Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller, Das neunte Jahresportrait (The Ninth Year Portrait) (detail), 2012–13, 314 gelatin silver prints, 13 C-prints mounted on eleven cardboard plates, each 16 × 19 3/4". From the series “Jahresportraits” (Year Portraits), ca. 1972–.

Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller, Das neunte Jahresportrait (The Ninth Year Portrait) (detail), 2012–13, 314 gelatin silver prints, 13 C-prints mounted on eleven cardboard plates, each 16 × 19 3/4". From the series “Jahresportraits” (Year Portraits), ca. 1972–.

Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller

In the 1970s and ’80s Viennese art world, a republic of princely painters, to succeed as a female photographer was no mean feat. That’s probably why Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller and her interrogation of her primary medium remain under the radar, esteemed by connoisseurs and revered by alums of her influential schools for photography and film but hardly mentioned in the annals of international Conceptual art. Yet that’s where she belongs, as this remarkable exhibition, “Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller: The Self in the Mirror of the Other. Photographs and Films, 1968–2018,” makes clear. In photography as Friedl Kubelka and in film under the nom de guerre Friedl vom Gröller (the two names are combined in the exhibition’s title), she has produced an exceptional oeuvre: rigorous, analytical, and full of erotic tension and anarchic humor.

Curator Jürgen Tabor succeeded in persuading the recalcitrant artist of the necessity of a solo show that will have consequences on many levels. The exhibition is anchored by the ongoing body of work known as “Jahresportraits” (Year Portraits). Kubelka made the first of these obsessive series of photographs, based on the idea of taking a daily photographic self-portrait, in 1972–73, and she repeated the practice at five-year intervals. The analog photo, a selfie avant la lettre without formal aspirations or technical finesse, is for Kubelka what the message on a postcard was for On Kawara, numbers were for Roman Opałka, or the list was for Hanne Darboven. Assembling hundreds of unassuming small silver gelatin prints in rows and as grids on cardboard (with the exception of the second Jahresportrait, which is mounted on linen), the artist annotated them by hand in black ink. The self-presentation, the poses, and the accoutrements of everyday life offer a record of concepts of identity, role models, and the passing of time.

Kubelka applied a similar method in other temporally organized works: Lebensportrait Louise Anna Kubelka (Life Portrait Louise Anna Kubelka), 1978–96 (793 photographs on eighteen boards, each representing one year of her daughter’s life), the “day portraits” of friends and family (one picture every half hour), and the monumental thousand-part portrait of her mother, Lore Bondy, Das tausendteilige Portrait (One Thousand Changing Thoughts), 1980, which is structured around a record of Bondy’s thoughts as the photographs were taken.

Kubelka aka vom Gröller has devoted her life to the genre of the portrait, which she has explored in static and moving media—that is to say, in photography and film. But if you look more closely, her artistic practice is one of intimate encounters, of never-ending moments, and of sudden insight or understanding; you could say it embodies wisdom. With a series of individual portraits of the protagonists of New American Cinema, from Stan Brakhage (1974) to Jonas Mekas (1975); with erotic self-portraits (among them two works titled Pin-up, both 1974) that were at the time shockingly radical and courageous; with architectural montages of the streets and squares of Vienna composed from many individual images; and with countless photographs of and relating to artist Franz West, the exhibition not only recapitulates the ambition and openness of Kubelka’s oeuvre, but allows brief glimpses into her life and social milieu.

The artist’s films are largely unknown and for that reason all the more exciting. A selection of vom Gröller’s hundred-plus extant shorts are projected in two black boxes. All of them are silent, and most were shot on a single roll of black-and-white 16-mm film, meaning they are three minutes long. Some of these shorts are characterized by an almost flagrant monotony: No plot, no action, no narrative distracts from the unsettling intimacy of the images. Later, vom Gröller starts interacting as camerawoman with the people who are being filmed, recording their reactions to a slap in the face or a kiss. Le baromètre, 2004, features a striptease, and Passage Briare, 2009, tells a fantastic joke about dentures—offering an embarrassing but for that reason refreshingly casual observation about aging.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.