “overdistensions of one level of the senses to which another level must often fall victim in going to extremes” (Stooss, Rebecca Horn, 11). She is able to maintain a level of security through this method, experiencing a deadened version of the touching sensation without risking the potential danger or unknowable outcome of the real action.

Rebecca horn .1Rebecca Horn: Finger Gloves, 1972. via Art Wiki

Through her imaginative body extensions and performances Rebecca Horn creates a range of characters and scenarios, incorporating myth, feminism, and personal history into the final works. In her pieces from the early 1970s, she sought new ways to both interact with her own body and communicate through it, affected strongly by her experiences in isolation during her sickness. Like many female artists of the time she presented her body as a powerful expressive force, layering it with sculptural extensions, restraints, and enhancements to further distinguish it. She exaggerates her capabilities of nourishment and reproduction in Cornucopia, embodies a noble woman mired in mythology and gender constraints in Unicorn, and tests the limits of her body’s spatial interactions in Scratching Both Walls. An ambiguous narrative is woven throughout many of Horn’s works of this period, showcasing a woman who wants to come out of her shell, inventing new ways of utilizing her body and its creative powers. She is bound by convention, by physical limitations, by man-made restrictions, but works through them in her exploratory actions and eventually moves past them.

Rebecca Horn is one of my absolute favorite artists and I hope to gradually further explore her body of work on this blog, from her music- and dance-driven participatory body extensions to her eventual move into playful kinetic sculpture. She is also a filmmaker (and devoted admirer of Buster Keaton) and I would love to get my hands on some of her hard-to-find features. This post derives from a longer research paper I wrote in 2012 about her early work.


Berlin – Übungen in 9 Stücken. DVD. Directed by Rebecca Horn. From 40 1974-75; Hatje Cantz: 2006.

Bice Curiger, Rebecca Horn, and Toni Stooss. “The Anatomy of Sensitivity.” In Rebecca Horn: Ausstellung Kunsthaus Zürich 11. Juni bis 24. Juli 1983. Translated by Stephen Locke. Kunsthaus Zürich, 1983.

Helena De Preester. “To Perform the Layered Body—A Short Exploration of the Body in Performance.” Janus Head, 9(2) (2007): 349-383.

Gerlinde Gabriel. “The Female Artist: Attitudes and Positions in West German Feminist Art after 1968.” The Divided Heritage: Themes and Problems in German Modernism, edited by Irit Rogoff, 147-160. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Rebecca Horn, et al. Body Landscapes. Hantje Cantz Publishers, 2005.

Amelia Jones. Body Art / Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: The University of         Minnesota Press, 1998.

Sarah Kent, Joy Sleeman, Peg Rawes, and Anna Dezeuze. “Drawing the Line: A Round Table on Rebecca Horn.” Papers of Surrealism 5 (2007).

Jenni Sorkin. “Rebecca Horn Artist Biography.” WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Edited by Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.

Gudrun Wefers. “Frauenfilm als Gegenfilm.” Die Rezeption feministischer Filmtheorie in Rebecca Horns ‘Berlin – Übungen in neun Stücken’ (1974-75). Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft (2000): 337-359.

Exhibitions: Isa Genzken at MoMA NYC

Isa GenzkenNote: All photos taken by the writer.

With a career spanning nearly forty years (and counting) and a body of work notable for both its breadth and variety, Isa Genzken is an artist well worth a look. Her current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a compelling retrospective, covering everything from her early minimalist sculpture and miniature assemblages to her street photography and memorial designs for the World Trade Center. Born and raised in Germany, Genzken has primarily worked in Cologne and Berlin, with some stints in New York. She studied under painter Gerhard Richter at the Dusseldorf Fine Arts Academy, and the two were married for a time after she graduated. Her work is wildly diverse, but characterized by its mix of wacky, irreverent hodgepodge and Minimalist gravitas. The exhibition galleries abound with so many different objects and images, blending advertising slick and experimental painting with large-scale industrial sculpture and colorful found materials. I was delighted with each new room, each new discovery, for I was largely unfamiliar with Genzken’s range and output.

The show opens with a brand new piece, entitled Actors. A number of assemblaged mannequin figures are arranged against a backdrop of magazine covers and headlines. Their eclectic collage elements make for a grouping both funny and confrontational, with the title suggesting a stage set. Walking into the exhibition proper, the galleries are organized chronologically and generally separated by decade. Genzken’s 70s work sees her burgeoning engagement with Minimalism as well as found imagery, with slender canoe-like forms that sweep across the floor, and enlarged prints of advertisements for stereo systems (the artist was fascinated by the aesthetic forms of audio equipment).

