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Farewell to Rhonda Zwillinger (1950-2019)

A small survey of the work of Rhonda Zwillinger was exhibited at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen throughout 2017. Zwillinger died in Arizona on 19 September 2019 from the effects of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). She was 69 years old.

In her exhibition, each of the four shop-window-like spaces of the so-called Cloverleaf featured work from a different period of her life. The romanticised landscapes with frames encrusted with beads and glitter and the similarly pimped furniture pieces from the 1980s in the first space contrasted sharply with the sober black-and-white photographs from the mid-1990s in the second space. By this time Zwillinger was no longer the free-spirited Princess of the East Village, but was making portraits of people who suffered from the same illness that plagued her: multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). By moving to the outskirts of society, just like the people she portrayed, she hoped to be less troubled by the chemical substances, whether liquid or gas, that irritated her body and weakened her mind.

Rhonda Zwillinger at Pier 34, New York 1983. © Andreas Sterzing 2019.
Rhonda Zwillinger at Pier 34, New York 1983. © Andreas Sterzing 2019.

She built a modest house on a piece of land in the Arizona desert that contained no harmful materials, followed a few years later by a small studio. She gradually picked up the thread again. Beads, glitter and shiny stones remained her favourite materials, but she now applied them without glues or other chemicals. She embrace age-old techniques such as knotting, knitting and crocheting to pay tribute to her grandmother, who had fled Russia as a young girl, and to all women whose hands are capable of transforming fragile beauty into an activist statement or a force for social change.

The third and fourth spaces were devoted to the work that ‘Madame Z’ made in Arizona as the Queen of the Desert. With the same vigour as the New York works, they were now less romantic, with more (Oriental) wisdom and a keen awareness of anti-rationalist art movements such as Dada and Surrealism. For her very recent autobiographical series of collage books Art Made in the Intimate Scale, she even drew upon the work of Hieronymus Bosch.

Her renewed career flashed on the distant horizon of the expansive landscape that surrounded her on all sides. She loved it, but she loved more people even more and longed for New York. Her illness meant she could work only intermittently: progress was slow and time caught up with her. On 19 September, Rhonda Zwillinger died in Arizona from the effects of MCS. She was 69 years old.