Nicola L. (1937–2018)

Nicola L. in Penetrable at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1991. Photo: Estate of the artist.

WHEN THE POLICE INTERRUPTED her 1969 performance, The Red Coat Same Skin for Everyone, on the streets of Franco-era Barcelona, Nicola L. followed up by taking it to the stage in 1970. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso had just left Brazil, fleeing political persecution, and invited her to perform with them at one of the more historic Isle of Wight festivals, where Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and the Doors performed in front of thousands of attendees. In footage of the event, the Tropicália musicians play while a group of young people dance naked inside the coat. Nicola’s methodology was anchored in this spirit of the ’60s and ’70s, with all its urgent, fraught, and exuberant fights, its losses and celebrations.

Like many others, I knew and recognized her art before I knew who she was as an artist. Throughout most of her career, Nicola’s works were mostly circulated in the design world, where her brilliance was given a recognition withheld from the art world and where the scope of her practice was neglected at the same time. If her name isn’t familiar, a description of a piece will usually bring it to mind, for the bodily forms of works such as Lips Lamp, Eye Lamp, Homme Sofa, and Femme Commode are by now iconic and in the annals of Pop art and design. The perversity of opening the drawers of the Femme Commode, turning on the switch of an Eye Lamp, or sitting on one of her Homme Sofas was an essential part of the performative aspect of her work. The Red Coat was also an object—she carried it around in a suitcase to deploy in various cities, as well as a performance, for producing a narrative fully activated her work’s critical implications.

Like her series of “Femme Fatal” paintings, featuring figures such as Billie Holiday, Ulrike Meinhof, and Marilyn Monroe, many of her works focused on surface, the arbitrariness of skin, the violence of gender. Nicola made objects and performances, but she also wrote plays and made films. After Red Coat was shut down in Spain, years later, in 1979, she wrote a screenplay and made a film about the feminist revolutionary Eva Forest, who was imprisoned by the Franco government. She then moved to New York and shot footage in CBGBs to make a short documentary about the punk band Bad Brains. In 2011, when the Chelsea Hotel was sold and closed for renovations, forcing many of its tenants out, she made a film memorializing it; she’d found a haven there when she moved to the United States back in ’79. In this sense, Nicola responded to the issues of the moment through the media she saw fit to best represent them. Her approach was fluid and perhaps is one reason it hasn’t always been considered in its entirety. Throughout the span of her career she had few moments of significant recognition, although her contributions have certainly had and continue to have an impact. While she never quite settled in one world or another, freedom was her pursuit.

Ruba Katrib is curator of MoMA PS1, New York.