Urs Lüthi

Musée d'Art et d'histoire

In light of the resurgent interest in the body as a subject in art, this retrospective look at the work of Urs Lüthi seems fitting. One of the most important Swiss body artists during the ’70s, Lüthi differed markedly from his American and European counterparts in that he was more a recorder than performer. Lüthi used his body to investigate the formation of the individual and the social selves by physically transforming himself—his age, his sex, his demeanor—and photographically recording the process. As such, his art seems more in tune with younger artists like Cindy Sherman, whose manipulation of the photographed object points to the power images have in forming and defining one’s identity.

This exhibition includes works made by photomechanical techniques—offset printing, photography, and photolithography—as well as etching, engraving, and serigraphy. Three of the exhibition space’s four rooms are given over to Lüthi’s early photographic self-portraits, some of the most interesting being those made between 1970 and 1976, when he openly played on sexual ambiguity and transvestism. In an offset print from 1974, titled My face behind Ecki’s face, Lüthi photographed his profile directly behind the profile of a woman whose face is strikingly similar. The juxtaposition functions like a visual fusion of the artist’s male and female parts. In another offset from the same year, titled You are not the only who is lonely, there is a frontal portrait of Lüthi, from the waist up, in which he has accentuated his female facial features, particularly the lips. Below his face he holds a white board with the title of the piece, his signature, and a large pink lipstick kiss-mark. In both these works Lüthi frames his sexual identity, but in clearly different ways: in the first, with a recognition of a self that is equal parts male and female; and in the second, in opposition to his male self, within the socially determined context of the “feminine.”

In seeing the full range of Lüthi’s images grouped together in the intimate context of a print room, a recurrent struggle between convention and anarchy is illuminated. The subjects of these works remain well within established artistic categories—portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes and, in format, Lüthi is consistent in his use of polyptychs. Yet the photomechanical techniques and the confrontational nature of many early images point to a radicality, or at least an attempt to redefine the status quo. During the ’80s, however, the balance between the two poles tipped to the side of tradition.

Like many artists who came of age during the ’60s and ’70s, Lüthi turned to painting in the early ’80s as it again began to assert its dominance in the art world. In the graphic works Lüthi abandons his own image during most of the ’80s, and instead presents a series of erotic cartoons and caricatures, sometimes layered with abstruse symbols. Inevitably, the strongest work from this period comes at the end of the decade in the form of “Universelle Ordnung” (Universal order, 1989), a suite of 11 engravings in which Lüthi returns to self-portraiture. Images of a bronze bust of Lüthi, with varying facial expressions, alternating with black chain-link patterns that suggest infinity, on a yellow background, function like a physiognomic study of the artist as he ages.

Elizabeth Janus