In the 1970s and early 1980s, artist Colette Lumiere (the last of a number of names the French-born artist adopted in the course of her career) created, performed in, and eventually fully inhabited spaces cocooned in ruched, draped, and pleated fabric. Her best-known endeavor, the transformation of her downtown New York loft into an artwork titled Living Environment (1972–1983), was recently re-created for an exhibition at Company Gallery in New York.
Living Environment began organically. “I saw someone had a parachute in their house,” Lumiere remembers, “and I thought, ‘I really like that fabric.’ And that’s how it started.” She began adding layers of white and off-white fabric until her loft was covered from floor to ceiling.
In its earliest stages, the environment was more installation than living space, with Lumiere’s scant furnishings concealed behind draped silk. But during a trip to Italy, Lumiere became wholly enamored of Baroque aesthetics. When she returned, “I just kept transforming it like the painter who paints a picture on the same canvas because they don’t have another canvas,” she says.
Lumiere began layering fabric, incorporating materials like satin, artificial leather, and metallic textiles, and adding soft pinks to her palette. “I worked with rags,” she says. “I went to Canal Street, where you could find all kinds of things.”
At this point the artist also began performing as a living sculpture within the space, creating costumes that seemed equally informed by the punk fashion of the downtown New York club scene, Victoriana, and French Romantic painting. “I started wearing orthopedic corsets and bloomers,” she says. She would take photographs of herself within the installation and then present them in light boxes on its walls.
For decades, the elements of Lumiere’s installations and performances were scattered among storage facilities. Last year, curator Kenta Murakami stepped in, organizing a Kickstarter campaign to fund continuing storage for Living Environment after hearing that the artist was beginning to consider destroying her early works. From that campaign, a survey of Lumiere’s work from this period was born. Under Murakami’s direction, the exhibition at Company Gallery centered on a partial reconstruction of the environment, surrounding it with artwork, ephemera, and documentation of some of Lumiere’s other projects of that period.
“The material was in a state [such] that a curator like myself or conservators would have been unable to do anything with it without Colette present,” Murakami notes. “It really required the artist herself to be a part of restaging it.”
Works sampled by the exhibition included images of early gallery installations featuring Lumiere sleeping nude in fabric-swathed rooms that visitors would pass through; wall fragments from a 1978 performance at the Whitney’s downtown branch for which Lumiere staged her own death, materializing days later at PS1 as Justine, front woman of the band Justine and the Victorian Punks; and clothing from the artist’s Beautiful Dreamer Uniform (1981–82) collection. “I was interested in experimenting with space outside of the canvas. I would use the streets as my canvas, my home as my canvas,” she says.
Initially Murakami and Lumiere considered including the artist’s new work. However, they concluded it was important to dedicate the Company show to the era of Living Environment to cement the work in history and offer an entry point for a new generation to discover Lumiere.
One thing was certain: There needed to be a representation of Colette, whose physical presence was integral to the environment’s original iteration. “There was that challenge of how to recognize that there are things that don’t exist within the objects and don’t exist within the archive. They are ineffable, and all you can really do is sort of point to them,” says Murakami.
Lumiere worked with sculptor Cajsa von Zeipel to create a life-size wax figure of herself—an appropriate project for the artist, who often dressed like a doll for her performances. Von Zeipel created multiple iterations of the wax sculpture until both artists were satisfied, after which it was dressed in a gown from Lumiere’s archive.
Then there was the matter of refurbishing pieces that had been damaged. “It was a whole process,” says Lumiere. “For one thing, there were a lot of pieces. Some had to be altered and fixed, and some were beautiful as they were.” One of the lamps on display, for example, had been almost destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Instead of bringing it back to pristine condition, Lumiere chose to leave it in its damaged state. “It was beautiful destroyed too,” says Lumiere.
“There’s a German word, Lebenskunstler, that means an artist of life,” says Murakami as he searches for a way to describe Lumiere. “At that time, every gesture she made was an artwork.”