In the spring of 1972 Friedl Kubelka, then a recent graduate of the Graphic Instruction and Research Institute in Vienna and a tyro fashion photographer with a taste for knowing, lush romanticism, began to photograph herself daily and arrange the square portraits in calendrical grids. At first the artist fills each frame with her Jean Seberg crop, her mock-demure gaze and the odd blurredly abstracted body part. But the Jahresportrait series (1972–) swiftly took on both a conceptual diligence – she kept the exercise up for a year and has since repeated it at five-year intervals – and a remarkable variety of compositional risks, emotional currents, degrees of confessional unmasking. In the examples from 1997 on show at Richard Saltoun, the middle-aged artist appears gurning at her camera, slumped naked on the sofa, tightly framed in intimate exchange with her daughter and husband. You could easily get the sense from these black-and-white matrices that hers is an art of frank if coolly serialised narcissism.
Not quite. For a start, the exhibition pairs Kubelka with her Austrian contemporary VALIE EXPORT: an artist, at least avowedly, of a more incendiary sort. (Her Touch Cinema of 1968, for which passersby were invited to touch her breasts through a Styrofoam box, is a brazen exemplar of that era’s bodily provocations.) The present show is a sequel to the gallery’s recent exhibition of Viennese Actionism; both women featured in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at MOCa, LA, in 2007. For sure, the combination works here to invoke the Viennese milieu that both artists were part of, recalling almost solely through photography (and a couple of Kubelka’s films) the centrality of female artists’ bodies to their feminist practice at the time. EXPORT’s Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (1969), in which the artist is photographed in crotchless trousers, wildly coiffured and clutching a machine-gun, sits instructively alongside Kubelka’s early-1970s Pin-Ups where, semi-naked before a mirror, she wields her SLR like a weapon, or a mask.
But the impression of seamless or at least fellow-travelling similarity is also a little misleading. Because Kubelka’s, if not exactly as self-involved as the Jahresportrait series might seem at first blush, is surely the more equivocal and even melancholy body of work. Not least, perhaps even more so, at the moments when she adopts apparently brash modes such as the soft-porn pin-up. The colour self-portraits she took in Parisian hotel rooms in 1973–4 are among her best works. The semi-nude artist, face obscured by the camera, regards herself in the mirror-tiled ceiling above the bed, invokes a good deal of photographic history (Rodchenko, Bellmer, Man Ray) then checks out alone with her secret intact.
This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue