Lipstick-stained Teeth and Americana Altars: Walter Pfeiffer’s Perfect Shots at the Swiss Institute

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 2003 (Courtesy of the artist and Swiss Institute, New York)

Two sultry gazes stare sightlessly from a weathered window or a picture frame as if stolen from the bedroom wall of a fanatical teenage girl in 1955. James Dean and Elvis Presley, icons of mid-20th century rebels without causes. Ripping it up, hip thrusting, jailhouse rocking, Vampira attracting, drag racing, they are double martyrs to the American imaginary. Even their deaths are baked into a particular U.S. mythology—one smashed across US Route 466 in a Porsche 550 Spyder (a wreck lovingly and morbidly recreated in David Cronenberg’s Crash) and the other pill-bloated in the bathroom of his beloved Graceland. Both of which seem like very American ways to leave this Earth. Here, though, the two look like ghosts from another era; their faces faded in the sunlight of another century. James Dean and Elvis peer behind a Hallmark store Halloween haul: autumn squash, kitschy ghost figurines, and tacky mouse tchotchkes. Surrounded by ivy, they become devotional offerings placed at the altar to 1950s silver-screen masculinity.

This 2003 photograph by Swiss photographer Walter Pfeiffer is a perfect shot.

I know it’s no surprise that this photo, which I spotted at Pfeiffer’s current retrospective at the Swiss Institute, would strike me as flawless. James Dean and Elvis are two of my favorites. Yet, why it’s a perfect shot has little to do with my own fetishization of this twosome. The photo, in its deceptive simplicity, contains a hidden depth, rich with symbolic connotations about idol worship, the strange ritualistic pastoral arrangement, and the dwindling yet enduring Americana fantasy (even if this photo was snapped elsewhere).

One. Perfect. Shot.

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to make, discover, or bear witness to one perfect shot, a phrase I’ve swiped from a popular Twitter account (that has also expanded into an HBO Max show as everything eventually ends up on some streaming platform). One Perfect Shot culls film history for cinematic perfection and as with everything in 2022, this social media phenomenon has affected how I watch films. Now my senses tingle when I see it—the perfect shot. What connotes one perfect shot? Well, it’s like obscenity, I know it when I see it.

And I saw it recently when watching Brian De Palma’s 1981 subtly politically satirical crime thriller Blow Out. Blow Out stars John Travolta right before his post-Saturday Night Fever/pre-Pulp Fiction Dark Ages (In fact, his appearance in Pulp Fiction is likely due to Quentin Tarantino’s own adoration of Blow Out, which I now understand and share). Travolta plays Jack Terry, a B-horror flick sound man who inadvertently catches a presidential candidate pulling a Chappaquiddick (otherwise known as a Kendall Roy), plowing off a bridge in his car with a call girl, Sally (Nancy Allen), in tow. In this case, rather than a drunken politician or coked-up media scion, the candidate dies, killed in a vast conspiracy by an unseen shooter, leaving Sally and Jack as unfortunate witnesses.

Blow Out has everything you’d want in a Brian De Palma film. Camp. Film noir. Voyeurism. Eroticism. Numerous split screen and split diopter shots. And it’s thankfully not coupled with a trans surprise ending like Dressed To Kill, which I also watched recently. It has not..shall we say…aged well. That being said, I’ll still gladly watch a blonde-wig-wearing Michael Caine stab a lady in an elevator. Cancel that scene and cancel me, Twitter!

Ahem…anyway, beyond nailing his career-long preoccupations, De Palma also captures perhaps the best shot of his career—if not one of the best in cinema history—in Blow Out. As Jack Terry becomes increasingly obsessed with exposing the murder, Sally is stalked, unknowingly, by Burke (played stoically by a young John Lithgow), a murderer for hire who is working overtime massacring prostitutes in the hopes of eventually killing Sally to tie up loose ends. This all comes to a sublime head on Philadelphia’s Liberty Day when Burke kidnaps Sally in the midst of an extravagantly patriotic celebration. With Jack Terry hot on his tail, plowing into a parade with his car, Burke drags Sally to a high scaffold, tussling with her in front of an enormous American flag.

Eventually, all the action stops. Sally runs in front of the flag. She reaches her arm out for help. And screams her damn head off.

In Doug Stanhope’s 2012 standup special Before Turning the Gun on Himself, he describes the desire to close his act and career strong with a killer closing bit. His idea of a killer closer? Well, he compares it to the then-recent story of Tilikum, the orca at SeaWorld that dragged its trainer (or as Stanhope articulates, a killer whale “fuck-with-er”) underwater and killed her. Dark? Sure. But it’s also drenched with layers of meaning. I’ll let Stanhope explain: “And I read that story with such palpable envy because that’s everything I want to bring to stage. That story—if I could find some parallel closing bit, I would never do comedy again. That’s everything I want to present to an audience: it’s inherently hilarious, but it’s got a sense of horror….There’s an unmistakable message and justice within.”

This is exactly how I feel about Sally’s American scream in Blow Out. Sally’s killer closer is inherently camp with her over-the-top exaggerated scream, but it also lays bare how the unseeing American exceptionalism on display in the Liberty Day festivities is built and maintained through an underbelly of violence blissfully ignored. It’s a bile-drenched critique of the blood-stained American Dream packaged in camp hysterics. It’s everything I want. Like Stanhope, if I could make something that would capture this in its perfection: “I can stop yelling about stuff and slink off. I don’t care if I have to do…fucking whatever for a living.”

Some of Walter Pfeiffer’s photographs make me feel the same way. And it’s not just the image of the blessed shrine to James Dean and Elvis, or the appearance of the King elsewhere in Pfeiffer’s eponymous Swiss Institute exhibition in a vitrine filled with his scrapbooks. In this form, Elvis’s face is printed numerous times on a fabric wrapped around a diary in which Pfeiffer pasted an image of beefcake hunk and Warhol dreamboat Joe Dallesandro, paired with slightly illegible writing scrawled about dreams.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled scrapbook, 1971 (photo by author)

Yes, it was these two images of Elvis that led me to walk in the doors of the Swiss Institute, but it wasn’t what made me stay or captured my attention through Pfeiffer’s career-long retrospective, which is notably his first major institutional treatment in the United States (a fact that probably explains why this is the first time I’ve really engaged with his work). A renowned Swiss photographer, known for his editorial work with fashion houses like Bottega Veneta, as much as his fine art, Pfeiffer has influenced many marquee photography names such as Ryan McGinley, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Juergen Teller, particularly his play with the intersection of stark realism and romantic homoeroticism. Though known primarily as a photographer, the exhibition also showcases his experimentations with video, as well as drawings and paintings, some of which, especially a series of angular geometric gouaches of table settings and flower vases may have been better left in the late 1980s and 1990s.

This isn’t to say that all the non-photography works weren’t impressive. The first object viewers see after passing the Printed Matter cubby in the Swiss Institute is Pfeiffer’s enormous blue-eyed tabby kitten folding screen, which he created in 1966 while in art school at Form + Fabre. According to the show’s checklist, this pussy panel was donated to an elementary school close to his hometown “where it sat on display in a stairwell for decades.” Imagine happening upon this as a child. Me-ow!

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1966-1967. Mixed media on fiberboard (Collection of Ernst Reich; Courtesy of the artist and the Swiss Institute, New York)

