PRINT May 1985


“THE RECENT WORK OF VERA Lehndorff and Holger Trülzsch”—some variant of this proposed itself as the initial solution to writing about them—“produces an ironic cramp in the mind.” Yes, that was the difficulty, this irony—that Veruschka von Lehndorff, the most celebrated fashion model of the ’60s, in tandem with another artist, had devised a body of photographic work as much about painting, sculpture, performance, and architecture as it is about photography, paradoxically a conceptual extension or negation of her fashion career—the recognition of a sequence that continues logically from one place to another but seems, nevertheless, bizarre. "Here is a large collection of photographic objects in which the subject is one of the most extensively photographed human bodies in the world, used as a painting ground to become almost indistinguishable from numerous rotting, peeling, decomposing surfaces and surroundings, obliterating the body’s identity by means of a physically excruciating process that reaches its full refinement in the negation of physical space.” But not the total negation, not entirely obliterated. Collapsed certainly, banished somewhat, figure-ground relation complexified—this was, I thought, a way to begin.

Most people are surprised, after all, when they learn it was Verushchka who made these things with Trülzsch. “On an obvious level,” I wrote, ”they comprise an ingenious reversal of fashion presentation.” Every stab at an essay produced this kind of defensiveness, this false assumption that anyone implicated in fashion, even Veruschka, would meet a certain resistance from people concerned with “art,” though it is simple enough to look at the pictures and see that they are “art” of an extremely high order.

“Veruschka,” I wanted to make clear, “is Veruschka’s invention. She was trained as a painter and an artist, otherwise she would never have been able to do what she did as a fashion model. She worked with the photographers, not in a passive model way, but as a collaborator. By the end she was probably the only model up to her time to have final control of what images were used. Before Veruschka, models were not encouraged to have distinct personalities. No one else did what Veruschka did. She operated on a principle of total outrageousness. If there is a rule, break it.” If I began that way, I could tell the story of the two eggs a day. Before she decided to become Veruschka she had been “discovered” in Paris by the head of a big New York agency. “You are too tall for Paris,” the woman said. “Come to New York, you’re perfect for America.” So she came and this same woman did not remember ever talking to her. "We’ll try to do something with you, since you’re here. Eat two eggs a day, nothing else. And walk everywhere, to every appointment, get that fat off.” She was quite skinny at the time but ate two eggs a day for months and walked everywhere and the agency moved her into an apartment with two other girls. Then the apartment was broken into, and she found out she had this aunt who lived in the West Village in a townhouse, and she moved in with this aunt and had strawberries for breakfast. Nothing was happening, so she decided to go back to Germany and figure out a strategy. Because even if she did not think much of fashion it ired her to fail at such a silly business. She returned to her mother’s house in Germany and remembered that someone had told her that in America you only need to have one idea, one really good idea, and push it. Because even if you have only one, that is one more than other people. And so she invented Veruschka.

I am not telling this the way I planned: “a persona she launched two decades ago in a gambling mood, sensing the precise moment when a countess whose bone structure was twice the prescribed height,” I started in that style, that formal voice, "might slink into a top modeling agency without a portfolio and become, within six months, the fashion symbol of a decade.” Is it necessary to explain that Veruschka was, and symbolized, a necessary moment, quite a long moment in the glare of 15 minutes of fame, and that Veruschka among many others who had other things to do understood perfectly that celebrity is the trivial form of fame? That one could, at that time, expand the form, make it say things it wasn’t designed for. That time is here again. Celebrity is a way of being there: intensely so, when a mass consciousness of death prevails. In the ’60s Vietnam, now nuclear terror. The work under discussion is, unambiguously, horrifyingly, about death.

Vogue has gone right back to being flypaper. But the Vreeland era at Vogue aligned fashion with the convulsions of the culture, instead of trailing them from a safe distance as it had before. It brought fashion and its photography closer to art than it had ever been in America. What everyone loved about Veruschka was this: the idea of a really intelligent person being a fashion model, someone who understood that life lies beyond appearances. "I thought you were supposed to be in Paris,” David Hemmings says to her near the end of Blow-Up, running into her at a party. “I am in Paris,” she replies.

If I decided to junk the necessary but (to the artists and the art) unwelcome angle of past identity and its analogical linkages it is because that take presumes a certain codifying distance, flattening the ground around the subject, stating the obvious the obvious the obvious, why bother, it’s enough to say you can relate this work to the other work but this work is worlds away from it, or, for the last time, worlds away "from the circumstance of being an ambulatory objet d’art in the ’60s, Veruschka devised a method of transmogrifying her relation to the camera while remaining in front of it. She had always made her own ideas manifest in her fashion pictures. In the late ’60s she began painting her body to be photographed with water-based theatrical paint, transforming parts of it into trompe l’oeil vegetation, rocks, and animals.”

In 1970 Veruschka began collaborating with Trülzsch in develop ing body paint into an art form, beyond a novelty, using it as a central trope in an ensemble of effects culminating in photographic images. Trülzsch was trained as a painter and sculptor and had performed music with groups, percussion in experimental music, and worked in photography. Now he is an outstanding photographer with a widely exhibited body of noncollaborative work. This work with Veruschka became important in both their lives, starting with the “Mimicry Dress Art” pictures. These are parodies of cinema and magazine images, in sequences. For example, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, with Veruschka doing the Rita Hayworth poses and expressions and with the dress painted on her skin. Hardly anyone notices that all the clothes are painted on, the jackets with the ruffled shirtfronts underneath, the shadows of the lapels; anyone viewing them cold is liable to perceive the requisite matrix of signifiers to elicit ’a paradigm; In another, the sexy James Dean type she plays in denim and slicked hair will read as an incipient stiff phallus as persuasively as one of Bruce Weber’s crotchoramas of Matt Dillon, despite the female anatomy discernible under the paint job. Pictures say whatever we are conditioned to want. There are striptease sequences. One is of a standard burlesque queen stripping, but when she is finally naked she continues to strip, unzipping her forehead down the middle to reveal, on one side, a black void. You can see that they are not trick photography and that they are about the illusionistic capacities of painting as well as those of photography. The perfected studio lighting and seamless backdrop buildup of the pose amplify the visual manipulation into its parody.

