The Iconic Colette Lumière on her Numerous Personas and her influence on Pop Culture
Over a 40-year career, Colette—also known at different points in her career as Olympia, Justine, Mata Hari and the Stolen Potatoes, Countess Reichenbach, the Beautiful Dreamer, and Lumière—has created a complex oeuvre of performances and staged photographs. She has also pioneered trends in art, design and fashion, including the Victorian Punk look. As she has reinvented herself as an artist, she has seen her ideas filter into the commercial world through designers, decorators and clothing lines. Today, her influence on pop entertainers from Madonna to Lady Gaga, and visual artists like Cindy Sherman is clear. Beginning in the mid-1970s, she staged a number of sleep pieces, which are still reverberating in the work of artists today, including Tilda Swinton’s The Maybe, which is currently being re-performed at MoMA.
Katie Peyton Colette, you cut a striking figure on the New York art scene, but a lot of people of my generation don’t know what a fascinating and influential figure you really are. You were staging photographs, taking on personas and using them as canvases before Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney ever did. Your installations from the ’70s look exactly like some of the costumes and environments created by Madonna and Lady Gaga. You’re a fashion icon, and you've even staged your own death.
Now your work has found its way into museums, but I think it is significant that it actually began on the streets. Can we use that as a jumping off point to talk about how you began performing?
Colette Lumière My art began in the streets and it began anonymously. Even though it soon found its way to galleries and museums, I continued to explore unorthodox and alternative spaces. Art does not have to be displayed in a museum or a major gallery to be significant, to speak to people and influence art and culture.
Around the same time I was painting the streets, I was also transforming my living space into sculptural installation, with myself as a sculpture within it. And friends began coming over late at night. One day a major gallery came by and said, We have to show this.
KP Let's talk about some of those first exhibitions. We have joked that “sleep art” is now in vogue, but when you did it, there was an element of real danger. When you slept at the Clocktower, Jeffrey Deitch said it was one of the most important, most stimulating exhibits he had seen at the time in New York.
CL I used sleep frequently as a metaphor in my work. It was a way to explore the line between dreaming and reality. The first very public performance was The Transformation of the Sleeping Gypsy at Stefanotty Gallery in ’73. . .
Another breakthrough was Real Dream at the Clocktower. Each installation had a different theme, which I used to address a different aspect of the metaphor of sleep. At the Clocktower I slept nude, in a piece that alluded to a bird in a nest. That caused quite a scandal! And then in ’76 in Berlin, In Memory of Ophelia and All Those Who Died in Love and Madness at the Akademie der Künste. At the opening of PS1’s Rooms exhibit, I posed as Marat in David’s Wraith. And the Museum of Modern Art, in ’77; I posed as Camille. I was still in my twenties. It was a big deal!
In Let Them Eat Cake, at the Paris Biennale, I refused to take my clothes off to prove my work did not depend on nudity. In Cologne, in ’77, I created an environment that resembled my living space, with all my personal belongings and clothes and everything, and I lived there for six days. Marina Abramovic was in that exhibition, and so was Laurie Anderson, and Jack Smith, who at first befriended me. Even though later, after my piece got all the attention from the press, he wanted to kill me!
In Femme Fatale, in ’77, I slept on the streets in a blue satin box. It was for a gallery show on my street works and "personal hieroglyphics," titled It Reappears. The gallery was on the street level and had large windows, and I was sleeping there, so guests at the opening could view me from inside the gallery, but the performance was also available to people walking by on the street.
KP And your eyes were closed.
CL That's right.
KP Wow. I’m just imagining that.
CL After the opening was over, the box went inside the gallery. I’m amazed myself to see so many of these performances resurfacing, and artists in the community are really supporting it. I’m not critical—I know it’s not something that’s fun to do. It’s something that requires commitment.
I slept in a glass cabinet at Rempire Gallery in 1991, as part of an installation titled Olympia Practices Being in Two Places at One Time. I am flattered, in a way, that such iconic pop culture figures have the urge to do what I started so long ago.