Though it was hard to tear myself away from this feline screen and stop trying to figure out how I could jimmy it inside my small one-bedroom apartment only a mere few blocks away, photography really is the star of Pfeiffer’s exhibition and career. Because the show, curated by Simon Castets and Daniel Merritt, contains a wide range of Pfeiffer’s photographs, including a wall of twenty photos hung in a large grid, there are many directions a viewer’s attention can be drawn. For me, it was the unbridled eroticism in works like Untitled (1975), a photograph of a young man in a collared shirt with his head thrown back in apparent ecstasy, recalling Andy Warhol’s film Blow Job if he traded Silver Factory underground filth for a rugged prep school football field. This was also visible in the upstairs installation of Pfeiffer’s series Die Augen, die Gedanken, unentwegt wandernd (The eyes, the thoughts, ceaselessly wandering). These stark black-and-white photographs of young men’s faces–sometimes in profile, other times face forward–are strikingly detached. They’re a little like mugshots, which also recalls Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men, a little like the dead-eyed boys you’d find on Dennis Cooper’s “select international male escorts for the month” blog posts, and a little like bugs under glass. If voyeurism isn’t your cup of tea, there are other options for focus like Pfeiffer’s quiet highly aestheticized yet lived-in interiors, including a black-and-white photo of a small loveseat reflecting the striped shadows of Venetian blinds like an early Lizzy Grant video, the Herbert List-in-technicolor seaside photographs, and the Nan Goldin-esque self-referential casual pics with friends posed in front of Pfeiffer’s own drawing of Carlo Joh, an androgynous otherworldly beauty.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1975 (1992), Cibachrome print (photo by author who apologizes for the creepy hand in the shot)

Unsurprisingly, a lot has been made in the exhibition materials about Pfeiffer’s series of photographs of Joh made specifically for Transformer: Aspekte Der Travestie, a 1974 group exhibition at Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Lucerne, which seems to foreshadow our current cultural preoccupation with gender. As indicated by the title’s reference to Lou Reed’s seminal album that is lyrically populated by drag queens, trans women, gay men, and other assorted social outcasts, Transformer explored sex and gender outlaws from both the contemporary art world, such as Pfeiffer himself and Jürgen Klauke, and rock music, including Mick Jagger at his most thin-hipped femme and the trash excess of The New York Dolls. Prescient seeming, sure. But I’d argue that the gender fluidity, if we want to call it that, of the 1970s was remarkably different—less hung up on morally righteous policing of trauma, hierarchical Oppression Olympics, labels, identities, and binaries.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1973, Gelatin-sliver print on document paper (photo by author)

The art, too, seemed more focused on representing an alluring and intoxicating fantasia surpassing all normative boundaries rather than mundane depictions of (often relatively art world famous)queer people simply existing that seem to pass as “radical” work today. This can be seen in Pfeiffer’s series of untitled photographs of Joh, who would die shortly after the exhibition, which owes an enormous debt to Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures with their hazy overexposed dreamlike quality. Exhibited here for the first time since that 1974 show, Pfeiffer captures Joh’s skeletal form draped in glitter, lipstick, large metallic necklaces, and feathers like a burlesque dancer; his angular face casting its own shadows. With the images printed small on larger special document paper, some of the photos, the ones with Joh’s gaze turned away from the camera, give the impression of spying on Joh in his private Narcissus-like reverie as if through a keyhole. This is a drag performance for himself—and Pfeiffer’s lens alone.

Although they are undeniably transfixing, I wouldn’t say Pfeiffer’s photos of Joh are perfect shots. That designation has to go to a trio of untitled photographs from 1975 that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I saw the Swiss Institute exhibition. Alluring, seductive, trashy, these photographs portray German actress and sex worker Irene Staub as she vamps on a golden framed bed covered with a pale pink silk pillow and sheets like the inside of a music box. With her brassy blonde hair, Staub seems to be a shape-shifter, recalling a litany of other starlets, sirens, and muses. Familiar yet not. She’s Candy Darling on her deathbed. She’s a woman sleeping in Man Ray’s images. She’s Greer Lankton. She’s Jean Harlow. She’s Marilyn Monroe. She’s the glamorous 1950s and 1960s Parisian sex workers in Christer Strömholm’s photographs.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1975 (2022), Pigment ink print (photo by author)

Yet wearing fishnets and a light blue full-body corset, she’s not the picture of pin-up immaculateness. Instead, in one photograph, she laughs and falls onto the bed in conspiratorial hysterics presumably with Pfeiffer, while in another, she opens her mouth temptingly, only to expose a row of teeth covered in mucus-slicked lipstick. Been there! It’s these lipstick-stained teeth that have haunted me for weeks now. Is it because I also can’t wear red lipstick without smearing it all over my front teeth like a big mess? Or is it the imperfection that ironically creates perfection?

Either way, there it is. In all her glory. The perfect shot.

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