Genzken-Actors3Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-Actors2Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-actors1Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Isa Genzken first galleryIsa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Basic Research 1989Isa Genzken: Basic Research, 1989.
Genzken-MLR 1992Isa Genzken: MLR, 1992.
Genzken-gallery view Isa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Little Window 1994 Isa Genzken: Little Window, 1994.
Genzken-Lamp 1996Isa Genzken: Lamp, 1996.

In the 80s and 90s she moved on to concrete and resin sculpture- some fairly monumental in size- and textured paintings. I loved the feel of this gallery, with its sturdy, large-scale works in different industrial materials and geometric forms, a few reaching up towards the skylight. They are reminiscent of ruined buildings and cityscapes, but somewhat whimsical in their tactility and shapes. Along the walls are various experimental canvases, adding some color to the room but generally maintaining the subdued tones of the sculpture. The MLR series of paintings were made with spray paint and stencils, with layered compositions that recall architectural patterns and photogram silhouettes. The Basic Research series was created through frottage (a rubbing-out technique), resulting in a fascinating textured effect that had me doing double takes. A lot of her work had me doing double takes, actually. Genzken does not go for the obvious effect, combining and altering various familiar shapes and objects in unexpected ways.

By 2000, she was making the kitschy assemblage sculpture she is perhaps most known for, as seen in the sardonic series Fuck the Bauhaus. With these frankly silly works, she knowingly goes against the Bauhaus school’s belief in function over form, putting together wonderfully convoluted and useless- but vaguely architectural- combines. Around this time she began using found objects and materials found in hardware stores or street fairs. She continued to create abstract sculpture but in using such objects there is a note of representation and figuration seen in them. Her works also became more suited to site-specific installation, with series of sculptures coming together to form one immersive room, while also allowing her space for political and social commentary. The American Room– a set of assemblages that pokes fun at material culture, capitalism, and nationalism in the United States- and Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death– assemblages paired with a film that act as commentary on the American presence of Iraq- are examples of this.

Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 2 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 2, 2000.
Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 4 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 4, 2000.
imageIsa Genzken: Social Facade, 2002.
Genzken-The American Room 2004 Isa Genzken: The American Room, 2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 2Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 3Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).

The final gallery shows a grouping of Genzken’s Ground Zero project, produced in response to a call for design proposals for the World Trade Center site. Genzken was in New York City during the 9/11 attacks, and these works serve as her response to the event. Together they form a sort of eclectic miniature city, with buildings constructed out of found materials both high- and low-end. The artist stresses celebration and fun over sorrow, transforming the space into a happy memorial to the city itself.

Genzken’s tremendous output is of course only partially represented here, but MoMA has collected together an impressive array of the artist’s works, reflecting her personal and professional development since the early 1970s. With such a diverse oeuvre, I responded differently to certain movements in her work. Her concrete and resin sculpture is fantastic, her miniature assemblages are complex and often delightful, and her abstract paintings are surprisingly intricate. I was less compelled by her earlier minimalist sculpture and mid-90s street photography, however. Ultimately, Isa Genzken: Retrospective is a fun, varied exhibit that has so much to offer: art historical references, urban culture, political commentary, visual wit, and a good dose of wacky humor.

Genzken-Light (Ground Zero) 2008Isa Genzken: Light (Ground Zero), 2008.
Genzken-Ground Zero roomIsa Genzken: Ground Zero, 2008 – gallery view.
Genzken-Untitled 2012 Isa Genzken: Untitled, 2012.
Genzken-friend portraits 1998-2000Isa Genzken: Kai, 2000; Isa, 2000; Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998. Portraits of Genzken’s friends, including artists Dan Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Genzken-Gay Baby series 1997Isa Genzken: Gay Baby series, 1997.
Genzken-Slot Machine 1999-2000Isa Genzken: Slot Machine, 1999-2000.

