PRINT May 1990


JOYCE KOZLOFF HAS BEEN spending a lot of time in train stations, subways, and airports these past ten years.1 As Freud warned us, travel—particularly in trains—is fraught with erotic peril. All that motion, all that fantastic reshuffling of space and time, all that hurrying to meet, all those possible delays and missed connections, all that purposefulness, all that anxiety about potential accidents. Like sex, travel is a barrage of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” For two years in her off-hours Kozloff indulged in and elaborated on her “what ifs” and “if onlys”: the breath-stopping series “Patterns of Desire” is the result. Raiding multiple traditions of Eastern and Western art history—high art, kitsch, pornography, decorative arts, textile design, architectural plans—Kozloff’s paintings purposefully reshuffle time and space and reassess the fantastic pleasures and oppressive powers of the erotic in art across cultures. Subtitled “Pornament is Crime,” “Patterns of Desire” is composed of 32 watercolors that ask what kinds of figures the pornographic and the ornamental cut in the carpet, and whose feet they burn when they couple.

“Patterns of Desire” is profoundly and boldly irreverent: in the present climate of congressional censorship and repression, encountering these images is extraordinarily refreshing. Kozloff’s work reveals how much we’ve neglected the woman artist’s relation to sexual representation in our rush to defend (or decry) the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.2 As the Senate seeks to patrol the enigmatic borders of “serious artistic merit,” Kozloff envisions a world with no borders, no customs agents, no illegal aliens. Distinctions between “erotica” and “pornography,” between “high art” and “kitsch,” between “private” and “public” art are broken down here: Kozloff is interested in the continuities between art forms and wants to eradicate artistic hierarchies. Her work refuses to arrive anywhere and declare itself: this is art as travel (as against art as tourism). For Kozloff, mobility and movement within and across the fixed frame of painting serve as the locus of both erotic fascination and esthetic satisfaction.

Part of the pleasure of Kozloff’s paintings comes from the transgressive thrill of watching a perfect copyist steal the original from the museum wall and shrink it down to size. At 22 inches square, the watercolors look, at first glance, like pages from an elaborately beautiful coloring book or illustrations for (precocious) children’s fairy tales. Using as many as ten “source” images in one watercolor, Kozloff’s work is at once hectically allusive and ferociously concentrated. Part of her strategy here is to open art up, to spread further the various limbs of its body. In Smut Dynasty Vase, for example, she distorts the shape of the late-14th-century vase (Yuan dynasty), stretching its center and decorating it with both Greek and Chinese copulating couples.

Remarkably, it is not the cavorting couples who provide the erotic charge. As Linda Nochlin points out in her introduction to Patterns of Desire, the forthcoming book of Kozloff’s paintings, the copulating bodies are “simply another decorative element, no more significant than the stylized borders of highly ornamental backgrounds against which their provocative bodies languish, twist, or nestle.” By treating sexual poses as decorative elements, Kozloff transforms these human figures into familiar landmarks one might glimpse, with some fondness and a vague sense of measurement, from a speeding train. Kozloff’s refusal to consider the twisting figures as her end point or central conceit defies one of Western art history’s hitherto enabling metaphors: that artistic creation is so much fornication—that paint is semen and canvas the woman’s body. If this has been an enabling metaphor for the male artist, as Kozloff suggests in Big Boys: Palladio, Veronese, Picasso et al, in which she alludes to the mistress-models of both Veronese and Picasso, it often has been a disabling metaphor for the woman artist.

