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Curated by Sabine Breitwieser, Michael Darling, Jeffrey Grove, and Laura Hoptman, Isa Genzken: Retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is the first comprehensive exhibition in the United States to showcase the work of this formally innovative and ethically provocative German artist. The show spans a broad range of Genzken’s material practices—among them steel and concrete sculpture, easel (spray) painting, x-ray, assemblage, and video—and representational concerns, from high-tech precision formalism to the impact of consumer culture in an era rife with war and terror. The curators unify Genzken’s diverse oeuvre by inviting the viewer to perceive it through the lenses of performance art and filmic visualization. Early minimalist sculptures station the viewer as a point in dynamic space, while later architectural maquettes and dioramas image a parallel world by reorganizing the dross from the present one. Both phenomenologically and historically, the work draws the viewer into Genzken’s vision of the events that have shaped contemporary society since World War II and ultimately challenges viewers to consider themselves as actors within it.
The exhibition is organized in thematic groupings that proceed in roughly chronological order. The earliest works in the show, dating from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, are a combination of technical rigor, pop dynamism, and performance-based phenomenological experiment. The first gallery of the exhibition organizes an aesthetically and materially diverse set of objects around Genzken’s explorations of sound. The brilliantly lacquered Hyperbolo and Ellipsoid wood sculptures (1976–82) stretch at least sixteen feet across the floor and appear to hover thanks to a high-low technical amalgam of computer design and meticulous craftsmanship. Their concavities and convexities warp spatial apprehension of their span and echo the curves of sound waves, suggesting a merger between visual shifts in spatial perception and the invisible forces that saturate the air with auditory stimulation. This alliance is strategically positioned below a set of photographic enlargements of international stereo-equipment advertisements circa 1979, the graphs and lengthy textual descriptions of which vaunt the technics of sound clarity, and a photograph of a woman’s ear (Genzken’s), which, enlarged to thirty times its actual size, is a sensual study of acoustic architecture.
In the early 1980s, Genzken transitioned from making streamlined works that appear to defy gravity and their own conditions of facture to producing dense, heavily textured plaster and concrete sculptures and paintings. Attention to spatial perception in the earlier sculptures here is reworked as an integrative material process that aggregates scraps from the interstices. A sort of self-portrait set among the sound-based works from the first gallery, My Brain (1984) recalls a radio receiver with its spindly wire antenna reaching out toward the sky. At the same time, its rough, hand-wrought mass of studio floor sweepings massaged into plaster suggest that what is cast aside is actually central to the creative process. This work resonates with a set of small sculptures that line an alcove in the next gallery. Müllberg (Pile of Rubbish) (1984) nullifies the use of functional things—sponges, burlap, butcher paper, and metal shards—by embedding them in plaster, thereby suggesting that autonomy is the specialization of trash and aesthetics alike. In the series of Basic Research paintings (1989–91) that hang on an adjacent wall, Genzken again makes art of the procedural unconscious, this time by sourcing her studio floor. Pulling a squeegee across a canvas laid out on the floor, the artist registered the ghostly texture of fallen scraps left by the production of other art works. The resulting all-over compositions synthesize Genzken’s interests in Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, while imitating the attributes of printmaking, photography, and architecture.
The 1980s marked a transition to architecture as one of Genzken’s primary subjects. Standing before the Basic Research paintings, the looming sculptures Galerie (Gallery) (1987) and Bild (Painting) (1989), with their chipped and fractured blocks of loosely assembled concrete slabs, recall the fragmented ruins of World War II, while Rosa Zimmer (Pink Room) (1987) bares the imprint of the Styrofoam from which it was molded, bringing to mind the cheapness of postwar developments. Like Pile of Rubbish, these works appear to be composed of demolition fragments—discards recovered and reassembled in order to build a new world, yet the new constructions are in fact anti-ruins that build over rather than commemorate the past. Simultaneously ruin and prototype, they produce perceptual and cognitive oscillations: if representative of full-scale spolia, the works evoke the reality of historical catastrophe; if miniatures, they are the ramparts of the future. As Lisa Lee notes in her catalogue essay, Genzken believes that “the true size [of her models] is only realized in the viewer’s imagination” (266). Towering over the viewer on steel-frame plinths that position the eye at ground level, the constructions are imposing, yet flimsy and falling apart. They hardly assure the viewer that the devastations of history will not be repeated.