The facetious tone of the Mimicry Dress Art pictures is something like Pat Oleszko’s work in which the conceit is the confection of a second skin which makes a statement and at the same time conceals the body of the artist. Oleszko does this by padding herself with a soft sculptural covering, while Lehndorff-Trülzsch erase the body’s contours with a mirage of artificial volumes. In both cases the caricature has its generous aspect of viewer-accessibility and a less often noted hard-edged quality of ridicule which gleans depth from savaging human cliches drawn from both sexes. With Mimicry Dress Art,Lehndorff-Trülzsch consider the body in relation to its socialization, its cladding, its deceptive language. The series dismantles the social identity of “Veruschka” by concealing one celebrity persona inside another, and by simulating the fashion image—the self as materials—with materials that stick to the skin and are literally less than skin-deep. These isolated episodes in the history of the body and fashion seduction are rarefied into exegetical art pieces which relate coherently to Cindy Sherman’s later emblematizing of mass-media archetypes, which catalogue the more rapid turnover of female “looks” prevailing in the Age of Television.

Vis-à-vis body art, there is a clear difference in purpose between exhibiting the body plain and making it do unpleasant things, and generating an environment around or with the body that effects a partial or complete dematerialization. Certain public spectacles of pain are as tritely staged as hard-core pornography, more so in fact—I have in mind Stelarc, the artist who suspends himself from meat hooks as an exercise in self-transcendence. On the other hand, an artist like Chris Burden crawling over broken glass or Valie Export walking through fields of electrical current leads the spectator through a brilliantly aroused awareness of mind-body dynamics. Although stoic “performances” are sometimes recorded on film and video as well as photographed, the most recent work that Lehndorff-Trülzsch have bracketed with the term “Oxydationen” (Oxidations, 1978) (this is the formal name of the series, but also the generic description of works outside the series) is not primarily concerned with the duration of the “endurance” required to arrive at an image. The agonizing immobility implied by the key images are single-frame compressions of experience, different but comparable to the remarkable dramas of immobility presented at full length in works by Ulay and Marina Abramović.

“The combinative technical procedures involved in ‘Oxydetionen’,” the analysis could read, “are part of the finished products metaphysical aura.” But I like better the motto from Novalis in the catalogue Oxydationen by Lehndorf and Trülzsch: “Life is a process of involuntary oxidation.” As we know from Robert Rauschenberg’s erased Willem de Kooning, there is something far more esthetically engaging and philosophically astute than a thing’s appearance, and that is a thing’s disappearance. Why is there something rather than nothing, Heidegger wanted to know. We know that appearance and being are not the same, the body is not the same as the self. And in our time, our century, the thing that has devastated human life, diminished human life below the vegetal level, reduced human life to slavelike mimicry, is the denial of this difference; lets speak plainly—everything in this barbaric century that has degraded human life has been the successful identification of the body with the self, the reduction of the body to nothing more than the body.

The metaphysical aura of “Oxydationen” is essentially Buddhist in its contemplative character. The methodology is that of noninterference with the found backgrounds, which are essentially the content of the photographs: they are never decorated or retouched, though often they look that way. A location is found, a place with its own resonances: the Fish Auction Hall in Hamburg, for example, an enormous iron structure abandoned to the depredations of climate and transient clochards. Surfaces are studied: beams festooned with dangling electrical fixtures, huge metal doors covered with generations of crackling paint, walls phosphorescently scumbled by oxidation. The artists enter into the physical and psychological field the location emits, setting up a square plastic working tent for their materials. A zone of decay is concentrated on; areas concealed when the body stands in front of them are examined under various conditions of light. Surfaces are measured, their colors studied; then the artists begin matching the found surfaces and colors on her body which has been covered with a kind of paste onto which the paint is finally applied. The painting itself will take as long as 16 hours. Eventually the entire displaced area is replicated on the body by both of them: bricks, industrial molding, rivets, door handles, hinges, pipes, wires, cables, parts of a fuse box, flakes of chipping paint, indentations in the wall surface, splashes of a rust-colored substance used to combat rust on door locks and handles—whatever is there.

The immobile body’s pain reactions to the environment (cold, tics, the stench of decomposing garbage) and to the painting process (glaring lights, skin irritations, prolonged immobility) provide an intimate access to the environment. In Zen meditation the meditator is absorbed into the perceived object, becoming “the same thing.” The goal of the images in the “Oxydationen” series is the merger of the body with the found environment, but the body never disappears completely. The extent of its absorption into the background is the psychic charge of the image. So we see the artifact of displacement, the iron architecture of the wholesale fish industry, absorbing the soft architecture of the human body into its rigid geometries.

Oxidationen” deals with man-made structures designed and built by social and economic imperatives, structures that have become dysfunctional but persist as evidence of their own mortality and ours. “Time destroys everything we do,” wrote Thomas Bernhard, "whatever it is.” This work is morbid and sublime, and terrifying.

Gary Indiana is a writer who lives in New York.