Silvia Kolbowski

Born 1953, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Model Pleasure III, by Silvia Kolbowski, 1983
Silvia Kolbowski, Model Pleasure III, 1983  

While studying art at Hunter College in the late 1970s, Silvia Kolbowski turned to the mediums, formats, and strategies of conceptual art to address topics then typically elided by its practi­tioners and historians—namely, sexuality and difference. Like a number of feminist artists in the 1980s, Kolbowski used appropriation and photography to launch a psychoanalytically informed critique of representation, especially the mass media's construction of women for the pleasure of the male gaze.1 Beginning in the late 1980s, Kolbowski extended her analysis of display, consumption, and power to address institutions of art, especially the formats and spectatorial experiences by which art objects accrue value. Her recent work, in fruitful dia­logue with history and the current moment, continues to explore political, psychic, and ethical issues and anxieties.

Model Pleasure, Kolbowski's first major series, consists of rephotographed details from fashion magazines, instructional diagrams, and advertisements as well as texts written by the artist. They are displayed in a serial or grid format, which metonymically links the different images in a chain of fetishistic desire and commodification.2 Model Pleasure III (1983) presents fragments of the female body adorned with jewelry and high heels. Interspersed with these illustrations and photo­graphs of necks, wrists, and feet are the word crave in cursive script, a line drawing of the carving of a roast turkey, and a text with the words cost, spill, and remaimed crossed out and replaced with cast, spell, and remained, respec­tively. These juxtapositions allude to the violence, pleasure, and embedded ideologies of power and sexuality that structure representation. In Model Pleasure, Kolbowski draws on the techniques of appropriation and montage as well as aspects of psychoanalytic, linguistic, and feminist theory to critique the representation of femininity.

Proximity to Power, American Style, by Silvia Kolbowski, 2003–4
Silvia Kolbowski, 
Proximity to Power, American Style, 
2003–4

A more recent work, Proximity to Power, American Style (2003–4), delves into the psychic processes of power as they relate to masculinity. Described by Kolbowski as "a response to the manipulative actions of the American government, and to the vertiginous shifts of legal, corporate, and cultural power . . . rarely analyzed in the American media" in connection with the US invasion of Iraq, the installation continues the artist's investigation of the ideological conditioning of sexuality and its relationship to power.3 For the project, she conducted interviews with four men who work in support positions for powerful men, including a politician's staffer and a corporate trustee's curator. From the men's responses to her ques­tions, which she transcribed and had rerecorded by actors, she created a half-hour audio track that plays in the space. The men discuss control, wealth, and securing one's own advantage, often reflecting on the services they provide in the schema of power. "If he's attentive to you," a steady and unaffected voice declares, "it's because he has perceived a role for you in his big agenda. I've often mistaken this for genuine interest, but it's not." Another voice states, "He has power to the extent that everyone truly believes he has power." Kolbowski also asked boys between the ages of seven and eleven the question "What most represents power to you?" and visually interpreted their answers to create a slide show of images—including tidal waves, sports figures, Malcolm X, and Superman—that plays in the space.4

Through the combination of the boys' symbols of power and the men's descriptions of men in power, the installation traces the maturation, expression, and psychological dimensions of traits such as physical prowess and violence and emotions such as fear, which bind power and masculinity, leading nations into unjust wars. Throughout her career Kolbowski has sought relentlessly to expose this bond and to loosen its grip on representation, culture, and politics.

—Ruth Erickson 


  • Rosalyn Deutsche analyzes Kolbowski's work in relation to Laura Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1973), the feminist use of psychoanalysis for cultural critique, and the historicization of contemporary art in the 1980s. Rosalyn Deutsche, "Inadequacy," in Silvia Kolbowski: Inadequate . . . Like . . . Power (Cologne: König, 2005), 68. Mulvey's essay was first published in Screen 16 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
  • Selections from the Model Pleasure series were included in Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock's land­mark exhibition Difference: On Representation and Sexuality (New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, December 8, 1984–February 10, 1985), the first museum show to chronicle the dual influence of post­structuralist critiques of representation (e.g., Roland Barthes) and psychoanalytic critiques of sexuality (e.g., Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray).
  • Silvia Kolbowski, Proximity to Power, American Style (Chicago: Whitewalls, 2008), 29.
  • This age corresponds in Freudian terms to the period when children sublimate oedipal desires and enter the social realm.
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Rosalyn Deutsche analyzes Kolbowski's work in relation to Laura Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1973), the feminist use of psychoanalysis for cultural critique, and the historicization of contemporary art in the 1980s. Rosalyn Deutsche, "Inadequacy," in Silvia Kolbowski: Inadequate . . . Like . . . Power (Cologne: König, 2005), 68. Mulvey's essay was first published in Screen 16 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.

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Selections from the Model Pleasure series were included in Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock's land­mark exhibition Difference: On Representation and Sexuality (New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, December 8, 1984–February 10, 1985), the first museum show to chronicle the dual influence of post­structuralist critiques of representation (e.g., Roland Barthes) and psychoanalytic critiques of sexuality (e.g., Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray).

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Silvia Kolbowski, Proximity to Power, American Style (Chicago: Whitewalls, 2008), 29.

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This age corresponds in Freudian terms to the period when children sublimate oedipal desires and enter the social realm.

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"Silvia Kolbowski." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​artists/​silvia-kolbowski/​.