Rising alongside this European wreckage are large, open-steel and epoxy-resin structures resembling the kinds of modern skyscraper engineering that Genzken encountered on trips to Chicago in 1992 and on frequent trips to New York beginning in the 1960s. Indeed, her appreciation of New York is one of the exhibition’s dominant motifs. The cross braces of X (1992) resemble Chicago’s John Hancock Center, with delicate bay-window frames in a triptych formation soaring upward to a large skylight in the gallery that opens onto neighboring skyscrapers. This correspondence among buildings recurs in a set of street snapshots, titled New York, N.Y. (1998, 2000), that captures the recession of space through the planar stacking of facades, the strange lighting effects created by the opaque-yet-reflective buildings of midtown Manhattan, and the views of and through windows. Here, skyscrapers are not just a manifestation of modern capitalism but are themselves integral to social space. As Hoptman points out, Genzken literalizes this idea with her collection of stelae-like “portrait columns” (1998–2000) that are made of industrial materials and titled after herself and her friends (142). Equally, they come across as ironic, appropriative challenges to the notion of corporate personhood.
While Genzken’s early scattered debris sculptures refer to her personal space and experience, the models that she has produced over the past fifteen years have transformed this process of collecting into a reflection on public consumption of cheap surplus commodities. The series of maquettes titled Fuck the Bauhaus (2000) replaces the fractured concrete of her ruin sculptures with pizza boxes, shopping bags, shells, and orange utility fencing, all held together with brightly colored packing tape and perched atop plinths made of plywood and corrugated vinyl. On the subject of the Bauhaus, Genzken has stated her regret that “its formalism disdained the beauty of flowers.” Yet complicating the artist’s own renunciation, Lee details the ways that Genzken directly quotes from Bauhaus luminaries László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer and shows how the work points to the problematic and unresolved relationship between advanced formal experimentation and its service to capitalism.
Hoptman refers to Genzken’s florid homages as “modernism in euphoric drag,” yet, in the years following the 9/11 attacks, Genzken’s image of the world as a theater of mystified commodity fetishes has turned apocalyptic. In her chaotic diorama Empire/Vampire III, 13 (2004), photographs of an intact World Trade Center plaza hang above an ashtray filled with disoriented toy soldiers and a toppled stack of glass tumblers that are all uniformly dusted in ash-silver spray paint. A disproportionately life-size fairytale frog looks on mutely, signaling the disenchantment of this miniaturized dream-like scene. Genzken considered this series filmic and shot an eye-level video, Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death (2003), that draws the viewer into its eerie stillness as it is projected onto the wall among the dioramas. Five years later, in response to the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation’s call for reconstruction proposals, Genzken assembled Ground Zero (2008), a series of seven works that even more effectively insinuates itself into a space of imaginative possibility because the site remains a void that defines the historical present. Featuring a Hospital with shot glasses, a Memorial Tower of media imagery, a Church with a cross fashioned from a rug beater, a Car Park skyscraper, a twenty-four-hour nightclub, and the Osama Fashion Store, the series memorializes a specific tragedy as much as it does a generalized process of forgetting. The banality of the everyday spaces that Genzken constructs from the same plastic designer accoutrements that adorn the homes of the global bourgeoisie are siteless expressions of the now and an acerbic monumentalization of George W. Bush’s appeal to the American public to keep shopping in the wake of the attacks.
The critical effectiveness of Genzken’s work depends on the viewer’s ability to identify with it, but the type of identification required here does not anticipate an essential or nostalgic notion of the self. Rather, these relational works encourage recognition of the contemporary geopolitical configurations in which we, the spectators, are immersed at the same time that they suggest that we fluidly adapt without either rejecting this world or clinging to it blindly. Breitwieser’s, Darling’s, and Grove’s catalogue essays all argue for autobiographical readings of Genzken’s work, yet there is no interior drama here. The image of identity that self-portrait works like Spielautomat (Slot Machine) (1999–2000) projects is that of a flâneur who is constituted by the city and the public. A mingling of photographic references—including blurry snapshots of cityscapes, pictures of actors and artists, and a portrait of the artist taken by her friend Wolfgang Tillmans—shows the self to be a registration of the history of the present whose outcomes are perpetually subject to the chance of a randomizing machine. Such work proposes that the viewer see herself or himself as a decentered, social, mutable assemblage of precarious fragments, but more importantly, it challenges the viewer to ask how such a self can ethically respond to catastrophe in the twenty-first century. The span of this retrospective demonstrates that this question must continuously be re-posed and, moreover, that we who live in the present have a special ability to respond, and a responsibility to do so, since we are ourselves constructed from the same clutch of historical forces.
(To read a review of the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, click here.)
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Art History and Design, Michigan State University
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