That installation actually had references to retrieving my own history. The sleep performance was Part II of that piece, but during Part I, I sat in a white chair, very still, staring at a large photo of my first performance in 1970: Liberty Leading the People. It was after the Delacroix painting. I was posing as Lady Liberty, which was a very important statement to me because it depicted a woman leading the people who also not afraid of showing her body in a very natural way.
KP What a significant choice, looking back, to begin with the persona of Liberty! The freedom to shed your identity and take on a new one, to communicate different ideas through transformation and performance. . .
CL At that early time, when I first had myself photographed as Liberty, I was not entirely sure what I was doing. But I knew I had to do it—I had to follow my "inner sight." In ’91 when I returned to New York permanently after my exile to Bavaria, I noticed so many artists were getting attention with works I had been doing long before. So one of the tenets of my new persona, Olympia, was retrieving Colette's history.
Oh, and this is a funny story—the difference between performing in a gallery and a museum. Charlie Finch, my dear friend Charlie Finch, we had a love-hate thing (which he had with many artists) one day just came up and started shaking the cabinet! And my eyes were closed! He was trying to ruin the magic. But I did not budge! If that had happened at the MoMA, he would have been carried off and arrested! Ah! Likewise, when I was sleeping nude in Berlin as Ophelia (with another well-known actress), I was on the very edge of a platform built above a long staircase at the Akademie der Künste. If I looked down—oh, vertigo! If someone were to just push me a little bit over, I’d be dead. Really. Those performances had an element of real danger.
KP Can you talk about the death performance?
CL In 1978, Colette died at the Whitney. It was in a white room, a reconstruction of my living space of that time. And a few days later I was resurrected, as Justine and the Victorian Punks in an art rock concert at PS1. Everyone had become used to these soft environments, but now I appeared as punk and was destroying everything! And there were art critics and collectors in the audience and I was throwing art history books. That was shocking for a lot of people, but that was my revolution. That was my statement for the art world. I’m not going to wait until I’m dead!
The whole Justine series was a statement on the irony of how an artist was supposed to be on a pedestal, like a saint. But for artists that are alive now, most of the time they are not recognized or they are not supported by the commercial world, and it was a very awkward place to be. So I created Justine, a living sculpture, and staged events where she would appear.
KP Jeffrey Deitch told Politi Magazine that as you “became increasingly renowned in art circles, [you] watched [your] ideas filter into the products of designers, decorators, and others in the commercial world. . . the beautiful dreamer has become a "Reverse-Pop" artist, exploring the channeling of art ideas through commercial media instead of framing commercial images for art world consumption.” That was in 1981.
CL Yes. I would do a window in the Graz and the next day, all the windows would look like my work. Art can be very contagious that way. And it was a terrible thing, being a young artist and seeing your stuff everywhere.
So as Justine, I posed as an interior designer, because they were imitating my environments, and I posed as a fashion designer, because they were imitating my look. I had to make art out of all of it! And I actually made products! Fiorucci, after I did the windows, asked me to do a line of clothes, because he recognized that the other designers were appropriating my style. But I did not want to get lost in that process and become a designer.
I posed as a rock star, forming a band called Justine and the Victorian Punks—it launched a new style. I don’t have a singer’s voice but it worked. I never thought I was a performer in that sense but I pulled it off, and I performed everywhere. It really underscored that women were not taken seriously as artists; it was easier to become respected as a female entertainer. Less than two years ago my LP from ’79—I only printed 1,000 and they played it everywhere, at the clubs, on the radio, around the world—got resurrected by DFA label. They say, Oh, Disco-Punk was so ahead of its time. They said they loved my voice, and the music, and they released it just as it was, and it was a sepia image of myself. (laughter)
KP I want to keep talking about the performances, but also quickly mention that the documentation was important, as well. You were not only a pioneer in performance and installation art, but photography as well. I reference Sherman, an artist I admire and respect, because while she was still in college, you were creating personas and environments, and documenting them. But there is an aspect of your work that is very vulnerable, but also enigmatic, which seems to echo in the work of Francesca Woodman.
CL Thank you. I am recognized as a pioneer of "the Staged Photograph”—that is a phrase that did not exist in the art vocabulary when I began. I created landscapes and became part of them.
