Now is the time

The Bank Austria Kunstforum in Vienna is currently hosting a major retrospective of the work of Austrian artist Kiki Kogelnik (1935-1997). The exhibition, titled “Kiki Kogelnik: Now Is the Time” is the largest exhibition of works from Kogelnik’s entire career so far, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, and films. I went on a guided tour with Instagramers Austria (thank you for the invitation!) last night and am happy to share some impressions.

Kiki Kogelnik became associated with the Pop Art movement in the 1960s, though her range of work goes well beyond that. She was born in Bleiburg, Austria, in 1935, and she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In 1961, she moved to New York City, where she became involved in the Pop Art scene, although her early works belong to abstract impressionism, a post–World War II art movement in American painting, developed in New York City in the 1940s. (It was the first specifically American movement to achieve international influence and put New York at the center of the Western art world. The Abstract Expressionists rejected the idea that art should be representational or realistic, and instead focused on creating works that were expressive of the artist’s inner feelings and emotions.)

In 1961, Kiki Kogelnik broke into the Austrian art scene with her first solo exhibition at Monsignor Otto Mauer’s gallery at St. Stephen’s. She was only the second woman, after Maria Lassnig, to have a solo exhibition at the gallery. Her works were described as being full of life and vitality, with her brushstrokes characterized by large, spontaneous gestures. The press called her work “cheerful.”

The “cheerful” paintings of Kogelnik´s early artistic phase

Kogelnik had met the American artist Sam Francis, a representative of abstract expressionism, in 1959 and began a relationship with him. After moving to New York in 1961, Kogelnik began to focus on the way the media pressured and portrayed women. She met Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Tom Wesselmann, and also some female pop artists such as Marisol Escobar and Niki de Saint Phalle. The women artists of New York of the 1960s struggled for commercial success, unlike their male counterparts.

Kogelnik´s painting “Marilyn” (1962, the year of Marilyn Monroe´s early death) is a notable example of a shift in her focus. At that time she moved away from the abstract towards figuration. Her Marilyn portrait is a stark contrast to Andy Warhol’s famous version of Marilyn Monroe, as it depicts the actress as a headless, stylized body with exaggerated curves. The painting is a powerful statement about the objectification of women in popular culture. It is a reminder that women are more than just their bodies.

In terms of her contribution to Pop Art, Kogelnik’s work is often seen as a feminist critique of it. She was critical of the way in which Pop Art often objectified women, and she sought to create a more empowering image of women in her work.

Much of her work explores the theme of identity. She was particularly interested in the ways in which women are often forced to conform to narrow social roles. In her paintings, Kogelnik often depicted herself in different costumes and poses, challenging the idea that there is one true “self.” In one of her most famous works, “The Painter” (1975), she depicts herself as a giant, black-silhouetted figure with a red-tipped brush in her hand. The painting can be seen a powerful statement about the power of art to challenge and subvert traditional gender roles.

The Painter, Kiki Kogelnik, at Kunstforum

Kogelnik’s foremost interests then were the themes of gender, identity, and technology. During the time of the preparations for the first human moon landing, Kiki Kogelnik explored the space theme artistically too. Her work Astronaut dates from 1964, and she made the screen prints of “I can see my footprint” during the live TV transmission of the moon landing during what she called “Moon happening”.

It was also during this time that she became increasingly interested in the combination of bodies and medical and technical objects, such as the pill, x-rays, and prostheses, but also a theme that is in everyone´s mind now, artificial intelligence (!). Her “Robots” drawings full of ornamental circles and body segments deal with her fascination with and fear of science and technology paired with the human body. This is recurring theme in art that artists have been picking up to this day.

In one of her most famous sculptural works, the “Hangings”, she took the outline of a person and cut it out, initially of foam then of vinyl and hung them on coat hangers, deindividualizing the bodies. In this she refers to the body as a shaped and shapeable thing. There are associations with women´s domestic activities of course, sowing, or hanging up the laundry, or perhaps being a slave to fashion and a human “clothes hanger”.

She was particularly interested in the ways in which women were portrayed in the media and in popular culture. Her work is often provocative and challenging, but it is also playful and humorous. Scissors and other tools were a recurring motif in her art.

Kogelnik´s “paintings of women” from the 1970s fall into the peak of the Women´s Liberation movement. She said “My paintings are about women – about illusions women have about themselves.” She deals with the roles attributed to women very explicitly in this decade, with an emphasis on artificiality, often inspired by what she found in fashion magazines.

Kogelnik’s paintings, sculptures, and prints also often feature images of death and dying. She was particularly interested in the way that death is portrayed in popular culture. When she made her work “Hi” and the ceramic skulls that go with it she already knew about her diagnosis of cancer, but she had always created artworks picturing skulls in one way or another.

L: “Hi”, 1994, created 3 years before Kogelnik died of cancer. R: Skull, 1970
Bombs in Love, 1964, can also be seen as dealing with death, or at least the threat of it. Kogelnik witnessed the horrors of war as a child. This sculpture was created during the Cold War.

In the 1980s, Kogelnik’s work began to feature fragmented people, signs, and symbols. She used ceramic modules in conjunction with her paintings in her Expansions series. In later works, the human body was depicted in increasingly fragmented and manipulated forms. By the 1990s, much of her work portrayed highly abstracted yet expressive faces. During this time, Kogelnik created a series of glass sculptures, related drawings, and prints, in which she commented on decorative and commercial themes in art-making.

The exhibition at the Bank Austria Kunstforum is the first major retrospective of Kogelnik’s work to be held in Austria in over 20 years. It is a major opportunity to see the work of this important artist in person. The exhibition runs from February 2 to June 25, 2023. It is curated by Lisa Ortner-Kreil and spans all of Kogelnik´s time of creation . It features works from all of her major series, including the “Cyborgs”, the portraits of women and the “Expansions” series, as well as ceramics and videos.

Kogelnik died from cancer in Vienna in 1997. She is considered one of the most important figures in the history of feminist art, and her work continues to be exhibited and celebrated around the world.


playing around with a picture through the exit door

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