New York

Colette Lumiere, Notes on Baroque Living (Installation), 1978–83/2021, reconstruction of Living Environment with original wall fragments, lamp, and perfume box; carpet, mirrors, shelves, Colette-size CRT monitor, selections from Colette’s 1978 “Records from the Story of My Life,” 2021 Living Colette sculpture made in collaboration with Cajsa von Zeipel, 8' 6" × 11' 8" × 11' 1".

Colette Lumiere, Notes on Baroque Living (Installation), 1978–83/2021, reconstruction of Living Environment with original wall fragments, lamp, and perfume box; carpet, mirrors, shelves, Colette-size CRT monitor, selections from Colette’s 1978 “Records from the Story of My Life,” 2021 Living Colette sculpture made in collaboration with Cajsa von Zeipel, 8' 6" × 11' 8" × 11' 1".

Colette Lumiere

In a 1991 review of Colette Lumiere’s work for this magazine, painter and critic John Miller declaimed: “[Her] contribution to feminist esthetics has been underrated. Perhaps this is due, in large measure, to the fact that her frankly narcissistic posture unleashes several traits—self-indulgence, childishness, and seduction—that are anathema to mainstream feminism.” At that time, Lumiere—who, as part of her ever-evolving performance of self, has taken on many different names since then—had just returned to New York, where she began her career in 1971 after a seven-year period of living and working in Germany: first as Mata Hari and the Stolen Potatoes and subsequently as Countess Reichenbach. “Notes on Baroque Living: Colette and Her Living Environment, 1972–1983” was the artist’s first exhibition in New York in five years. With any luck, it might finally garner her the recognition she deserves for pushing forward an exploration of feminine excess in an art-historical period concerned with analytic deconstruction—one that was frankly distrustful of aesthetics of any kind.

The show’s centerpiece was a reconstruction of the titular Living Environment, 1972–83, for which Lumiere transformed her downtown loft into a Merzbau of feminine kitsch by covering its walls with ruched satins and silks in hues of antique rose, weathered bronze, and bridal ivory, all lit from behind and eerily glowing. Even her television set was shrouded in crinkled textiles. Shortly before her move to the Continent, gallerist Leo Castelli offered to help her find a permanent home for the installation, but nothing came of his offer. After she abandoned her Lower Manhattan abode on Pearl Street in 2007, pieces of Living Environment were moved into storage, where they remained until early last year, when the artist was able to raise $16,000 on Kickstarter to preserve the work. Company Gallery sculptor Cajsa von Zeipel’s stunningly realistic life-size effigy of Lumiere—her breasts exposed above her signature beige coutil underbust corset and dressed in a voluminous gathered skirt made of the same materials as the wall treatments, along with arm warmers and nails painted a light sky blue—stood atop a floor of tiled mirrors, an element that completed the tableau. Two decadent, erotic self-portraits gleaned from the original apartment installation hung in the gallery’s first room, illuminated by their built-in light boxes. The presentation represented a kind of community-wide reengagement with the artist’s visual world, one that has surely influenced the output of artists such as Susan Cianciolo and the collective Women’s History Museum.

Declaring herself a “work of art” in her window installation and performance Ripping Myself Off, 1978, Lumiere (then going by Justine) satirized both the masculine tradition of painting and the then-ascendant postmodern critique of woman as image, epitomized in the writing of film theorist Laura Mulvey or in Barbara Kruger’s poetic agitprop. Yet instead of removing her likeness from circulation, the artist employed a strategy she called “reverse pop” so that she could alter consumer culture from the inside out. Examples featured in this show included photographic documentation of her performances as the lead singer of Justine and the Victorian Punks, an ensemble that produced “Beautiful Dreamer” (1979), a single recorded in collaboration with Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra that sets Lumiere’s naive rendition of the nineteenth-century parlor song and the tinkle of a music box against Gordon’s thumping disco groove. In addition, the gallery contained numerous racks of clothing in the artist’s signature style—experiments in gathered satin that led to her 1979 collaboration with the trendsetting downtown New York boutique Fiorucci.

Forty years out, a contemporary audience hyperfamiliar with the mammoth success of pop stars such as Madonna and Lady Gaga might underestimate Lumiere’s influence on new generations of female artists, who shrug off critics’ accusations of vanity and seductiveness. Lumiere, however—despite her near erasure from the art-historical record—has always been clear-eyed about the impression she left on both high art and pop culture. In a 1978 interview with Night magazine, the artist was asked if she had any predictions for the following year. Her response: “More Colette rip-offs.”