New York

Katharina Sieverding


German artist Katharina Sieverding is oddly little known, or at least little shown, in the United States. In organizing the first comprehensive survey of her work in this country, curator Alanna Heiss—assisted by Amy Smith Stewart and Daniel Marzona—has focused on the artist’s photo- and film-based self-portraits, which comprise an oeuvre within an oeuvre that underpins Sieverding’s broader interrogations of the subject as a node of potential resistance within political, sexual, and cultural matrices.

At P.S. 1, serial groupings of photos, film stills, and slide projections relentlessly present and re-present the image of Sieverding’s face, which morphs according to the vicissitudes of lighting, angle, makeup, and a multifarious array of technical manipulations. The artist’s countenance is unnervingly protean—sometimes she resembles a Helmut Newton vamp, sometimes a lumpen hausfrau—but ultimately there’s something curiously adamantine about it. Whereas Cindy Sherman’s elaborate theatrics propose at least a notional split between real artist and depicted persona, in Sieverding’s case the two are blatantly fused. Viewers are confronted by the knowing gaze of Katharina, the author/subject who knows exactly what she’s doing. If the work opens itself up to accusations of narcissism, it is probably due less to Sieverding’s penchant for self-regard in and of itself than to the fact that she consistently presents the spectacle of a woman who is, quite literally, self-possessed.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Sieverding studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where she began to formulate deliberately un-“arty,” mechanized strategies in response to her readings of Barthes and Benjamin (and also, perhaps, in response to all that free-floating proto–Neue Wilde charisma). For example, she got into the habit of ducking into a photo booth in a bar where she worked, and the resulting self-portraits became the basis of a number of projects: Sixteen of these images—red-filtered enlargements from a paper negative contact print based on a solarized silver-gelatin original—comprise Stauffenberg-Block, 1969, one of the earliest pieces on view here.

In the work from the early ’70s, Sieverding’s companion, filmmaker Klaus Mettig, comes into the picture, posing with her in the hundreds of small black-and-white photos in the suite Motorkamera, 1973–74. Here, expression and gesture reside not in the medium but in the subjects themselves: a glammed-up couple from a Fassbinder film coquetting for the camera. In the tripartite slide projection Transformer, 1973–74, Sieverding’s and Mettig’s faces are super-imposed and combined into one androgynous, heavily made-up visage. The pair’s collaborative silent film China, September–October 1978, Beijing, Yanan, Xian, Luoyang, consists of fuzzy, gorgeously colorful shots of daily life in the aftermath of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, its seemingly anomalous inclusion here providing a vital link to the more overtly political aspect of Sieverding’s practice.

The later works tend to have a glossier sheen than those from the ’60s and ’70s; most are relatively modestly sized, with the notable exception of Ohne Titel/Ultramarine I–VI, 1993, which consists of eight gigantic photographs of Sieverding’s face, each divided into three horizontal parts and hung against electric-blue walls. The work approaches kitsch in its suggestion of a secular temple, but it usefully highlights the degree to which Sieverding has appropriated the aesthetics of propaganda—imposing size, hieratic composition—in her practice as a whole (using, for example, billboard-size photos to critique nuclear proliferation or xenophobia in the “New Europe”). And it suggests that propaganda, in fact, might be the thread linking Sieverding’s older work to her more recent, if glamour and fabulousness—qualities much in evidence in the work as early as the ’60s and ’70s—can be construed as a kind of propaganda of the self.

Elizabeth Schambelan