The Antichamber

Antechambers are small rooms that conduct to larger rooms. They compress space to raise expectations of what lies beyond. How strange then to exit the antechamber only to enter the space of yet another small room, one that leads, more strangely still, into yet another antechamber? This is the particular provocation of a work by Karen Kilimnik, who once briefly studied architecture, in the course of becoming one of today’s most irreducible artistic figures. Since the early 1990s, Kilimnik has been known for portraying the icons of art, film, and fashion in works that draw correspondences between consumer culture and romantic tradition, and which bring a haunting and contrary sense of beauty to contemporary art. Even for those who know her work, this installation stands out for being so purely architectural. Imagine three different period rooms each richly and discretely appointed in wallpaper, wooden moldings, and a mantel or mirror. Each perfectly performs the role that antechambers have played throughout time immemorial of building a sense of architectural drama. Multiplied times three, the drama is further heightened by the oddly angled shapes of these interiors. Space does not so much flow as get pitched from room to room. Within these tight quarters, states of anxiety and suspense erupt from the insistent emptiness, charm, and repetition of these vexatious antechambers. Titled the Antichamber (2004)—note the anti-spelling—this installation ushers us into the oppositional realm of Karen Kilimnik’s art.

This truly spectacular realm is displayed in “Karen Kilimnik,” the first major survey of her work. Occupying two floors of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), the exhibition includes over one hundred objects borrowed from across America to represent more than twenty years of practice. It was selected and composed in dialog with Kilimnik, who typically approaches her exhibitions as a form of installation art. Here she specified that the first and largest gallery appear almost entirely empty. Works are actually hidden from view inside of a small, freestanding chamber, a new installation Kilimnik created especially for the exhibition titled the red room in the modern Architecture. The sheer volume of the surrounding space makes the gesture all the more defiant and confusing. (Try leading a tour into a gallery from which Karen Kilimnik’s first major museum survey seems to have vanished.) The conventions of curatorial practice have not been overruled by artistic intervention. Quite the contrary, both are rigorously implemented throughout an exhibition made up of four component installations, each with its own organizing premise.

The gallery adjacent to the first, empty-looking one focuses on Kilimnik’s drawings and early sculptures. Long and narrow, it resembles a lost corridor of works on paper at the Louvre crossed with the hall at the end of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. On the center of the floor—as if in lieu of a bottle marked “Drink Me”—is a pile of pills, white powder, a razor, and other paraphernalia that make up the 1991 sculpture titled Drugs. On the second floor of the museum, the survey continues, or rather starts over again, with media-based works: photography, video, and printed matter. One gallery is a video lounge. Dark and glowing with the cool light of monitors, it contains some of the earliest works in the show. Hanging in a line, like the frames of a film, are eight of the “Me As” series of self-portrait photographs, in which the artist has used a heavy black marking pen to assume celebrity guises and alter her appearance. There is, for instance, Me as Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet Before Horse Race and Me with Contact Lenses (both 1988). Here is where you will also find a case of selected books and other printed matter designed by the artist, along with one of Kilimnik’s photo albums—the cheap store-bought kind that she has long been in the habit of filling with her snapshot photography.1 The other upstairs gallery is Lincoln Center. Painted icy pale blue and trimmed in decorative moldings, it is a stage for one of the major themes in Kilimnik’s art—the imagery of the ballet—and features a video installation that takes the form of an architectural folly. This gallery alone tells the story of her art’s underlying ambition to achieve a full-scaled and theatrical form of production. Except that the ballet is just a single aspect of an oeuvre with many antechambers, any one of which can be experienced as a very large room.

To enter the small white chamber that so aggressively occupies ICA’s first-floor gallery is to duck into a museum, albeit a miniature one, where another major survey of Karen Kilimnik’s art is taking place, in what appears to be the past tense. Red walls, hung salon style, are thick with pictures of every genre and subject: portraits, landscapes, still lifes, animals, religious and allegorical subjects, and, of course, the ballet. Most of the works are paintings, but there are drawings and photographs too. Many are ornately framed. Indeed, the whole space functions as a frame or tableau for the works on view. Decorative moldings—at chair and ceiling height—band the perimeter. Scrolling patterned wallpaper evokes a romantic era. An enormous round settee, upholstered in raspberry-colored velvet, occupies the floor.

It is a temporary framework, like all exhibitions. When the ICA survey closes, and the works are returned to their respective public and private lenders, the red room in the modern Architecture will be dismantled, dematerialized. It was only conceived in response to the problem Kilimnik perceived in showing in a contemporary space to begin with. As she noted in our correspondence: “I got the idea because I thought it’s a pity to work so hard to change the modern building to look old and this way we can have both. You also have an approach, walking [across the empty white space] to the room. And I have always wanted to have paintings hung like you see in old paintings of salons from the eighteenth century.”2 It’s a classic conundrum, which critic Brian O’Doherty theorized in his text Inside the White Cube. “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status; one has to have died already to be there.”3 In Kilimnik’s period room, art exists in a kind of eternity of taxidermy. The salon, O’Doherty writes, epitomizes what a gallery is: “a place with a wall, which is covered with a wall of pictures.”4 But such a wall is “upsetting to the modern eye: masterpieces as wallpaper…the (to us) horrid concatenation of periods and styles…”5 Even to postmodern eyes, which should presumably see its political and critical implications, Kilimnik’s red salon is curiously disturbing. It is the feminized space, the nonhierarchal display, the anxious architecture; it is the antidote, in short, to the white cube. And yet, at the same time this work absorbs, it also rebuffs such attempts at contextualization. Is it transgressive or ingenuous? This is perhaps the most radical aspect of Kilimnik’s art, its very destabilization of these terms.