In Fallen (From High Art to Kitsch), Kozloff places Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1781, and Balthus’ The Guitar Lesson, 1934, within Robert Jones’ Design for the Saloon, 1816-22, of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. On the right border of Kozloff’s painting are designs for the west entrance hall of the pavilion, for a wall decoration, for a doorway of the library (probably by Frederick Crace), and for the south entrance hall, drawn from sources executed between 1802 and 1815. Enclosed within the Royal Pavilion, the fallen women of Fuseli and Balthus are like perfectly symmetrical stands upholding the columns of high art, with its emphasis on the singularity of the artist’s vision, the perfectly posed dramatic moment, and the erotically static woman. The conventions of female sexual abandon are encoded in both paintings in the same visual vocabulary: pointed toes (even on the seducing teacher), arched back, hair falling toward hell. Within the walls of the Brighton Pavilion, Balthus’ and Fuseli’s paintings, with their repetitive returns to the same posed woman, become “kitsch”; the burning fires and spiraling tiles of the pavilion, generally cordoned off in the foyers of art history, become “high art.” At least decorative art and pornography, Kozloff implies, are honest about their recurrent patterns. Kozloff’s point is made more scandalous when we recall that Balthus’ Guitar Lesson is often discussed as a transgressive appropriation of a pietà and that Fuseli’s Nightmare inspired countless imitations and caricatures (the prodigious 18th-century caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson had the temerity to turn the woman into Charles James Fox, the British statesman, christening his work The Covent Garden Nightmare).3 Fascinated by the volatility and mutability of the image, Kozloff is most attracted to those that create the traffic snarls on the highways of art history.

After critiquing Balthus’ Guitar Lesson, Kozloff creates her own Music Lessons. Using the score for Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (the first story told in opera) as the ground for her painting, Kozloff sends up the properly chaste-sounding proposition that all art tends toward music in order to compare the nature of musical and artistic seduction. Orpheus’ music persuades Hades (the abductor of Persephone) to allow his beloved Eurydice, who had been bitten by a serpent, to return to life. Hades agrees to release Eurydice but cautions Orpheus not to look back during their voyage from the underworld. Orpheus ascends, but cannot resist turning to look at Eurydice, who is traveling behind him; as he looks she falls again toward hell singing “farewell.” For Kozloff, it is the way that men are forever stopping and looking that is damning to women. Kozloff wants to teach the modern Orpheus to keep moving and to realize that his looking also involves his need to be seen. Motivated by more than Freudian accounts of exhibitionism, the need to be seen stems from a doubt about one’s own existence, a doubt felt especially acutely in the rush of a crowd, in the barrage of beauty, in the daunting momentum of grand landscapes, and, as in Orpheus’ case, in the anxiety of a lover’s travels.

Superimposed on Monteverdi’s score are anonymous caricatures of Cardinal Rohan and the Comte de Mirabeau, in which, in place of the penetrating eyes characteristic of 18th-century portraiture, fornicating bodies anchor their profiles. On its borders, sketches of female hands and penises by Mihály von Zichy, a 19th-century Hungarian artist, and illustrations from early-19th-century Japanese sex manuals provide a hilarious commentary on musical “finger exercises.” As in sexual exchange, Kozloff implies, visual pleasure demands reciprocity. Thus far, our visual “positions” have been too stratified: he looks, she is seen. While many feminist artists (Cindy Sherman, Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger perhaps most prominently) have been engaged in the construction of the female gaze, Kozloff astutely reminds us that until art addresses the way in which men and women, on both sides of the frame, want both to look and to be seen, we risk merely substituting the female gaze for the male.

Kozloff’s paintings are structured in sections whose perspectival codes are, seemingly, incompatible. The viewer must continually adjust the codes that govern the gaze and the representation of space: Pompeian frescoes, Renaissance vanishing points, and the “cartoon” rules of Tom of Finland’s contemporary gay erotica jostle one another in one of the most spectacularly beautiful paintings in the collection, Unbearable Pompeian Darkness. By prohibiting the stable point of view of Western realism, Kozloff makes it impossible for the viewer to turn on the machinery of fixation, objectification, fetishism—the apparatus is always moving, one cannot get “a good look.” Traditional Western pornography proceeds from the proposition that the image is constructed to be seen and solicits from the viewer the desire to see. In Kozloff’s work the erotic charge comes from the perpetual mobility of the eye, from the way in which the painting summons in the viewer the desire to be seen. Obviously, Kozloff’s images are constructed to be seen, but seeing them involves an extraordinary awareness of what it means to want to be seen according to particular (and shifting) conventions of perspectival space. In isolating this aspect of spectatorship, Kozloff advances feminist theories of representation: up until now, the implications of “being seen” have been exclusively discussed in terms of women. Kozloff’s “Patterns of Desire” asks what men’s relation to being seen is about.

