‘Kissing, like painting, never dies – but the perfect kiss, like a perfect painting, is almost impossible,’ says Francesco Bonami, curator of Luxembourg & Dayan’s new exhibition on the art of kissing in the 20th century, ‘Kiss Off’.

The title refers back to a print made by Canadian feminist artist Joyce Wieland at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in 1970, who pressed her lipsticked lips against the lithographic plate while singing the Canadian National Anthem. Just a year later at the College, and Vito Acconci made a remarkably similar work titled Kiss Off – an edition of prints produced by applying lipstick and kissing his own body, then rubbing his skin on a lithography stone.

The tension between these two works – similar in approach, divergent in purpose – is at the centre of Bonami’s ‘Kiss Off’ exhibition in New York. ‘We started with this idea of a solipsistic gesture by Acconci – and from there we went into exploring just barely the surface of this archetypal action performed by humankind who knows since when.’

O Canada, 1970, by Joyce Wieland, lithograph. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan

‘Kiss Off’ explores different kinds of kissing, as immortalised by some of the world’s greatest artists, from the salacious (Jeff Koons) to the sultry (Andy Warhol’s 1963 film of couples kissing for three and a half minutes) to the sapphic (Lynda Benglis’ video Female Sensibility) and the surreal (Picasso). A kiss, of course, is not only a romantic gesture. The easy visual link between the works makes viewing fun, but is there another side to this intimate act?

‘I think a kiss with all its implication is a very serious if joyful thing,’ says Bonami. ‘So the show is more about joy, pleasure, passion and survival than about fun.’ Reminders of this come via Ulay and Marina Abramović’s 1977 performance Breathing In/Breathing Out, in which the couple appear, lips locked and nostrils blocked, until they eventually pass out, 19 minutes later.

Having researched the subject of smooching so extensively, what for Bonami captures the perfect kiss? ‘Brâncuși’s sculpture of the kiss which expresses the best how a kiss can transform two people into one person,’ Bonami suggests, while in painting ‘clearly Klimt for the same reason: two forms become one through the act of kissing’. But the ultimate union of the oral senses, according to Bonami, perhaps comes in the form of a certain Italian confectionery. ‘If we talk about food, the best kiss is Perugina’s: two people kissing turned into a delicious piece of chocolate.’