KP Jonathan Crary wrote, "At the core of Colette’s work is a nomadic principle, an openness to any media, materials or cultural network as a means of circulating images or ideas; neither performance nor painting is valued above the other.” That was Arts Magazine in 1983. He also said that your work “reflect[s your] enduring concern to speak to multiple audiences, large and small, elite culture and mass culture.”
The fact was, you were speaking to a large audience, but you were also doing something that was very hard to pin down. Do you think that still has an effect on the way your work is discussed today?
p(a). CL It takes time. People don’t get it at first. They may be fascinated, but they don’t understand. And that’s ok, because who really wants to be understood? What artist really does?
I don’t think it’s necessary to categorize. But people often didn’t know what to make of it. I’ve been called an enigma more than once! And it was difficult for critics, who like to put artists in a group. I do believe that very often, it takes longer for an original artist to make it into the museums, and for the museums to “get” what they do; or for them to be understood by the general public.
I wanted to speak to large audiences, and I wanted to have that access to the world to communicate my vision. It’s what we all want to do. We have a vision and we want to communicate it and share it. It’s a very personal thing, to have a show. You’re very vulnerable and you’re very exposed.
From the very beginning I was fascinated with the human condition. Always try to question, like that painting of Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It’s always been a theme. So I used a box as a metaphor from the beginning.
Then, I began to put myself in lightboxes. Sometimes I was nude, or with objects around me. And then I began to portray myself as a living doll as part of the environment. This was really misunderstood by the feminists in the beginning.
KP You were an innovator, doing things that would not become popular for another decade. But the nature of innovators is that they are often not, at the time, understood. We were talking about Chris Burden earlier. I do think in many ways the mid to late 20th century privileged a certain minimal aesthetic, even sometimes a violent aesthetic. That could also be looked at in terms of performance art. You were both doing sleep pieces in the early and mid ’70s–
p(a). CL The minute this whole thing about Tilda at the MoMA came out and my name starts popping up and everybody on Facebook is talking—"sleep art" is in now is vogue! And they are also talking about Chris Burden, whom I knew and liked a lot.
p(q). KP —and now people are looking back 40 years to when you first started doing it.
p(a). CL Yes, because it didn’t fit. Even with Chris. I adore his work, and I love all the Conceptual artists’s work. But I went away from that—they never really understood me, either.
What made me different was my aesthetic. It was the visceral aspect, the erotic aspect, which they just didn't get. At that time, a lot of artists were using self-mutilation, both women and men. Marina [Abramovic] is still working in that realm. But I was not doing that. The only parallel would be my. . . endurance works, they called them. I was sleeping and I would stay asleep for a long, long time and it was a kind of trans-meditation. But at the same time, you had to keep your mind awake because you never knew when danger was lurking.
I was not into violence, and a lot of woman were using sex but it was never was my thing, I always wanted to just be true to my nature, and do what came to me naturally. That was rejected by many at the time, but that was what I felt strongly about.
I would also use the doll metaphor, and people—women especially—were really upset because they thought I was portraying women as dolls.
KP Do you want to talk a little bit about the doll metaphor and what it means?
p(a). CL In the ’70s, many women felt that to be taken seriously, they needed to imitate a masculine aesthetic in the way they worked, and also in the way they looked. So it really wasn’t ok to wear lipstick and get dressed up. I used the living doll metaphor, limiting my movements as if controlled by outside forces. Many feminists misunderstood this gesture as saying, We’re going back to the dark ages, like we’re little dolls. I was talking about the human condition: none of us really know where we come from. I was very conscious of these metaphysical questions in my work, and one way I did that was to use symbols.
KP In the painting you referenced earlier, Gauguin uses a “strange white bird” with a lizard in its claw to symbolize the futility of words.
CL I could not agree more. Conceptual art was at its peak in the seventies, and I thought of myself as "post conceptual" because I persisted and believed strongly in the power of symbols. My work was putting less emphasis on the intellect alone. I sought unity of body, mind and soul, in my life and art.
p(q). KP You are an artist who creates environments, which seems to in some way spring from the ideas of the first-generation “land artists”, in which the landscape and the work are inextricably linked. Would it be appropriate to talk about your work in that context?
p(a). CL Good question. . . I’ve always felt there was link. But I began living in an environment and doing my street paintings anonymously, and was not aware at first of what was going on elsewhere in the art world.
