Jürgen Klauke: Transformer, 1973, three Lambda prints, each 45¾ by 39 inches; at Koenig & Clinton.

In “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth,” a 1976 article about women’s body art published in this magazine, Lucy Lippard criticized various body-art tropes by men. The offending practices consisted not only of men instrumentalizing women’s bodies in their works, but the “horror-show theatricality of the Viennese S & M school,” aka the Actionists, and “the deadpan masochism of American male body artists” like Chris Burden and Vito Acconci. Outside the purview of Lippard’s text was the work of German artist Jürgen Klauke (b. 1943). At the time of Lippard’s writing, Klauke was creating darkly humorous photographs burlesquing sexual identity that borrowed liberally from the ideas of theatricality and masochism that Lippard critiques.

“Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s,” Klauke’s first solo presentation in New York, comprised nine staged photographic pieces that show bodies—usually Klauke’s own—undergoing sexual evolution by way of costuming and props. One of the earliest works was the 1970 Ich & Ich (I & I)—a three-by-three grid of black-and-white self-portraits. Seven images depict a heavy metal-styled Klauke (androgynous shag, beard and necklace chains) from the neck up, scowling at the camera while wearing different makeup looks; two frames show his hands adorned with dark nail polish and chunky rings. The series evokes process-oriented photo works of feminist artists who depicted the feminine labor of makeup and dieting, such as Martha Wilson and Eleanor Antin, while also commenting subtly on the modish androgyny of rock-and-roll fashion. Across the room a disconcerting suite of seven photos from the same year, Boddys (Bodies), showed lumpy human-size forms swathed in stockinglike material and positioned in abandoned industrial locations. The only piece in the exhibition staged outside Klauke’s studio—where the artist has continued to shoot most of his theatrical photographic tableaux—it suggests personal trauma and historical tragedy.  

After Boddys, Klauke made himself into a sculptural object of transformation. In the leftmost photograph of the black-and-white triptych Illusion (1972), the artist, who has fashioned for himself elongated rubber teats, straddles an upright mirror so that it vertically bisects him. The gesture (laden with Lacanian symbolism) obscures his penis. The other two pictures in the work present the artist in the same position wearing a nude bodysuit with a crotch opening, creating the illusion of a vagina. 

This experiment appears to have been the gateway to a lot of fun. In the remaining works, almost all lush Lambda color prints, Klauke embraces cabaret, glitter rock and proto-punk fashions. He accessorizes with props that play on cliché and wholly original fetish fantasies. In the triptych Transformer (1973), he sports phallic tusks attached to his nipples via a harness; a pink eye mask; and a blood-red stole and matching leather outfit consisting of a cropped jacket, pants and heeled platform boots. Rot (Red, 1974) combines some of the previously mentioned garments and devices in one decadent tableau. Klauke is seen wearing the red leather outfit and nipple-tusk harness; attached to the pants, and stretching up above the waistline, is a white fabric piece featuring a “vagina” with rudimentary lips and an oddly erotic protrusion around the navel area. In the final frame, Klauke holds a multicolored pinecone-shaped object to the makeshift vagina.

Forty years after Lippard’s analysis of body art, feminism has thoroughly revised its position toward art that uses the sexualized body as a means of critique. Klauke’s early pieces, mining the masquerade of seduction and gender performance, reveal themselves as part of a vital legacy that extends from ’70s feminist performance to queer and drag performance to contemporary work that critiques the sex industry.