Art: The Prodigious Story of Salvador Dalí, Johannes Vermeer, and the Rhinoceros

Dali with a rhinoDalí and a rhinoceros

Known for painting grossly realistic melting objects and phantasmagoric landscapes, as well as for participating in the Surrealist group and performing attention-grabbing antics, Salvador Dalí may at first seem like a clashing presence against the towering, masterful figure of Johannes Vermeer. However, Dalí saw his work- especially his later output- as a continuance of the values laid down by the Old Masters, and he considered Vermeer to be the ultimate painter, superior even to Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Pablo Picasso. His fixation with the Dutch artist is traceable throughout his career, but The Lacemaker especially had a strong hold on him. According to the artist, he had been fascinated with the painting since the age of nine, when “he was overcome by a ‘lyrical ecstasy’ provoked by pressing his elbow into some dried bread crumbs on the dining room table while looking at a reproduction of The Lacemaker that hung on the wall of his father’s office. He then ‘began to become absolutely obsessed in a truly delirious way by the painting The Lacemaker…’” (quoted in King, “Crazy Movies That Disappear,” 219). Looking past the artist’s tendency to dramatize his own life, Manuel Delgado Morales believes his earliest encounter with the painting may actually have been at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where he lived as a student along with filmmaker Luis Buñuel and poet Federico García Lorca.

Vermeer_Johannes-The_LacemakerJohannes Vermeer: The Lacemaker, 1669-70. via Essential Vermeer

Its earliest appearance within Dalí’s work is Woman at the Window in Figueres from 1926, which depicts, from behind, a woman with short dark hair sitting at a window making lace. He takes the project so central to Vermeer’s composition yet hidden from view, and reveals it fully. Then, in 1929, the original image itself takes a minor role in his film with Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou. Here, a young woman reading alone within a bedroom casts down her book when she hears a gentleman approaching on the street below, and her page is revealed to be a full reproduction of The Lacemaker, on which the camera lingers for a few seconds.

unchienandalou-ssStill from Un Chien Andalou, 1929. via YouTube

Ever-intrigued by ways of looking and understanding, and incorporating visual trickery to fool and entice the eye in his own paintings, it is no surprise that Dalí would be attracted to the strange enigma of Vermeer’s life and output and to The Lacemaker in particular. However, it was not until after his self-styled rebirth as a “classical” painter that he began to engage with the painting at a deeper level.

In 1941, two years after his expulsion from Surrealism, Dalí vocally announced himself a “classical” painter at his solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, proclaiming in his catalog: “Behold the luck, the grace, the miracle that in this year of spiritual sterility 1941 there can still exist a being such as Dalí, capable of continuing the conquest of the irrational merely by becoming classic and pursuing that research in Divina Proportione interrupted since the Renaissance.” Dalí’s definition of the word “classical” was broad, however, and he drew from a range of sources that included Raphael, Velazquez, the Pre-Raphaelites, Antoni Gaudí, and, of course, Vermeer. Stylistically he did not drastically alter his painting, still incorporating melting or distorted objects, fragmented figures, and sensational symbolism, but he began to draw more blatantly from classical religious subjects and increased his ever-present hyperrealism in response to the period’s dominating trend of abstraction.

dali-gala-lacemakerDalí and his wife Gala with a poster of Vermeer’s The Lacemaker

He embarked on a complicated and ultimately unrealized project in the 1950s that connected his fascination with Vermeer’s The Lacemaker and his own paranoiac-critical method of painting, an approach that involved finding phantom objects or images within a work, supposedly related to the ability of the brain to discover links between things that are not rationally linked. He began in November of 1954 by making an appointment with Louvre conservator Magdeleine Hours to copy The Lacemaker from life in one hour. She arranged for the painting to be taken to a private room and placed on an easel, with another easel and blank canvas across from it for the artist. Dalí had requested a canvas that perfectly matched Vermeer’s, and allegedly in preparation had read through Vermeer’s favorite books and studied seventeenth-century Dutch geography. He was joined by several artists and intellectuals, as well as photographer Robert Descharnes, whom Dalí had enlisted to film the entire process. After the allotted time had passed, Dalí was supposedly surprised to find that, instead of Vermeer’s beloved masterpiece, he had painted a set of converging rhinoceros horns. Inspired, he then paired with Descharnes to make a film that would explore from all angles the psychic relationship between the rhinoceros horn and The Lacemaker.