For example, in Inside the Amber Palace (or the Pasha Peeks), the master of the harem watches two women making love; their pleasure in each other is secondary to his pleasure in observing them. Kozloff’s source is Achille Devéria’s The Harem, ca. 1850. The sultan’s power is inscribed and made legitimate by others—the artist, the viewer—who, in looking, watch him watch. Kozloff inserts a gaggle of white male geezers from Rowlandson’s Curiosity Seekers, ca. 1810, on the right-hand side of the painting. These men also watch the women, and thereby set in motion a series of displacements of voyeuristic pleasure within, and across, the frame of Kozloff’s work. The singularity of the pasha’s gaze is undercut by the crowd of Rowlandson’s men who, in turn, are undercut by the unseen but anticipated crowd of art lovers who have also “watched” this painting (and its sources). Under these rules, the pleasure of the two women is important only to the degree to which it supports the pleasure of the male and his prerogatives—possession of the female body (the harem), rule of the body politic (England), control of the body of knowledge (art history).

The addition of Rowlandson’s crowd wryly mirrors the activity of looking within and across the frame and allows Kozloff to complicate our relation to the male gaze. Classical voyeurism is contingent upon the watcher remaining unseen; Kozloff’s brilliant point is that within the visual arts, the voyeur can never be painted because in picturing him, he is no longer unseen. Thus, the recent critical fascination with the voyeuristic “male gaze” within painting is misplaced: it, too, perpetuates and reflects, rather than challenges, the opposition between looking and being seen. Kozloff’s sustained concentration on the mobility and reciprocity of looking allows us to perceive, in a way that the critical discourse has not, that men’s relation to being seen is at least as complex as women’s—and, because it is so often aggressively masked, perhaps even more complex.

Inside the Amber Palace also traces the equally intense political and colonial displacements enacted within and across the frame. Rowlandson’s Curiosity Seekers are fascinated both by the “lesbianism” (quotes are needed because it’s heterosexual lesbianism: the women make love to one another to please the men) and the Orientalism of the harem. The pasha who is entertained by watching two women make love is overwhelmed by the numerous Englishmen who peer at his power and typically alleviate their feelings of envy by reminding themselves of their superior breeding and civility—what they might hypocritically call “the monogamy of marriage.”

Rowlandson’s men stand in for Western art history’s relation to Oriental art—curious, at times envious, but by and large primarily interested in using non-Western art to maintain the superiority of Western art. Kozloff uses non-Western art to underscore the similarity of the male gaze across cultures, the stylized differences in perception of the idealized body—the ancient Greeks preferred small penises while, historically, the Japanese have liked large ones—and to illustrate the cross-cultural fascination with sex as an artistic subject. But Kozloff seems not to notice that her fluency and mobility across genre, time, and culture is itself an expression of Western entitlement and utopianism. Thus, even as she seeks to eradicate the hierarchies between Western and non-Western art, she unwittingly perpetuates them. This is the burden of the Western artist: one is sometimes placed, despite one’s best intentions, in the position of the colonizer.

In her insistence on the mobility of the gaze, Kozloff’s paintings seem, at times, filmic. The first watercolor in the book, in fact, is based on a set design by Hermann Warm for Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The cabinet of Dr. Caligari), 1920, one of the most successful attempts to challenge the conventions of the cinematic gaze. In the film, the attack on the stability of the authorizing gaze is licensed by the subjects of madness and somnambulism; for Kozloff, it is licensed through the comparison of the pornographic image and ornament. Caligari and “Patterns” employ subjects, often perceived in our culture as debased and degraded, to launch an attack on mainstream esthetics.

