New York

Thierry Kuntzel

Death, so silky and seductive, has fueled centuries of visual art, from innumerable transcendent bleeding Christs to the gorgeous fatalistic flights of the Romantics. Thierry Kuntzel’s projected video triptych Winter (The Death of Robert Walser), 1990, the second section of his series “Quatre saisons moins une” (Four seasons less one), partakes of the legacy of art as mourning and melancholia. Ad Reinhardt’s paintings—so vast and glacial in their embrace of the end of everything—were concurrently exhibited at MoMA, offering an unexpectedly futile point of comparison for Kuntzel’s installation.

Kuntzel’s work, projected directly onto a wall of the Projects Gallery, consists of two large fields of color (constantly fading from deep cobalt to pale gray) that flank the central black and white image of Robert Mapplethorpe model Ken Moody (sleeping, dying, dead). The skin of these projections immaterial and minimal is indebted to postpainterly abstraction, inits inscrutability and its use of stasis as a metaphor for sublime emptiness. Death (the great void) assumes its substance here not through paint rather, it finds form in the face and body of a black man—an erotic, recumbent other. Shot from above, using a computer controlled camera programmed to move along a trajectory that mimicks an infinity symbol over Moody’s prone body, Kuntzel’s central image gradually reveals Moody’s limbs, torso, and face, shrouded by veils that part to display his skin.

Kuntzel’s early efforts as a film theorist (he studied with Christian Metz and Roland Barthes) inform his media work. His first video pieces, in particular, found a resonance between film and Freud’s Wunderblock (this “mystic writing pad” was a simple template that absorbed impressions written on a waxy top sheet), discovering in these forms an evocative model for the functioning of the unconscious. Winter borrows its image from Swiss author Robert Walser’s early writings (in which he described his death in the snow), and the Quatre saisons moins une title has a double sense; it is also an expression meaning “four seasons and being close to death.” Death, however, permanently transfigured socially and culturally by the impact of AIDS, now entombs its object with slow cancers and pain—no gradual sublime fade here. Inevitably, Kuntzel’s estheticized homoerotic musings on a well-known Mapplethorpe model ignite all sorts of unruly resonances, but the work’s pristine form and silent address are too subtle and too lovely to disrupt the exalted tradition of romanticized death. Perhaps abstraction, with its subterranean recognition of the
banalizing effect of the mass media on 20th-century horror, coupled with the futility of attempting to picture our crushing speed, remains a fitting vessel for great themes such as death. Yet this mute and stagey presentation lulls with its vague mingling of erotics and death. Neither as severe as Reinhardt’s reductions nor as moving as Mapplethorpe’s final portraits, Kuntzel’s two monochromes flanking a delicate figurative image remained cool and bloodless for me, another overdetermined dress rehearsal for the inevitable.

Tom Kalin