The next phase of the project took place in April 1955 at the Vincennes Zoo in Paris, as Dalí reasoned that after painting in front of the actual Lacemaker and finding rhinoceros horns, the next logical step would be to paint in front of a live rhinoceros. Settled within a rocky alcove adjacent to the pen of a rhinoceros named François, he continued painting The Lacemaker, again with Descharnes filming (here’s a snippet). His assistants dangled a large reproduction of the Vermeer in front of François, taunting it to charge but it backed down, perhaps intimidated by the wealth of pointed horns hidden within its printed aggressor. Eventually the artist ran through the reproduction himself with a large narwahl tusk. Over the next decade Dalí and Descharnes would continue to work on their film, titled L’Histoire prodigieuse de la Dentelliere et du rhinoceros (“The Prodigious Story of The Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros”), with Dalí wantonly experimenting with performance ideas (some culled from earlier projects) and engaging to varying degrees with The Lacemaker itself. One scene shows the artist whipping nine canvases with a riding crop, while another depicted him working on an abstracted Lacemaker while the Mayor of Cadaques (where filming had moved in 1956), dressed as Adolf Hitler, observed from behind a shrub while sipping tea. Though the film began as a documentary about Dalí’s interaction with Vermeer’s painting, it evolved into a massive, non-narrative, and disjointed project that was never completed.

Dali's LacemakerSalvador Dalí: The Lacemaker (After Vermeer), 1955. via WikiPaintings

While working on the film, the artist created several reproductions of The Lacemaker, only one of which is a straight copy- indeed, in 1934 he had told collector Robert Lehman that copying it “couldn’t be done” (quoted in King, “Dalí After 1940,” 34). His closest imitation is The Lacemaker (After Vermeer) from 1955, which Lehman eventually purchased, and which presents a fairly realistic, close depiction of the young woman at work, but with a darker, bolder color palette and traces of Dalí’s recognizable melting effects in the fabric and threads. Her expression is more forceful than the original, with a notably furrowed brow and resolutely pursed lips. While he affixed his signature prominently in the upper right-hand corner, perhaps attempting to assert some personal claim or dominance over the perplexing aura of Vermeer’s work, he did retain the small size of the original. This may be in reference to his belief that The Lacemaker’s power kept it as “grandiose” as Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel, despite its comparatively minuscule dimensions. This canvas was likely the one on which Dalí had initially painted rhinoceros horns, which may have served as a compositional scheme for the final product.

the-paranoiac-critical-study-of-vermeer-s-lacemaker-1955Salvador Dalí: The Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, 1955. via WikiPaintings

He toyed with increasing distillation of the lacemaker’s form in his “Rhinocerotic” studies of 1955. One is a monochromatic painting composed of sweeping, energetic brushstrokes, vaguely echoing the shapes of Vermeer’s work, with conical points protruding from a central curved shape. Another is a sculptural white bust made of plaster, with a smooth surface. It is made up of a slim egg-like mass representing a bent head, and a wider circular foundation for shoulders. But it is Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, also completed in 1955, that most clearly blends his own artistic theories with his hero’s painting. The lacemaker is shown in her exact pose and position, but fragmented into a number of brown-tinted curved cones all pointed at the figure. Her face is clearly delineated and the red and white threads remain in their place along with the book and knob of her worktable, but all other aspects of the original composition are either broken up into pieces floating in space or obscured by giant rhinoceros horns. This confluence of points aimed at the woman may relate to Dalí’s belief that everything in Vermeer’s original “converged exactly into one needle, in a pin that was not painted, but merely suggested.” For him the painting conveyed a sharpness and an intensity, and ultimately it “possessed one of the most violent forces in the aesthetics domain…” (quoted in Morales, 40).

assumpta-corpuscularia-lapislazulina-1952Salvador Dalí: Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, 1952. via WikiPaintings

Dalí’s engagement with the rhinoceros horn both as a compositional foundation and as a symbol became as integral to his own artistic outlook as his idolization of Vermeer. The discovery grew out of his interest in nuclear explosions as well as the Llullist logic cubes of thirteenth-century mystic Ramon Llull, who manipulated language to prove Catholic “truths.” Dalí’s 1952 painting Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina shows his wife Gala in the guise of the Virgin Mary, but with her body disintegrating into a collection of three-dimensional shapes: slender rhinoceros horns. These so-called “nicoids”, or angelic particles, manifesting themselves as horns led Dalí to a discovery: Rhinoceros horns, like sunflowers and cauliflowers, are constructed according to logarithmic spirals, with a connection to Divine Geometry. And so his paranoiac link between Johannes Vermeer and the rhinoceros horn took on a spiritual component. For Dalí, The Lacemaker represented a perfection that mirrored that found in nature, and his feeling for Vermeer was at times akin to a devout servant worshiping his god. In obsessively dissecting and recreating this image I believe he attempted to reach such heavenly heights himself.