In Classical Stations, another work with a cinematic subtext, Kozloff punctuates the Art Deco posters advertising ’30s and ’40s Hollywood musicals with copies of copies of copies of Giulio Romano’s outlawed paintings of “the sixteen postures” of lovemaking, the so-called I modi.4 Placing paintings of Maximilien de Waldeck’s lithographs (her source), derived from Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings, done after Romano’s paintings, on top of paintings for film advertisements, gives the lie to Walter Benjamin’s celebrated argument about “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Benjamin argued that with the advent of photography, fine art had lost its “aura,” the allure associated with “the original.”5 Kozloff wryly suggests that this argument is nostalgic for an aura that was never there. Like the photographic arts, the history of painting is the history of copies of copies. Painting, just as intensely as photography, suffers and enjoys its own complex relation to reproduction. Composed of six similar panels arranged like filmic negatives, Classical Stations underlines the continuities between film and painting and suggests that the celebration of desire, in celluloid or oil, proceeds from a model that is always already a copy. The most elaborately inventive positions of lovemaking succeed or fail by virtue of their ability to allow and encourage repetition: the question after virtuoso lovemaking is “can we do it again?” At the heart of Kozloff’s art-making are questions about the status of the copy (can she do Picasso again?), about the nature of repetition (particularly as it relates to craft, textile, and ornament), and about the pleasure of a reciprocal visual exchange as against a fixed, proprietary gaze.

Kozloff’s ambition is remarkable, but one aspect of it is troublesome. To dismantle the master’s house, Audre Lorde argues, one cannot use his tools.6 In repainting “crimes of pornament” Kozloff occasionally revisits scenes of extraordinary violence and misogyny. Treating the representation of sexual escapades as “simply another decorative element” is not quite as neutral as it might sound. Kozloff’s optimistic hope is that in revealing the way in which these scenes work, how they depend on the degradation of women and the pleasure of men, we will be sufficiently sickened and love them no longer. Kozloff’s “Patterns of Desire” confirms Naomi Schor’s “surprising hypothesis” in her provocative book Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine: “Feminine specificity lies in the direction of a specifically feminine form of idealism, one that seeks to transcend not the sticky feminine world of prosaic details, but rather the deadly asperities of male violence and destruction.”7 It’s a difficult inheritance, and while Kozloff makes it witty and beautiful the abject burden of the job remains. She herself is aware of this, of course, and at the bottom of each painting she reinscribes the project “Pornament is Crime.”

Kozloff is fascinated by the transgression of boundaries: high-art images and sacred texts from the Koran and the Book of Kells are treated with the same respect she accords Japanese sex manuals, Chinese pillow books, and Tom of Finland’s homoerotic cartoons. The part of Monteverdi’s score used in Music Lessons is from Act 3, when Orpheus convinces Charon to row him across the River Styx. It is the moment and the motion of the lover’s travel that animate Kozloff’s imagination. She herself crosses about a hundred rivers in “Patterns of Desire.” Unlike Orpheus, she never looks back.

Peggy Phelan teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. She is writing a book entitled The Word, the Image, the Unmarked Woman.

Joyce Kozloff's Patterns of Desire, with an introduction by Linda Nochlin, wili be published by Hudson Hills Press in June.



1. Kozloff has designed tile architectural installations for San Francisco Airport (1983); Humboldt-Hospital Subway Station, Buffalo (1984); Wilmington Delaware Amtrak station (1984); Suburban Station, Philadelphia (1985); and Harvard Square Subway Station, Cambridge (final installation 1985). She is currently working on a rapid-transit station in Southern California. Some of this public work is documented in Patricia Johnston, Joyce Kozloff: Visionary Ornament, exhibition catalogue, Boston: Boston University Arts and Publications, 1985.

2. For a fuller treatment of these issues see my “Money Talks,” TDR: A Journal of Performance Studies, Spring 1990, pp. 4-22.

3. See Sabine Rewald, Balthus, exhibition catalogue, New York: Harry N. Abrams and Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984, pp. 28-31; and Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, New York and Washington, D.C.: Praeger, 1972, pp. 16-19, 222-23, and passim for a discussion of these issues.

4. I modi: The Sixteen Pleasures, An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance, ed. and trans. Lynne Lawner, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1989, includes reproductions of de Waldeck’s and Raimondi’s work, as well as a translation of Pietro Aretino’s Sonetti Lussuriosi, which were inspired by Romano’s paintings.

5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, pp. 217-52.

6. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981, pp. 98-101.

7. Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, New York and London: Methuen, 1987, p. 97.