Oxydationen (1970-1985)

February 12–March 16, 2003
Arcadia University Art Gallery

Vera Lehndorff a.k.a. Veruschka and Holger Trüzsch (1970–1986)

In the early 1970s, Veruschka, who was one of the most celebrated supermodels of the 1960s, resurfaced as Vera Lehndorff, a painter and performance artist. This reappearance lasted just long enough for her to establish a collaborative relationship with Holger Trülzsch (b. 1939, Germany), a musician, painter and sculptor working near Munich, before she disappeared again. This time, however, she would not be subsumed by a self-invented persona, but would recede into rock beds and snow covered walls, into wooden doorways and windowpanes, into corroding industrial complexes, and into multicolored bales of recycled fabric.

Open front door, Paros, 1977, 10 7/8 x 16 1/4 inches, courtesy of the artists

Informed by fresco painting and body-oriented performance art, which by 1970 had a strong international presence, the artists devised a system in which the front half of Lehndorff’s body was meticulously painted to match precisely the coloration, coarse textures, and intricate patterns of the surfaces before which she positioned herself. The figure merging with architectural structures and natural environments produced trompe l’oeil tableaus of hidden spectral forms captured by Trülzsch in a series of vivid color photographs and brief 16mm films.

The title of the show, Oxydationen, refers to both a particular body of work that grew out of Lehndorff and Trülzsch’s response in 1978 to an abandoned fish auction hall in Hamburg, Germany, as well as a general term that encapsulates the duo’s entire oeuvre, developed over fifteen years. The range of sites chosen for their performative actions are not seen as backdrops for a virtuoso technique, but are singled out because of their profound ties to a collective memory closely linked to a Western history remembered through a distinctly European perspective. Situated in shifting locales throughout Germany, Italy, and Greece, the settings, at times, relate to mythology, such as lush forests and grottos that recall Echo’s self-exile and heartbroken metamorphosis into stone and inconsolable sound, but are most often rooted in manifestations of urban decay and devastation.

The combination of a rigorous formal analysis with literary and social allusions speaks to contemporary debates around the body and to dystopian anxieties. In an essay on European performance art of the 1960s and ‘70s, art historian Hubert Klocker argues:

The first half of the twentieth century witnessed a restructuring of political and ideological powers and radical changes in cultural paradigms of the Western world. This re-evaluation triggered the beginning of the end for the West’s Eurocentrism, which has now been replaced by an inclination towards globalization and an increase in ideological free-spaces.1

The fish auction hall thus becomes a symbol for a climate of rapid change in which a once bustling marketplace thriving with commerce and national significance becomes a dead organism, what critic Robert Hughes describes as the inside of a dead whale, a vast empty cavern.2 

This visceral description that turns the rusted metal into blood stains, steel beams into ribs, and arched windows into eye sockets, parallels the process that Lehndorff enacts when she stands painted and naked, eyes closed, against the building’s entropic interiors. While she may appear immobilized by metal bars shackling her neck against sliding iron doors or entombed in the masonry, the primary outcome is a projection of biological functions onto the edifice: crumbling paint starts to resemble flaking skin cells, bolts look like leprous outgrowths and blemishes, and cracks can be perceived as lesions. The severity and implied violence of these conditions are countered by the endurance of Lehndorff’s composure and neutrally erect posture that redirects attention away from her own discomfort toward the distress of the building.

As statements on modernity as well as a dirge, the performances at the fish auction hall are the pair’s most direct commentary on post-war European society. They are bleak reminders of recent urban planning and the detrimental effects of the construction of technologically efficient skyscrapers and suburban communities at the expense of impoverished, inner city neighborhoods and their inhabitants. They also call to mind the consequences of nuclear and biological warfare that can possess a startling beauty when filtered through photography. As novelist and art critic Gary Indiana perceptively notes, it is hard not to look at these images without remembering “those human outlines imprinted on the walls of Hiroshima” or thinking “of neurobiologist Oliver Saegiger’s descriptions of elephantitis lethargica victims who move through life in slow motion.”An apt analogy for the marionette-like movements animating each of the films, all of which are under sixty seconds and show Lehndorff, step-by-step, guided into place. Even if Trülzsch’s role as instruction-giver can be readily deduced, her body seems to obey an internal propulsion that flirts with madness. Once in alignment, her body, locked in like a puzzle piece, twitches slightly and continues to inhale and exhale, her chest rising and falling.

