Ulrike Müller’s work was represented at mumok in the form of two exhibitions: the solo show The old expressions are with us always and there are always others, curated by Manuela Ammer, and a show of works from the museum’s collection conceived jointly by artist and curator under the title Always, Always Others. Both titles refer to Others. A Magazine of the New Verse, published in New York in the 1910s, which offered figures like Djuna Barnes, Marcel Duchamp, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound a platform for experimental artistic formats and alternative, in some cases queer ways of life. ‘Others’ here stood for a counterpart and foil to one’s own identity, as a deviation from the norm, and as the alterity of art.
Müller’s expanded concept of painting is tied to queer-feminist art practices and communities. She often works in collaborative contexts, including New York’s LTTR collective and the Herstory Inventory (2012), a project she initiated. At mumok, Müller’s painting, that is concerned equally with the form of the body and its status as an object, its visibilities and politics, comes into contact with classical modernism, plus works from the 1970s, that articulate tensions between the body and societal structures.
For the first time in years, Müller presented new works on canvas, as well as a series of enamels (Others, 2015) and four rugs she commissioned from Oaxaca, Mexico. Both enamels and rugs are associated with industrial image production and with private forms of production such as handcrafts, thus evoking multiple histories of the Other of art and its appropriation (for example by Constructivism, the Bauhaus, or the women’s movement). At the same time, they are materials that tend to blurriness: in the under and over of weaving, the edges of adjacent areas interlock, and when the powdered pigment of enamels melts into glass, lines often bleed, rendering once-clear divisions indistinct.
In one enamel at the entrance, three circles in red, green and black sit atop a bulbous shape that tapers upwards. More than in Müller’s other enamel panels, the impression here is one of figuration (a vase of flowers) although the abstract geometrical character of the picture remains essentially intact. This underlines a constant feature of Müller’s painting: its wavering between figure and abstraction, between knowledge and perception. Three of the rugs designed for the exhibition link and layer rectangular shapes, combining these abstract patterns with the silhouette of a cat in black. As if leaning over a windowsill, it lowers its head over a horizontal band of colour that shines out from its eyes or – in Rug (el primer gato) (2015) – comes through the cat’s body to the surface, as if the animal had got in between the layers of the textile. The relationship between figure and ground comes under pressure, creating tension between representation and abstraction, between art historical reference and association (Olympia’s cat, floral still lifes, colour field painting) and perceptions of form. Müller’s pictures refer to the viewer’s stock of things seen and learned, but the connections remain loose, leaving space for ambivalence and the polyphony of personal and cultural experience.
Not only with its title, the exhibition assembled from the mumok’s collection echoed Müller’s own work. Loosely grouped around the themes of body, textile, folklore and metamorphosis, the exhibition included seldom-shown artists, using their works to take a fresh look at supposedly long-resolved questions about modernism. The show began with a number of avant-garde works on paper (from Alexander Rodchenko via Josef Hoffmann to the photographer Florence Henri) that explore the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. The graphical pressure exerted on bodies here by the abstraction of forms found a social correlative in the political posters by Austrian artist and graphic designer Friedl Dicker from the 1930s that show the female body subjugated to its reproductive functionality. Similarly, via categories such as soft/solid and private/industrial, the dialog between a graphic silk-screen print by the Wiener Werkstätte designer Mathilde Flögl, textile objects by Philip Hanson and Miriam Schapiro’s Pink Light Fan from the 1970s focussed attention on discourses of gender that are also inscribed in Müller’s rugs. Finally, the reference in these rug works to non-European, locally rooted craft traditions was echoed in the encounter between the folkloristic picture details of the Hungarian cubist Béla Kádár and Art Brut drawings, adding new positions to the history of the avant-garde’s relationship to the naïve and the popular.
Always, Always Others was not Müller’s first interaction with a museum collection. In 2012, for Herstory Inventory, she tracked down lesbian-feminist symbols in the archive of the Brooklyn Museum and presented her finds together with drawings that processed the visual repertoire of the lesbian women’s movement of the 1970s. As in Brooklyn, Müller’s approach in Vienna rendered visible the unexpected Other in the collection. Rather than obvious references, the double exhibition established open structures – between the works from the collection that entered into dialog via wall openings, to Müller’s own works, and on to the social and cultural contexts related to by both the works and the audience. Rather than didactic re- and counter-canonization, this created scope for questioning the way we consider objects and bodies in the very process of our own seeing.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell