Dorit Cypis attended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the mid-1970s, where the then-new theories of semiotics and deconstruction saw professors and students alike grappling with the effects of these ideas on art practice. For the artist, deconstruction created a gap between subject and object, a disconnect that allowed her to focus on practices more keyed to the personal, to the spaces of subjectivity. Asking the question “How does one make work about the body within a theoretical framework?”, she used analytical modes to address the realm of the body. Her early work, heavily influenced by film and cinematic experience, utilized performance as well as slide and overhead projections (in the days before video projection) in an attempt to reinsert the figure in the picture, to place the viewer’s physical form in the space of the photographed, and projected, body.
Three of the works in the Walker Art Center’s collection were created during a short period, a moment for Cypis in which she was entrenched in a work called X-Rayed (altered). The piece, commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1988, was a large-scale, slide-dissolve installation that projected image after image of a nude woman. Distraught after seeing the installed piece, the individual depicted in the work demanded that Cypis destroy it. Wanting to explore the psychological implications of such an extreme reaction, the artist decided to re-create the work using her own body, a pivotal move that in turn compelled her to continue and deepen explorations of the human form.
My Father’s Nudes (1989) is a sculpture composed of an Oriental rug, a wooden salon table, and framed snapshots of famous nudes. The work, at its psychological center, represents Cypis’ tense relationship with her father, a bond strained by her evocative use of her own naked body in her artwork. As the artist explains, her father returned from a trip to France with a handful of pictures of nudes from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Northern European paintings and sculptures in the Louvre. When she asked him why he would give her such photos, he replied, “So, you think you have a monopoly [on] being naked?” For Cypis, her father’s gift collapsed Freudian theories with ideas of home. In the sculpture, she reframes her father’s snapshots in order to reframe his view of the nude. This action is as much reclamation as empathy. The Old World European style of too many Oriental carpets and heavy wood furniture used in the work, influenced by her immigrant parents, evokes the salons in which such nudes were viewed and the particular class of people who had the power to own such images.
Yield (the Body) (1989) was, for the artist, a somewhat didactic attempt to engage fellow female photographers in a dialogue about representation. She invited four women (Linda Brooks, Nan Goldin, Lynn Hambrick, and Ann Marsden) to shoot nudes of her, thereby transforming herself, a photographer, from subject to object, while at the same time forcing a discourse among her peers. As late as 1988, audiences were unused to looking at photos of women by women, especially naked, voluptuous figures. This work became something of a manifesto, a methodological tool to explore the ramifications of such a situation; Cypis received much criticism for it. Some called it revisionist, a reinforcement of sexism, but for Cypis the investigation begs the question of how a work can be sexist when it documents the artist’s own, willing body.
The photos in Yield (the Body), presented as unframed snapshots, are propped on small brass easels, with each photographer’s work assigned to one of four shelves. This strategy presents the pictures as if they were merely books on a shelf, each offering a different theory of representation. Each row is labeled with an attributive artist’s card, reminding the viewer of the specific authorship on display. One large, convex, box-framed photo crowns the shelves. This life-size image (sixty inches across) is a self-portrait of the artist, an abstracted form made so by the techniques employed to make the picture. It is the photographer’s view of herself as well as an anonymous body. An empty easel sits before it, subtly inviting a photo for display, and rhetorically inviting the viewer to engage in the game of representation.