The films, which animate wood, stone, brick, and fabric, are the reverse of the photographs, which can be read as portraits of immobility and death. In both instances what the camera witnesses—an embodiment of the inert and a human form fossilized in walls—are radical transformations in which symbolic space overlaps physical space. A paradigm, grounded in human mortality, arises to regard as living organisms the increasing number of factories and warehouses built during the industrial era that are no longer functional, but that still provide shelter to invisible, itinerant populations.4

Earlier works are not laden with the same concentrated gravity that infects the images taken at the fish auction hall. A sequence of withdrawals from weather-beaten doorways and windowpanes into interior spaces, the photographs taken at Lehndorff’s farm in Peterskirchen, Germany and on the islands of Spetse and Paros, Greece are more of a quiet meditation on the metaphors of nothingness than on the violence of corrosion. As always, segments of skin are left unpainted. In one photograph, the artist’s body vanishing into a charcoal colored door, a bare knuckle yields a tender moment that both emphasizes the body’s vulnerability and further confuses the ownership of material surfaces, as pealing paint seems to hint at a layer of flesh underneath.

Lehndorff and Trülzsch’s first full-scale collaboration,Mimicry-dress-art (1973), is also lighter in tone, functioning as a bridge between Veruschka’s modeling career and Lehndorff’s emergence as a visual artist. Preceding Cindy Sherman’s film stills of the late 1970s, these gender-bending photographs present a cast of caricatures that parody the outlaws and damsels of Hollywood cinema, as well as the self-important theatricality of fashion spreads. By turn Lehndorff postures as a gun-slinging gangster who bears an uncanny resemblance to Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967); a vivacious redhead paying tribute to Rita Hayworth as Gilda (1946); and a swaggering young rebel replete with tight denim and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Iron pillar with drainpipe, 1978, 15 3/4 x 16 inches, courtesy of the artists

Despite their flamboyant style that borders on kitsch, these pictures demonstrate a mad scientist’s desire to fuse flesh with foreign matter, an experiment that becomes compulsive in subsequent works. “The very virtuosity of the painting, its very verisimilitude,” contends Susan Sontag in an essay for their monograph Transfigurations (1986), “suggests something indelible – as if, should one try and remove these clothes, one could not; that one would have to flay oneself to take them off.”5

Lehndorff’s iconography of self-mutilation, as described by Sontag, corresponds to masochism as subject matter, which surfaced largely in 1970s performance art. Mirroring the personal and social angst of a generation coming of age after the political upheavals of the 1960s, artists such as of Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Linda Montano, and Gina Pane would often concentrate on the repetition of a single pain-inducing action to quantifiably experience that sensation and to test their endurance. These events usually occurred in front of small audiences (bystanders who would later function as witnesses) at either a gallery or the artist’s studio, but were at times performed alone. Videos, snapshots, and residual objects were often produced to substantiate, for instance, that Burden, in fact, had a friend shoot him in the arm and Pane, barefoot, scaled a ladder studded with metal thorns.6

The body-paintings belong to this narrative even if the endurance of each performance—Lehndorff patiently holding still for up to sixteen hours a day as not to crack the paint freshly applied to her body while bitten by fleas and having dust swept into her eyes—is not apparent. Rather than self-inflicted wounds, their work employs artifice to induce a strong visceral reaction. Their candor, which never attempts to disguise how these illusions are achieved, allows the viewer to simultaneously interpret pipes running into Lehndorff’s mouth as both skilled trompe l’oeil and actualization of physical pain.

Lehndorff and Trülzsch’s practice also resonates with that of Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985). Private acts that took place in Iowa and Cuba and observed solely by the camera, Mendieta’s Silueta series (1973-1980) are performances in which the artist impressed her five-foot frame into the earth, using a variety of ephemeral materials such as flowers and built-up mud to outline her body, or gunpowder to sear the terrain like a branding iron.

