February 5th, 2016
Jürgen Klauke: Transformer
With provocative self-portraits from the 1970s, a pioneer of Body Art makes his New York debut.
By William J. Simmons
Born of the experimental intermingling of 1970s activist identity politics and performance art, Jürgen Klauke appears to be the gleefully strange lovechild of Judy Chicago and Mary Kelly. Appropriately, visitors to Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s, Klauke’s first solo exhibition in New York, should consider the ethics of photographic performance, and of the dichotomy between body and selfhood. At Koenig & Clinton, he presents photographic series completed between 1970 and 1976, mostly self-portraits, which create an intimate but masked explication of body politics. Though Klauke emerged from a desolate youth in postwar Germany, these images do not remain hinged to a particular moment, but instead further contemporary conversations about changing visions of self-definition—from the postmodern turn, to third-wave feminism, to transgender critiques currently broaching the shores of popular magazines and boutique television.
Consider Klauke’s thirteen-part series Masculin/Feminin (Masculine/Feminine) (1974), an exemplar of his career-long interest in Surrealism and performance art beginning in the 1960s. He starts with five self-portraits with his genitals obscured, though his masculinity is certainly present even as he fondles a phallic snake—or yoke. (I can’t help but recall Alexander McQueen’s often faux-primitive designs, such as Widows of Culloden, of Autumn/Winter 2006–7.) Klauke is then joined by a female figure, whose breasts are the only signals of her gender. The remaining photographs of the twosome posing and variously entwined with a black veil are reminiscent of a Jack Smith-inspired photo booth at the mall—suburban camp made delightfully glamorous with self-aware gaudiness, akin, perhaps, to the feigned trans-manliness of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.
In its resemblance to the focusing cloth for an 8-x-10 view camera, the veil unites the variously gendered agents in Klauke’s photographs in a shroud of beautiful obsolescence. In this way, Klauke signals the materiality of the images, which is compounded by a blur that results from his internegative process, a method of film duplication that preserves the original negative and creates a slightly unfocused shimmer. These photographs, to be sure, are not meant to be fully digestible, even in their self-aware and unabashed flamboyance. A formal process blocks the complete absorption of the image, just as Klauke does with gender, as if the androgyny molded by Klauke has become dispersed throughout the photograph itself.
Even so, Klauke’s photographs ask if a “queered” formalist approach is sufficient. Klauke presents, as a cisgender man, performances that must be connected to real bodies and often endangered, queer lives. Even with female artists working in this vein, such as Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing, gender play on camera has serious, real-world implications that require constant investigation. Transformer (1973) and Illusion (1972), which seem to be precursors to the affected, culture industry-driven androgyny made fashionable by David Bowie and, presently, by Lady Gaga, suggest penile breasts and vaginal allusions that radically eliminate the virile male artist persona so present during their making. While such mainstream appropriations lack introspection, Klauke’s medium-specificity and self-referentiality willingly expose the critiques—photographic and sexual—that could be levied against his gender performances. Though the ethics of his bodily and photographic manipulations are of a distinctly different time, to see his work as retrograde would be like disregarding Womanhouse, one of the originators of feminist performance, for its Second Wave underpinnings. It’s impossible to understand our present state without understanding the transgressive acts of yesteryear.
William J. Simmons is an adjunct lecturer in art history at the City College of New York, and a PhD student in art history and women’s studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Jürgen Klauke, Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s is on view at Koenig & Clinton, New York, through February 27, 2016.