Whitehot Magazine

Book Review: Nicola L.: Life and Art

Nicola L. sitting on her Canapé Homme with La Femme Coffee Table and Eye Lamp in Brussels in the 1970s. Photo © Nicola L. Collection and Archive.



Nicola L.: Life and Art

Edited by Hannah Martin and Omar Sosa 

Published by Apartamento Publishing

The feel of the soft puffy vinyl hardcover of this truly fine coffee table book Nicola L.: Life and Art—edited by Hannah Martin and Omar Sosa for Apartamento Publishing with the support of Alison Jacques—is the first indication that between these orange covers, stamped with a Ben-Day dots reproduction of Nicola L.’s TV Woman (1969) multi-media sculpture, rests a sweet invitation to explore an exemplar of the light-hearted radically naïve aesthetic that was the swinging 60s.

And it is that—but much more. On offer is a comprehensive display of the art career of Nicola L. (aka Nicola Lanzenberg), whose wide-ranging work in painting, sculpture, film and design challenged ideas about Pop Art, identity, gender, and the body long before such questions were de rigueur. 

Cover of Nicola L.: Life and Art Apartamento Publishing

Twenty years my senior—having been born Nicola Leuthe in Morocco in 1932 to French parents—Nicola was a friend till the day she died in 2018. Pierre Restany, theory creator (with Yves Klein) for the Nouveau réalisme movement of which Nicola had some slight association, had introduced us in 1995 over coffee at Le Café Beaubourg; the brasserie in which Restany held court in Paris. Even though Nicola lived in New York at the Chelsea Hotel she would throw friendly crowded dinner parties during the six months I was in New York a year, so we were ever in touch.  

Nicola had spent her formative years in Paris, attending the École d’ Beaux Arts, only to burn most of her paintings in 1965. She then moved towards sculptural forms that evoked Marisol Escobar’s blocky carved-wood figures, but double as lay about furniture, skin-like wall-mounted canvases that could be worn as costumes (rectangles of stretched canvas into which viewers could insert their arms, legs or heads—becoming literally at one with what Restany called the Pénétrables), and related costume-coats designed for many people to wear at once in public. Such as in her La Cape du Blues (The Cape of Blues) performance held at Place Saint-Sulpice as part of Les artistes cassent la baraque in 2007. In 1967, Nicola had designed a Pénétrable called Cylinder for 3 for a performance at the Paris Biennale of the British psychedelic rock band Soft Machine, which led to her first invitation to New York by Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. For Nicola’s group street interventions, such as her Red Coat: Same Skin For Everybody (1969) —first performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970—had made her faintly famous as a counter-cultural performance artist. Her 2002 performance of BlueCapeCuba in the Plaza Vieja in Havana Cuba enhanced that notoriety (even as her work underplays her own presence) as participants carried flat masks emblazoned with hot button words like Computer, LSD and Che Guevara. Related performances were later staged on the Great Wall of China in 2005 and at the Venice Biennale in 2016.  

SunAndMoon Sun Giant Pénétrable (circa 1996) Ink, cotton, wood, 330.2 x 137.2 cm. Moon Giant Pénétrable (circa 1996. Ink, vinyl, wood, 322.6 x 129.5 cm. Courtesy Alison Jacques, London and Nicola L. Collection and Archive © Nicola L. Collection and Archive. Photography by Makenzie Goodman.


Grass (1973) © Nicola L. Collection and Archive. Christophe wearing a Pénétrable in Ibiza.

BlueCapeCuba (2002) © Nicola L. Collection and Archive. Inaugural Blue Cape performance in the Plaza Vieja in Havana, Cuba.

La Cape du Blues (The Cape of Blues) 2007 performance at Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris, photo by the author. 

Brown Foot Sofa (1969) Vinyl, 65 x 146 x 66 cm. Courtesy Alison Jacques, London and Nicola L. Collection and Archive © Nicola L. Collection and Archive. Photography by Michael Brzezinski. 

As an object maker, her soft, pliable forms like The Giant Foot (1967), Woman Cut In Pieces (1968), and Brown Foot Sofa (1969) are excellent—even as they may recall Claes Oldenburg’s early Pop sculptures—because, unlike his untouchable fine art, some were meant to be sat upon. The political point she was making here was crucial, for as Roberta Smith so well stated, “Nicola L specialized in conflating women’s bodies and domestic objects, as if parodying the social stereotype of the female caregiver—so ubiquitous as to be part of the furniture.” 

But in 1975, Nicola as Nicola Lanzenberg began to also concentrate on directing film projects such as Les Têtes sont Encore Dans L’île (The Heads Are Still in the Island) (1977), Eva Forest (1980) and The Movement (1982). She also captured on film the punk band Bad Brains at CBGB and in1981 made a gripping documentary about activist Abbie Hoffman. The artist’s final film was Doors Ajar at the Chelsea Hotel (2011), where she had lived for nearly three decades. But she also continued her flat and object artwork to the end so to follow her progression in Nicola L.: Life and Art is to follow the entire life she lived. It is a fantastic comprehensive catalogue raisonné of her artworks as well as a fanzine that publishes her never-seen-before memoirs in which she narrates her life with anecdotes involving Sartre, Dalí, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, Caetano Veloso, Andy Warhol, Bad Brains, and Carolee Schneemann. Her writing is complemented by the personal stories of those who knew her and the commentary of those who have connected with her work: Christophe and David Lanzenberg (her sons), Gary Indiana (writer and longtime friend), Marta Minujín (artist and longtime friend), Pierre Restany (late critic and mentor), H.R. (Bad Brains front man and film subject), Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Flavia Frigeri, Ruba Katrib, and Myriam Ben Salah (curators), among many others. As such, the book transmits a sense of humor that mixed progressive left politics within an art community that was both intimate and global in scope. 

What the book offers us these days is a meditation on the use of the Dada-Surrealist cannon within the 60s political-countercultural tradition—and this cultural sweet spot allows Nicola’s work to still achieve relevence and enchantment. Her enjoyable and precious book makes it clear just how extraordinary her work was—partly intentionally and partly situationally—within the context of post-war media-technological culture: expanded radio, television broadcast, cybernetics, offset color printing, the reach into outer space, multitrack recording, casual sex, transcendental meditation, and mind-expanding recreational drugs. Her technological-meets-countercultural post-Surrealist style has an externality and an interiority to it that was quite unique. For me, Nicola represents a very free thinking artist who carved out for her art a space within the phantasmagoric energy of the countercultural tradition. Nicola L.: Life and Art will secure that space for her in her absence. WM


Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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