The 1970s witnessed the rise of the feminist movement and many performance artists of the time strategically used a visible, female body to validate the erotic and daily experiences of women as well as to challenge oppressive circumstances that perpetuate sexist cultural expectations and assumptions. Rather than striving for increased visibility, however, both Mendieta and Lehndorff sought to record their corporeal absence. But while Mendieta pursued an ancient rite, situating herself anterior to historical time in a reunion with a mystical, feminine power, Lehndorff attempts to dismantle her previous identity as a fashion icon by dematerializing into iron, brick, and stone.7

Although Mendieta reproduced her Siluetas in large, color photographs and 16mm films, the works are primarily concerned with the sculptural relationship linking her body with the earth. Similarly, Lehndorff and Trülzsch’s performances are mediated through alternate and multiple forms, but are intended to be experienced as painting, which sets the work apart from the documentary images of their peers. Furthermore, by mounting the photographs on sizeable metal sheets, the artists heighten the impression of fresco painting by alluding to the original settings in which they worked and integrating these represented spaces into the architecture of the presentation space.

Inspired by a 19th century warehouse still in use by the residents of Prato, Italy to store recycled textiles sorted by material and color, the series Prato Sirius (1988) represents Lehndorff and Trülzsch’s most successful attempt to synthesize painting, performance, and photography into large-scaled prints. Their art of camouflage also reaches its apotheosis in these images of Lehndorff dissolving into enormous, kaleidoscopic mounds. Previous work, which was comprised of a limited number of architectural details that established a figure-ground relationship, offered visual clues to help detect the location and positioning of Lehndorff’s body. In contrast, the dizzying hodgepodge of visually intense color and pattern that characterizes Prato engulfs the figure. The picture planes – composed of wall-to-wall fabric, their folds imitating swirls of impasto paint – are flattened into two-dimensional compositions of whirling, abstract shapes.

While the Prato series immediately recalls the frenetic brushstrokes of the abstract expressionists and the extravagant arrangement and bright hues of pattern and decoration painting and patchwork quilts, these images are underscored by a darker content. As Lehndorff explains: “The warehouse looks very beautiful in our pictures, but if you look really close, thinking of the camps, where they tied up clothes too, it is actually quite scary.” She finishes with a summation that could be applied to her entire body of work with Trülzsch: “so this is beauty with a monster sitting, hiding behind it.”8

Sandra Firmin
Curatorial Fellow


1 Hubert Klocker, “Gesture and the Object: Liberation as Aktion: A European Component of Performative Art,” Out of Actions: Between performance and the object (1949-1979) (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998), 161.

Robert Hughes, “Introduction,” Oxydation (Bette Stoler Gallery: New York, 1984).

3 Gary Indiana, “Imitation and Its Double,” The Village Voice, 1985.

4 While the artists received permission from government officials to utilize the fish auction hall, they had to contend with the city’s homeless, many of whom slept in the building during the night and repeatedly destroyed the makeshift studio tent put up by Lehndorff and Trülzsch to work in. The auction hall performances anticipate Lehndorff’s multimedia works of the 1990s that examine the interplay between marginalized populations and the urban environment.

5 Susan Sontag, “Introduction,” Trans-figurations (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 8.

Although outwardly destructive behavior was integral to the explosive activities of artist working in the 1950s and ‘60s such as the Viennese Actionists, Wolf Vostell, Allan Kaprow, and Nam June Paik, it was not until the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, and student protests in Europe, that artists regularly turned their aggression inwards. See Paul Schimmel, “Leap into the Void: Performance and the Object,” Out of Actions: between performance and the object (1949-1979) (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998).

7 For a more complete analysis on Mendieta’s work see Miwon Kwon, “Bloody Valentines: Afterimages by Ana Mendieta,” Inside the Visible: an elliptical traverse of 20th century art in, of, and from the feminine (Belgium: Kanaal Art Foundation, 1996).

Interview with Michael Gross, “Veruschka,” Model: the Ugly Business of Beautiful Women (William Morrow & Company, Inc.: New York, 1995), 192