Scanning her work from the plush vantage of the settee, one is bound to experience a sense of déjà vu. Kilimnik is a copyist for whom the process of picture-making always begins with an act of quotation that turns into an act of possession. From publicity shots of Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson, and from paintings by Velázquez, Titian, and Reynolds, come some of the more famous images she has made her own. Sometimes it’s just a detail she’s after, which makes the original hard to identify. Not that Kilimnik is trying to hide anything; her art is friendlier than that. Its very style of depiction, dashing and bold, seems aimed at establishing the quickest means of identification between viewer and subject. Laying down just as many strokes as it takes to capture the essence of what she’s after, Kilimnik’s art is especially attuned to the pictorial economy and present-day popularity of Impressionism. On the wall is a copy after one of the historic movement’s American practitioners, who is also among its sweetest Stylists, street scene with Hansom Cab in the Forrest from Childe Hassam (2003). Nevertheless, there are many obscure and ephemeral points of reference, as Kilimnik is an avid consumer of media in all forms.

She might be the quintessential postmodernist. All the signs and strategies are there: the concerted mix of culture high and low, the myriad mediums and allusive styles of depiction, the appropriation and fragmentation of images, the fugitive sense of history and identity. Kilimnik’s work displays the complete repertoire. However, to her credit, she calls these techniques into play without irony or detachment. Sidestepping all of the anticipated postmodern positions, Kilimnik’s art is disarmingly subjective—immersive, imaginative, opinionated, possessive. It simultaneously mediates and expresses those desires and emotions, which appear, like the imagery itself, to be left critically unresolved, full of mystery and aspiration.

The red room in the modern Architecture is the Antichamber that introduced this essay. It is the period room that conducts the viewer into a quasi-historical and romantic past. And so does this exhibition—a grand statement composed of discrete compartments—seem to be made up of anterooms that do not lead to the expected larger room. This room could be postmodernism. It could be Romanticism. Both grant access to Kilimnik’s work. But her art resides significantly elsewhere. Adjacent and detached, it is its own antechamber, one that this essay proposes to inhabit by exploring the work’s themes and developments. Given the complexity and many intertwined aspects of her art, the lack of a basic narrative is a striking lacuna within what is now a very substantial exhibition and publication history. Before going into this history, however, another set of chambers beckons.

To merely mention Edgar Allen Poe is to hear the tapping, “As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” The narrator of “Berenice” is summoned by the sound of moaning to the antechamber outside his library where he finds “a servant maiden, all in tears, who told me Berenice—was no more.” Kilimnik has more than once referred to a penchant for Poe, whose Philadelphia home, now a museum, is like the Antichamber, composed of small rooms that lead into more small rooms—all of them empty. What better space in which to concentrate Poe’s imagination?6 Calling his work gothic merely imparts the flavor, not the force that Baudelaire dubbed an “almost divine faculty,” for its ability to “immediately [perceive] everything: the secret and intimate connection between things, correspondences and analogies.” This is in essence the faculty of Karen Kilimnik’s art, which has also been called gothic in style. Framed by specific references across reams and streams of cultural matter, it brings us to an interior place of imaginative speculation and intense, sometimes divine, emotion—a place that is perhaps the antechamber of all art.


What Do You Know About My Image Duplicator?

An account of Karen Kilimnik’s formative years in Philadelphia reads as a tale of mystery and imagination. It begins with the question of when was she born?…


The author would like to thank Geoffrey Batchen for his reading and Donna Ghelerter for her editing of this text.


  1. A significant aspect of Kilimnik’s work, her photo albums, contain her documentation of her work and exhibitions, as well as snapshots of friends, travels and everyday observations. There are albums on specific themes, Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, for instance. Individual shots are inscribed on the back with transformative titles. At ICA an album is open to “assassinated agent was a traitor,” a picture of dead pigeon.
  2. Kilimnik notes that the installation was also inspired by “The Castle De’ath” episode of The Avengers television series (in correspondence with the author).
  3. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), 15. The book is based on a series of essays that first appeared in Artforum in 1976.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 16.
  6. The emptiness of Poe’s Philadelphia house is the subject of a performance-based work by poet Tom Devaney, who first presented it as part of “The Big Nothing,” a pan-Philadelphia exhibition event initiated by the ICA in 2004. cf. Devaney’s forthcoming essay “The Empty House” in The Sienese Shredder 2 (2007).