And just for fun, here’s my favorite (probably?) Dalí painting, The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table. This is the work that got me into this whole weird story of Dalí and Vermeer. Most of this text was taken from a paper I wrote for a seminar in 2013, so it’s a bit more scholarly than my usual nonsense, ahem.

the-ghost-of-vermeer-van-delft-which-can-be-used-as-a-tableSalvador Dalí: The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table, 1934. via WikiPaintings


Dawn Ades, et al. Dalí & Film. Edited by Matthew Gale (Tate Publishing, 2007).

Fleur Cowles. The Case of Salvador Dalí (Little, Brown and Company, 1959).

Salvador Dalí. The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. Edited and translated by Haim Finkelstein (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Elliot H. King. Dalí: The Late Work. (Yale University Press, 2010).

Manuel Delgado Morales, “Embroiderers of Freedom and Desire in Lorca’s Poetry and Theater.” Lorca, Bunuel, Dalí: Art and Theory. Edited by Manuel Delgado Morales and Alice J. Poust. (Associated University Presses, 2001).

Exhibitions: Christina Ramberg at ICA Boston

ramberg-waiting lady-1972-flickrChristina Ramberg: Waiting Lady, 1972. via flickr

The human body as a subject has long fascinated visual artists. It has fallen prey to distortion and monstrosity, to sexualization and idolization, and so many other representations. In the 1970s many artists involved in the rising feminist movement turned to the female form as a symbol of oppression as well as power, some referencing Mother Earth metaphors and others satirizing 1950s domesticity and feminized consumerism. It became easy for any woman artist to be labeled “feminist” (a dirty word to many) regardless of her actual intentions or activism. While many artists actively pursue goals relating to feminism and combating prejudices, others are more ambiguous in their work, more private about their own goals or beliefs. It is this understated approach that makes the work of Christina Ramberg so fascinating. Her work can easily be interpreted through a feminist lens, but does not endeavor to give the viewer any clear answers or meanings.

Based in Chicago, Ramberg became associated with the loose-knit group of artists known as “Hairy Who,” a subset of the Imagists- Chicago artists generally known for their humor, grotesque surrealism, and disconnect from the more mainstream New York art world in the 1960s and 70s. Her influences range from geometric Cubist Fernand Léger to 1950s “damsel-in-distress” comics. I also see a bit of the Art Deco figuration of Tamara de Lempicka in the angular forms and notable sheen of her paintings. Ramberg’s work is characterized by stylized forms, close-up and cropped body parts, binding and bandage motifs, and references to women’s lingerie and hair. Though she had several solo shows during her lifetime, her career was tragically cut short in 1995 when she passed away of a neurological disease. She is popular with collectors but rarely exhibited in museums, pushed to the side in more mainstream discussions of the Imagists, women artists, and contemporary painting.

ramberg-istrian silver lady-1974-whitneyChristina Ramberg: Istrian Silver Lady, 1974. via The Whitney Museum tumblr

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston’s exhibit Christina Ramberg (on view through March 2) focuses on the artist’s major paintings made between 1971 and 1981, featuring a selection of 13 works. It is a small but effective show, exploring the artist’s development over a significant period. Her style is sleek and flat, mostly acrylic paint on masonite. Her palette is subdued, often limited to brown, tan, and black tones with the occasional dark blue or bold purple. With their cropped bodies and surreal distortions, the paintings invite closer scrutiny, and their memorable bright sheen effect has to be seen in person.

1988_ramberg_blackwidow_bChristina Ramberg: Black Widow, 1971. via The Renaissance Society

One of my favorite pieces is Black Widow from 1971, one of her first large paintings. The catalogue shares an interesting quote from Ramberg, as she reminisces about watching her mother get dressed for a night out when she was a little girl: “I can remember being stunned by how it transformed her body… she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating… in some ways, I thought it was awful.” This painting is one of a series showing women’s torsos in antiquated lingerie, with flesh tightly bound in black satin and lace. By hiding the figure’s face and limbs, Ramberg de-humanizes them and thus literally objectifies them.

