Rita Ackermann


“Nice framing!” is always useful as a backhanded compliment when you can’t think of anything encouraging to say about the art itself. With respect to Rita Ackermann’s first solo show in London since 1995, the comment means something more, because the work’s presentation and its substance were nearly inextricable. Eight drawings—not all of which were on paper—were presented with care and precision, and no ostentation, even when the means of display were unconventional. In Control/Stains (all works 2007), a double-sided drawing on vellum was “framed” by an entire wall from which a rectangular hole had been cut out, giving the gallery’s front and main rooms each its own view of the work.

Gentlemen I Need Air, the large drawing on wood that gave the show its title, was installed on a V-shaped floor-to-ceiling metal construction modeled on the arrangement of cords Frederick Kiesler devised to display abstract and Cubist paintings at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century; White Line, executed on what seems to be a section of wainscoting, was displayed by means of the same kind of apparatus, with Gentlemen I Need Air Sketch hung behind it. The drawings on paper that were conventionally framed on the wall were distinguished from each other, even before one saw them as drawings, by nuances such as the angles at which they hung, the hue of their mats, and the fluorescent color of the masking tape that Ackermann used to mount them, turning the drawings proper into the support for a kind of geometrical abstraction. Even the placement of one drawing partly behind a plant seemed well thought out.

All this discreet insistence on what Jacques Derrida dubbed the “parerga” of the artwork could not help but create the impression that what was at stake in this show was not so much a group of images as the theme of presentation itself. Many of the drawings involve either a single figure or a pair of figures—all with the artist’s feline face—around which smaller figures swirl, like angels surrounding a deity. The attendants are all, however, identical to the main figure. Identity, narcissism, and hierarchy seem to be the underlying concerns—with the unsettling implication that if difference is merely an aspect of identity, so is seduction an aspect of narcissism, and equality an aspect of hierarchy.

Ackermann has over the years shown herself to be a versatile stylist. Here, her draftsmanship, as often white-on-black as the other way around, was mostly elegantly linear and intricate, filled with Art Nouveau touches not unlike those also evident recently in the work of Silke Otto-Knapp and Enrico David, among others. The reiterated self-portrait hints at diaristic disclosure, yet style and artifice take precedence over reference. Some may find the calculated perversity of some of the imagery too blatant—the “sacred heart” of Erected Nun is a penis head, for instance; the image might even tempt one to repeat Andrey Zhdanov’s denunciation of Anna Akhmatova: “This is the poetry of a feral lady from the salons, moving between the boudoir and the prayer stool.” Perhaps the reason to approach this imagery slowly, obliquely, is to avoid finding oneself on the side of the commissar rather than the artist.

Barry Schwabsky