While studying at New York’s Hunter College in the late 1970s, Silvia Kolbowski abandoned painting in favor of a mode of photography that could articulate her increasing engagement with feminist and psychoanalytic theory. From the start of her exhibition history—with her inclusion in an exhibition at Artists Space in 1980, concurrent with Richard Prince and others—Kolbowski was linked with a group of artists and a set of concerns associated with the so-called Picture Theorists. Tipping its hat to a now-legendary show curated by Douglas Crimp that is perhaps more notable for whom it omitted, the term crystallized a quintessentially postmodern discussion around media representation, strategies of appropriation, and the disruption of cultural fictions.1
Kolbowski’s first sustained series of work, Model Pleasure (1982–1984), alongside Sarah Charlesworth’s Objects of Desire (1983–1984) and Cindy Sherman’s first series of color photographs in 1980, were symptomatic of the increasing prominence of women artists in 1980s New York who were addressing the politics of gender. Kolbowski photographed pages from fashion magazines and other sources such as cookbooks and had the results generically printed and framed. Highlighting images of aspirational beauty served up by the advertising, cosmetics, and apparel industries, the artist pulled apart the values that these sanctioned representations of “woman” are made to ventriloquize by juxtaposing them with text and other imagery.
The ten fragments that comprise Model Pleasure I include variations on three images of enraptured models. From the looks of their fully rouged lips, blissfully closed eyes, and thrown-back heads, it would seem that the mere act of slipping on a couture jacket summons a state of sexual ecstasy. Purloined from an antiquated horticultural illustration, a single image shows an apple specimen annotated as “The Maiden’s Blush”—what might be a euphemistically demure index of similarly orgasmic fruitfulness. Another of the photographs shows a burnished apple pie posed like pastry pornography, and two other shots show hands paring the skin of the fruit on a kitchen work surface. As the artist has written, the latter two images of domestic food preparation were unique in this body of work. “Model Pleasure I was an anomaly in the series in that it included, in addition to images drawn from existing sources, photographs of invented, theatrical settings,”2 Kolbowski says. She draws on both the biblical symbolism of the apple in Eden as the fruit that tempted Eve into original sin and the apple pie’s cultural role as a cipher of Norman Rockwellesque patriotic wholesomeness.
Influenced by linguistic and semiotic theory, Model Pleasure speaks in a language that playfully interrogates fashioned femininity. Like units of grammar, each image in each suite can be displayed in any order, and recombinations were made within the series. In 1984, for an exhibition at Nature Morte Gallery in New York, Kolbowski included a photograph of Model Pleasure I as installed at a previous show. Presaging the self-reflexive exhibition protocol and a reprisal of classically conceptual strategies that mark the artist’s more recent work, Kolbowski brought the series to a close by implicating her own display ideology into the cycle of representation.