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Kiki Kogelnik in her studio on 29th St., New York, 1965

Kiki Kogelnik in her studio on 29th St., New York, 1965

In 1967 Kiki Kogelnik (1935-1997) proclaimed that “Art comes from Artificial.” There was no pure nature for Kogelnik, everything was mediated. But that mediation resulted, for her, in action. A sui generis artist, she looked to the exterior, to the coming melding of body and machine, and to the interior, to the implications of and for technology and politics on her own body and those of women in general. She embodied these interrogations in the way she lived and most prominently as the subject and site for her boldest experiments in performance, sculpture, and painting, including Moonhappening, 1969, Bombs in Love, 1962, and her 1964 Self Portrait.

       

Kogelnik was born and raised in Austria. She attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts alongside Hans Hollein, Maria Lassnig and Arnulf Rainer, and when she finished in 1958, she’d passed through Tachisme and Art Informel phases, as well as cultivated some of the mytho-figurative symbols that she employed throughout her life. After a period of European travel, Kogelnik visited New York in 1960 and settled in downtown Manhattan in 1961. She arrived just as Pop was ascending, and became friends with Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Larry Rivers, among others. In retrospect, Kogelnik had the distinct advantage of being a European amidst all the Americana. She brought a far more jaundiced eye to the mechanization of culture, closer in spirit to Eduardo Paolozzi and J.G. Ballard, really, than her New York friends. When she explored the space age she did so by exploiting the obviously phallic nature of bombs, and the inherent danger of the much glorified atomic age. Her silhouetted bodies are distressed and broken amid an onslaught of brightly colored flat symbols of atoms, rockets, and nuts and bolts.

In the mid-1960s she turned more directly to the body itself. She cut into her drawings of bodies, leaving nearly surgical holes through which she wove sinews of ink and paint. Inspried by medical technology and interior forms of technology, x-rays, stamps of the human body, and other medical symbols pushed their way into Kogelnik’s work. Then, pushing her modular system of signs and symbols even further, she cut out her silhouette, using this bodily representation as a tool for sculpture and image making. Her tool for cutting, scissors, became a potent symbol, too. She knew they were associated with feminine craft and so she reversed the narrative and wielded them for art. In 1971, she stood like a conquering general, enormous scissors in hand, cut-outs at her feet, in her “Women’s Lib” group of images. The same era brought her “Hanging” series -- vinyl silhouettes, flopped over clothes hangers. They could be commentaries on the fluidity of identity, or the impermanence of the human body, or the power of Kogelnik herself to affect reality. One has to look at fellow feminist artists such as Ursula LeGuin and Kogelnik’s one-time neighbor, Carolee Schneemann to see a subversion of gendered expectations as generative. Kogelnik returned to her hangings and to vinyl as a material, until the late-1980s. Those years also found Kogelnik distilling simplified forms into a language of paintings, ceramic wall works, and drawings that riffed on feminism and politics, but very much in conversation with the punk and new wave culture that sprung up around her SoHo studio. She used the hyper-stylized shadows and glyphs of the time to build exuberant self portraits that reached new heights in her late 1980s and 90s series of spike-haired heads in bronze, glass, and on canvas. These stand-ins for the artist became her last great series, intersecting with devastating self representations as she underwent treatment for what was ultimately a fatal cancer diagnosis.

Kogelnik’s work occupied its own cultural space, intersecting with various movements but always defying categorization. In her lifetime she seldom exhibited in her adopted city, although she showed with great frequency and success in Austria. Her work is now regularly exhibited in New York and throughout Europe, and has been included in recent revisionist exhibitions on Pop art, as it exemplifies a road not taken by other artists, and is a de facto rebuke to the objectification of women so prevalent in the genre. Since her passing, her work has been rediscovered and re-examined by a generation of artists and historians who are also looking beyond Pop to Kogelnik as an innovator in the use of explicitly personal subject matter in

performance, installation, and painting, and who view her boldly feminist use of her own body as a site for art-making as both ingenious and prescient. The 21st century’s technological and sexual eruptions look more and more like the world Kogelnik predicted. Her work and her example as an artist are thus more philosophically valuable than ever.

Kiki Kogelnik working in her studio, Vienna, 1973

Kiki Kogelnik during the Moonhappening at Galerie nächst St. Stephan in 1969, Vienna.