Lorenza Böttner, Face Art, 1983, digital C-print, 15 3⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

Lorenza Böttner, Face Art, 1983, digital C-print, 15 3⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

Lorenza Böttner

If you visited the Kassel iteration of Documenta 14, chances are that the exhibition marked your first encounter with the work of Lorenza Böttner (known simply as Lorenza), an armless transgender artist active in Europe and the United States from the late 1970s until her death in 1994. Chances are also good that you, like me, were floored by what you saw. Installed in the Neue Galerie, two vitrines filled primarily with photographs occupied one space, while a dramatically hung, monumentally scaled self-portrait on unstretched canvas, which the artist painted, as the wall text explained, with her feet, took center stage in another. That same painting, which had in fact debuted at what was then Gesamthochschule Kassel in 1984 as part of Lorenza’s senior thesis, occupied a similarly breathtaking position in the exhibition “Lorenza Böttner. Requiem for the Norm,” mounted by curator, writer, and trans activist Paul B. Preciado. Originating at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona and then installed at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Germany, the exhibition included more than a hundred works, ranging from video documentation of street performances to drawings, paintings, and photographs.

Much of Lorenza’s work concerns self-representation. Her body appears again and again, in guises that span the spectrum of gender expression, constituting what Preciado summarizes as “exercises of resistance to a medical and exoticizing gaze that reduces the functionally diverse or trans body to the status of specimen or object.” Camp and pulp abound, whether in pen-and-ink drawings of leather daddies and high heels (strongly reminiscent of the work of Tom of Finland) or in a large pastel of Lorenza posing nude in a twist on the traditional pinup, her blond locks flowing against a rainbow-colored background dotted with footprints. But her photographic self-portraits are the most affecting and effective, particularly the images taken from the chest up, capturing Lorenza’s incredibly expressive face as it transitions, not just from male to female and vice versa, but also from human to fantastical to objet d’art. Many of these shots were taken from both the front and the side, invoking the standardized photographic formats of law enforcement or medical research, while rejecting the stability of identity altogether. Another set of self-portraits shows Lorenza in various states of (un)dress on and around an armchair in a bare interior, with the unromantic lighting of a Diane Arbus photo of freaks or nudists. Lorenza’s body, as Preciado argues, is by its facts alone a political one, but it is also one that she transforms and transvests with agency and authority, creating a persona that simultaneously depends on and exceeds the physical form that contains it.

Almost none of Lorenza’s work—apart from the handful of objects shown at Documenta—has been seen in decades. Preciado, who served as Documenta 14’s curator of public programs, discovered Lorenza almost by accident, through a seminar on trans and queer artists that led a student to the mascot of the 1992 Paralympics, a girl with no arms named Petra, whose character was performed at the games by one Lorenza Böttner. As Preciado put it in a recent lecture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Lorenza is exactly the type of figure “meant to be lost and invisible within history.” And she very nearly was, though one of the most remarkable features of Lorenza’s life is the extent to which she endeavored to create a context for herself while maintaining the specificity and radicality of her practice. She wrote a senior thesis on the representation of non-conforming bodies in the history of art, and later compiled research for a performance project that drew upon the history of freak shows and the work of earlier mouth and foot painters. In order to be seen, Lorenza had to justify her very existence as a historical and political subject. And then, at every turn, she still had to insist that we not look away.