“In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” Susan Sontag offered this challenge to a critic in her 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation.” She argued that the task of a critic was to elucidate for the reader how a work of art “is what it is,” rather than to show “what it means.” Perhaps Sontag had the work of artist Paul Thek in mind when she first wrote the words; perhaps not. In any case, she was surely thinking of him when she compiled her essays into the published 1966 collection, also titled Against Interpretation. She dedicated the book to Thek.
On ViewAndrea Rosen Gallery
12 October - 16 November 2013
He, in turn, referenced Sontag’s words in a small acrylic canvas, “An Erotics of Art” (1987), which aptly (though perhaps not subtly) headed the recent group exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery, Counter Forms: Tetsumi Kudo, Alina Szapocznikow, Paul Thek, Hannah Wilke. The approximately 50 works on view by these four disparate artists presented a resonant defense for analytic resistance.
The apparent pathos of this group of artists striking. All were born within 14 years of each other—Szapocznikow the earliest, in 1926, and Wilke the latest, in 1940—and all suffered untimely deaths during the apex of their artistic careers (Kudo at age 55, Szapocznikow at age 47, and Wilke at age 53 to cancer, while Thek succumbed to AIDS at age 55). In addition to illness, each was born either at the cusp of, or during the Second World War, an epoch during which the potential for humanity’s ability to inflict pain upon the body was fully and gruesomely realized.
The show, curated by Szapocznikow scholar Elena Filipovic, was rich in that artist’s works, set the tone for the exhibition. Szapocznikow, a Polish Jew, lived a life marked by illness and tragedy. She spent her adolescence confined to the Jewish ghettos of Poland only to later endure at least three concentration camps during the Second World War. In her 20s, she survived a near-deathly bout of tuberculosis that left her infertile. By the time cancer invaded her body, she was well acquainted with catastrophe. The small but penetrating “Le Pied (Fétiche V) (Foot [Fetish V])” (1971), is an archetypal Szapocznikow sculpture. Comprised of resin casts of the artist’s foot and one of her breasts, the two disembodied parts connect to each other by means of a woman’s stocking (one of Szapocznikow’s own), which is also encased in resin. The breast is wrapped tenderly in gauze, as if injured. Elsewhere in the exhibition, the imprint of her body was less noticeable, more spectral. A nebulous mound of pink terracotta called “Forma II” (1964-65), masticated like chewing gum, revealed, upon careful inspection, Szapocznikow’s lips, pressed once into the verso and once into the recto.
Suspension of the body in their media of choice preoccupies the work of all four artists. Wilke’s iconic forms—compact orifices molded in terra cotta—dotted the exhibition, contained in vitrines. These sculptures are suggestive of vulvar openings but also amorphous enough to evoke wads of chewing gum, a medium with which Wilke also made frequent use. Also on view was her audacious “Untitled (Single Gum Sculpture)” (c. 1975), a surprising, multicolored slab of chewed gum framed in a Plexiglas box.
Thek was also well represented, particularly by several strong examples from his Technological Reliquaries series, wherein a hunk of raw “meat”—made from resin and sickly realistic—hung enshrined in a case on the wall. Kudo’s work was the most brazen, however. His “Human Bonsai—Freedom of Deformity—Deformity of Freedom” (1979) was particularly chilling; from an earthen mound grew phallic worms, all chained and bound to each other. Elsewhere, in “Your Portrait” (1963), Kudo trapped plastic molds of human mouths interspersed between strings of light bulbs in a plastic wall-hanging receptacle. The mouths, with lips spread and teeth bared, cried out in anguish.
Thek and Wilke have earned certain name recognition amongst American art-going audiences. Kudo, while highly regarded in Japan, is still less-widely-known here. Until recently, this was also the case with Szapocznikow, though a recently concluded traveling retrospective of her work installed at several venues across the United States (including MoMA last winter) may have helped to alter this. Little evidence exists to suggest that any of the four ever met, or that they were even aware of each other’s work. Yet, as the artist Rona Pondick once observed in the pages of this publication, “It’s fascinating when there’s a zeitgeist, and all of a sudden artists, who don’t know each other, have parallel interests.” Counter Forms succeeded in nurturing a conversation about the body, and its ambivalences, between four long-gone artists. In doing so, it presented a potent case for the significance of their work and its future inclusion in discussions of 20th Century art.