When I was doing the street pieces, Robert Smithson was around at Max’s Kansas City, and I met him. And I thought I had just discovered this artist—I came from nowhere, really—and I went right up to him and said, You would like my work. And of course I was this very young girl and I was dressed like a harlequin, but still very feminine, in high heels. I was with a young southern girl who had a southern belle accent so people thought she sounded very dumb—but she wasn’t—and the two of us were coming from the studio at four in the morning with our paints. At the bar, Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Smithson were hanging together and they’re looking at us, saying, What’s this? But that’s another story for another time. . . .
KP We’ve talked a little bit about two of your personas, Olympia and Justine, but over the years you taken on a number of personas, including Mata Hari and the Stolen Potatoes, and Countess Reichenbach. Do you want to talk a little bit about your present persona, Lumière?
CL I came up with Lumière in 2000 and began to use the name publicly after 9/11. After September 11th, I almost lost my loft and myself because my studio was near the World Trade Center, and it just felt right in the setting. And it’s been over a decade now as Lumière.
At this time of uncertainty, light, with its fluid qualities, its resiliency and symbolism, is clearly needed. In 2007, I was evacuated without warning from my legendary living environment and just a few months ago, due to Hurricane Sandy, I witnessed the flooding of my Noah’s Ark: my “Laboratoire Lumière." Luckily I was able to salvage a good deal of my life's work, though some of it was transformed. Clearly the 21st century has been sending us all a very loud message—to re-examine, and change our course! My mission as an artist is to persist, to continue to channel this vision in my work, regardless of the circumstances.
My work is organic in its evolution, right down to my present collaboration with Sandy. Today you called me and I was between two warehouses. I realized that I’ve used all these elements of nature in my work before. In Munich, I used fire. I burned my work and I almost burned the house down. Now, it’s water.
KP Now you have these altered works.
p(a). CL Yes—and people told me not to go there, everything was gone. Many artists I know lost everything. But I said, No, I’m going to get it. A lot of it was damaged, but some of it was intact, miraculously intact. I actually brought a piece, just to give you an example. (Pulls a matted photograph out of her bag, marbled by water damage).
This was a piece of me sleeping on a table at Elizabeth Weiner Gallery, uptown. It’s from 1979. It was called Justine’s Special Christmas Gifts. I was Justine already, so I was selling off all of the artist Colette’s possessions and art objects. Even I had a tag on that said, "PRICELESS.”
The image was definitely altered by Sandy but it’s so beautiful. Destruction is something I’ve used so many times in my own work, so it makes sense to using it now as part of the process. And I had pieces from different times, and some of them were almost intact, and some of them were really transformed, and I made work during the show. It was around Valentine’s Day, so it was a joke, in a way, Colette and Sandy for Valentine’s Day.
Some works I will paint over and some works I will leave alone but in all of them, Sandy has become my accomplice.
KP What is the next persona?
CL I don’t know. I’m still using Lumière and I’ve tried for many years now to come up with another name and another persona but I don’t know, if it comes it comes, if not, it’s another stage of Lumière, of simplification and essence, and getting to the real thing. Paying attention to the invisible. Recognizing the impermanence and uncertainty of life, and the ability to quickly shift to a state of preparedness and resilience. Now that other artists are losing their spaces, all of these great people who are getting older now. . . the problem is very real for a lot of artists, unless you are independently wealthy in a big way. I was in that situation. A place to work is a big thing for an artist. I’ve always been a nomad in my work but never as much as right now.
KP What would you like to do next?
CL I’m in the process of putting together a book, and I would also like to do more public spaces, like the one I did in Tokyo. In Justine's words, “Art is like magic, and the making of art alchemy; therefore the medium that I use is not as important as the fact that I transform it into art!”
For more information on Colette Lumière, visit her website: http://www.colettetheartist.com/
Katie Peyton is a New York-based writer and artist. She cofounded Peanut Underground Art Projects, a laboratory for creative conspiracy and promotion of collaboration between the arts. She’s currently an MFA candidate at the New School in Fiction.