The artist moved onto more abstracted paintings, with figural forms that merge with phallic forms and repeating motifs of long strands of hair and wooden chairs. Her tendencies move from voyeurism to surrealism. The latest works in the exhibit showcase Ramberg at her most abstract, with androgynous torsos and body parts made up of different objects, patterns, and materials. She also veers slightly away from her penchant for symmetry, with some bodies partially falling apart from the center. Freeze and Melt from 1981 shows a body as an assemblage, composed of furniture parts, wire mesh, wooden blocks, and clothing.

ramberg-Freeze_and_MeltChristina Ramberg: Freeze and Melt, 1981. via Boston Beyond

Over these ten years of experimenting with the human form, showing the transformative power of clothes, hair, and objects, Ramberg reveals a refusal to be obvious. She plays with gender, with feminine sexuality, with stereotypes, and creates her own iconography that lends itself to multifarious readings. The exhibit is a small but powerful one, and allows a neglected artist a worthy space and surely many new admirers.



Janelle Porter. Christina Ramberg (ICA Boston, 2012).

Posters: Eduardo Muñoz Bachs

virginandgypsy-cuba-bachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: The Virgin and the Gypsy, 1972. via The Efraín Barradas Collection

There are few things that make me as excited as movie poster design, unsurprising since it combines my two favorite visual media into one beautiful genre. I went through graduate school hoping I could write about posters but rarely getting the opportunity, until my final semester when I took a course on Latin American art during the Cold War. I immediately seized upon the chance to research Cuban film posters, which are truly fascinating both for their surrounding context and unique visual approach.

After the Cuban in Revolution in 1959, the cultural atmosphere in Cuba changed dramatically. In 1961, Fidel Castro’s landmark speech “Words to Intellectuals” set the standard for the new nation’s concept of revolutionary art. He advocated a culture that challenged the people to question, while also stressing the importance of literacy and education, thus creating a public that is actively engaged with cultural production and reception. This was known as a “cultural democracy.”

Cinema was always a wildly popular form of entertainment on the island, and the Cuban Institute of Cinema Art and Industry (ICAIC) was founded in 1959 to take over everything related to film production, distribution, and promotion. Most of the non-Cuban films screened in the 60s and 70s were from Soviet countries, Europe, and Japan, along with some American and Latin American titles (often sneakily entering the country through third parties). Because theaters were state-supported and barely charged admission, films didn’t really need to be advertised. Nevertheless ICAIC commissioned a unique poster for every single movie that played in Cuba, foreign or domestic, and allowed artists to go wild with their designs. Due to limited technology and ease of replication, every one is made through the silkscreen process, which involves step-by-step layering of different colors through stencils.

monumenttothegirlscorpse-cuba-munozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Foundry Town, 1969. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

One of my absolute favorite Cuban poster artists is Eduardo Muñoz Bachs. Born in Spain, Bachs moved to Cuba in 1941 in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. He was a self-taught artist, working as a graphic designer and children’s book illustrator and author over a long career. As a staff designer for ICAIC, he created around 2,000 film posters, the most of any single designer. His style is immediately distinctive, notable for its freedom of line and colorful palette. With such a large output, he became varied in his approach while still maintaining certain key stylistic tendencies, and very often his posters made sly references to their films’ plots while serving as intriguing compositions in their own right. Some are simplistic and naive, easily connected back to his background in children’s books, while others are marvelously intricate and free-flowing.

tigersonthehighseas-cuba-eduardomunozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Tigers on the High Seas, 1963. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

zatoichiandthechestofgold-cuba-munozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

beatrice-cuba-eduardomunozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Beata, 1965. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

theleandras-cuba-munozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: The Leandras, 1971. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

imposters-cuba-munozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Imposztorok (The Impostors), 1970. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

lokis-cuba-munozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Lokis (The Bear), 1971. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

loveintheafternoon-cuba-eduardomunozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Love in the Afternoon, 1963. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

facetoface-cuba-eduardomunozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Face to Face, 1970. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

sleepingbeauty-cuba-eduardomunozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: Sleeping Beauty, 1973. via Soy Cuba (my scan)

thehole-cuba-eduardomunozbachsEduardo Muñoz Bachs: The Hole, 1966. via Soy Cuba (my scan)


David Craven. Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910-1990 (Yale University Press, 2002).

Carole Goodman and Claudio Sotolongo. Soy Cuba: Cuban Posters From After the Revolution (Trilce Ediciones, 2010).

David Kunzle. “Public Graphics in Cuba: A Very Cuban Form of Internationalist  Art.” Latin American Perspectives 2 (1975): 89-110.