It’s a beautiful quirk of biography that Kiki Kogelnik married a radiation oncologist. The late Austrian artist, who left war-scarred Vienna for New York in 1961, spent a career trying to get under skins; thinking about their duality or duplicitity, as surfaces that seal us off from the world while, at the same time, being entirely permeable – transparent, even, under a certain light.
In 1965, Kogelnik produced one of her most extraordinary series of works on canvas, which hangs along one side of the largest gallery at Modern Art Oxford in this tightly curated (by Ciara Moloney) mini-survey of the artist’s work, spanning the 1950–’80s. It features stencilled, androgynous human forms silhouetted in ash-black spray paint against sherbet-fizz hazes. Truncated or dismembered – a torso detached cleanly from its arms and legs; an outstretched hand – these weightless limbs float free of each other and any ground that might orient them in a space-age acid-dream of zero gravity. In place of organs, these part-bodies contain machinic parts such as cogs and wires. Transparent Woman (1965) depicts a figure whose truncated neck is turreted by four wired pins, like an anthropomorphic plug; in its chest and lower abdomen two sun-yellow orbs radiate an atomic glow. In Vibrations on a Composite Circuit (1965), a pair of disembodied, silhouetted legs floats against a polka-dotted, flamingo-pink sky. Attached to the top edge of the painting is a metallic disc, like a film reel, from which an orange wire dangles two clear Perspex hearts in a kind of cybernetic-Frankenstein assemblage.
Kogelnik created these works from life-sized stencils of the outlines of friends and guests traced onto sheets of paper on the floor of her studio. The origin myth of painting – the Greek girl Kora tracing the shadow of her lover, about to depart for war – is updated for the pop age. And the atomic age: bombs haunt this exhibition and the acrid black of the figures’ outlines recalls the eerie ‘shadows’ left by victims of the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – bodies transformed, in an instant, to charcoal.
For all of its effervescent energy, there is a darker side to Kogelnik’s work. It seems to be caught between the sky and the ground, where the cosmos represents a shining future and the superpowers of the ascendant world order, while the Earth is history-clogged, leaden with fallen empires and the mass graves of the first half of the 20th century. Kogelnik, future-obsessed, once described the US as ‘like a dream of our time’, managing to convey both its promise and its mythical impossibility. However, she maintained close ties with the art scene in her country of birth and this in-betweeness perhaps has a visual equivalent in the outstretched, stencilled hands that interrupt the upwards thrust of compositions such as Liquid Injection Thrust (c.1965) and Untitled (A) (c.1963), as though leaning out to grab the gravity-defying figures and pull them back down. (Often, the outline of the hand was the artist’s own: you can tell by the wristwatch.)
The silhouettes in Kogelnik’s canvases from the mid-1960s have tabs, as though you could cut them out and attach them over paper dolls. The idea of skin as something that can be slipped off – shadowed, too, by the radiation burns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Napalm-blistered victims of US interventions in Vietnam – prefigures the extraordinary ‘Hangings’ that the artist began to make at the end of the decade and into the early 1970s. Inspired by the racks of clothing lining the streets near her studio in New York’s garment district, Kogelnik began to transfer her tracing technique to sheets of slippery, brightly coloured vinyl.
These were then suspended, folded over at the waist, from hangers and washing lines, often in layers representing different parts of the skeleton and circulatory system, outsides and insides stuck together in a cartoon-flat anatomical diagram. These works are an interesting parallel to the ‘Siluetas’ (1973–80) of Ana Mendieta. Though made slightly later, Mendieta’s famous works feel dated in their equation of the female body and a fecund, life-bearing Mother Earth; Kogelnik, almost 20 years before Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) was dreaming of a post-human future in which bodies and identities can be tried on and taken off.
However, Kogelnik (who died in 1997) couldn’t escape the fortune of so many female artists and, has remained in the margins of the New York pop canon, despite her work’s affinity with that of her male peers (and friends): Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’ (1954–64), Tom Wesselman’s ‘Great American Nudes’ (1961–73) and the comic-book pointillism of Roy Lichtenstein are obvious comparisons. This is Kogelnik’s first solo exhibition in the UK, with additional pieces simultaneously on show in London, as part of Tate Modern’s ‘International Pop’ survey (also reviewed in this issue); let’s hope that more will follow.