This traveling retrospective, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is the first in the U.S. devoted to the prolific, protean German artist Isa Genzken. The survey spans a 40-year career marked by notable inventiveness, determination and verve, from the artist’s first abstract painted-wood sculptures to her most recent pop assemblages. It is also the latest in a string of solo shows that MoMA has given to women artists since opening its redesigned building in 2004. While still too few in number, these exhibitions seem a clear indication that a deliberate shift in the museum’s traditionally phallocentric programming is under way.
Genzken, 65, is better known in Europe than in the U.S., although her reputation here has been building since the mid-1990s, when she began making the colorful, over-the-top assemblages that comprise the second half of this show. Even for those familiar with Genzken’s art, the size and breadth of her oeuvre is likely to come as a surprise.
The exhibition was curated by a four-person team: MoMA’s Laura Hoptman; Sabine Breitwieser, who recently left MoMA to become director of the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Michael Darling; and the Dallas Museum of Art’s Jeffrey Grove. Uneven but ultimately exhilarating, “Isa Genzken: Retrospective” showcases a body of work that, while marked by frequent shifts in approach (from Minimalism to Post-Minimalism and from Conceptualism to Pop) and including a variety of mediums (sculpture, painting, collage, performance, photography and film), is remarkably consistent in its themes. One of the most pervasive of these is the architecture of the modern city, which, for the past 30 years, Genzken has used as the basis for both her formal experiments and her explorations of personal and political subject matter.
The show is a timely one for a museum. Among the things that make Genzken relevant to this cultural moment are her move from fabricated sculptures into assemblage in the 1990s, her apprehension of the way that information and images circulate in our digital age, her heterogeneous approach to art-making and, above all, her interest in, and upending of, the formal and ideological legacies of modernism—a concern shared by younger artists from Wade Guyton to Carol Bove.
In keeping with this last concern, the works in the show even undermine the outdated modernist narrative of the pioneering genius that so often underlies MoMA’s retrospective exhibitions, including this one. While there is no doubt that Genzken’s assemblage work of the past 20 years has been influential on younger sculptors, such as Gabriel Kuri, Simon Denny and Helen Marten, the artist that emerges here is as much a borrower as an innovator, ever tuned to the advanced ideas of her time and with a talent for making them her own.
Not for nothing was Genzken, although the oldest of the artists included and coming late to the game, the reigning queen of the New Museum’s 2007 “Unmonumental” exhibition, where her sculpture Elefant (2006, not in the MoMA show)—a glorious bundle of tubing, foils, toys, artificial flowers, fabric and bubble wrap, sprayed with lacquer and sagging heavily over its pedestal—beat out everything else in the show. “Unmonumental” gave a name to an untidy, media-savvy form of assemblage that gained steam in the late 1980s and through the ’90s with work by Jessica Stockholder, Martin Kippenberger, Karen Kilimnik, Cady Noland, Rachel Harrison and Josephine Meckseper, among others, and has since become the process of choice for a new generation of artists. But Genzken has few contemporary rivals in her command of sculptural language—of solid and void, light and shadow, form and surface, and interior and exterior.
In a curatorial misstep, the MoMA show presents Genzken as an installation artist in its final section—something she really isn’t. Although Genzken’s exhibitions are generally thematic, and she is particular about certain works being shown together, most of the installations on view could be broken down into their component parts, which are often stronger than the whole.
The first work one encounters at MoMA is Genzken’s latest. Set outside the entrance to the sixth-floor galleries, Schauspieler (Actors), 2013, consists of some dozen oddly dressed department-store mannequins who stand around in pairs, lounge on cushions or preen before mirrors. Sporting sunglasses, wigs and sleep masks, they are clad in cowboy hats, skirts made of plastic tablecloths, bondage gear and clothing belonging to the artist. The piece seems obvious, making for a not particularly auspicious start.
The show proper opens with Genzken’s “Ellipsoids” and “Hyperbolos” from 1976-82, an assortment of lacquered wood sculptures (some upright but most made to lie on the floor) begun while Genzken was still a student at the Düsseldorf Academy. Her response to the American Abstract-Expressionist, Minimalist and Post-Minimalist art being shown at the time in Düsseldorf and nearby Cologne, these streamlined, attenuated works, up to 30 feet long in the case of the horizontal pieces, were designed on a computer with the help of a friendly physics student. As their titles suggest, they respectively swell in the middle or are long-waisted and flare at each end; they touch the floor at only one or two points. They play on Constructivist forms-among their inspirations, according to Genzken, were the Proun rooms of El Lissitzky±but also show the influence of Barnett Newman and Lucio Fontana, extending Newman’s zips and Fontana’s slashes into the space of the viewer.
While having affinities to the Finish Fetish art of the California Minimalists as well as the sensual art of Lygia Clark and other Brazilian Neo-Concrete artists, such as Willys de Castro, these works distinguish themselves from both modes through their resemblance to real objects. One plasticky yellow “Ellipsoid” with sharply pointed ends conjures a giant toothpick. Another, made of two shaped pieces of wood slotted together and painted in yellow, orange and gray, recalls a shield or a kayak. “This associative aspect was there from the very beginning, and was also intentional,” Genzken told Diedrich Diederichsen in 2006, “but from the viewpoint of Minimal art, it was absolutely out of the question and simply not modern.” 1
Joining the “Hyperbolos” and “Ellipsoids” in the first room are a big, gray, multiband radio receiver (Weltempfänger [World Receiver], 1982)—Genzken’s only readymade—a photograph of an enlarged woman’s ear (Ohr [Ear], 1980) and a suite of ’70s advertisements for high-end stereo equipment that the artist rephotographed and printed as artworks. As the artist explained in a 2003 interview with photographer Wolfgang Tillmans:
When I was photographing the hi-fi adverts I thought to myself, everyone has one of these towers at home. It’s the latest thing, the most modern equipment available. So a sculpture must be at least as modern and must stand up to it. . . . It must have a certain relation to reality. 2
Huddled on the floor nearby is an assembly of abstracted boom boxes—featureless cast-concrete cubes to which real rabbit-ear antennae have been attached. Taken together, the works in this room—all referring in some way to transmission or reception—introduce another of Genzken’s most enduring themes: the means by which the individual connects with the world.
Beginning in the 1980s, Genzken shifted materials and subject matter, creating, over the next decade, several series of architectonic sculptures, first in plaster, then in concrete, and finally in cast resin. The second gallery contains a selection of each type of sculpture, along with related paintings. From 1984 is a group of small, plaster sculptures cast around clay. One, shaped like a lumpy head, has an interior that conjures the monumental space of a chapel or an amphitheater, despite its tabletop size. An intact lightbulb pokes through the plaster, forming a kind of skylight. This pairing of anthropomorphic and architectural forms is the first instance in the show of another primary theme: the physical and metaphorical link between buildings and bodies.
A related motif that appears everywhere in Genzken’s art is the uncanny play with scale. As art historian Lisa Lee notes in her excellent catalogue essay, “Unresolvedness of scale . . . is a calculated means to foreground the embodied experience of seeing and relating to the world. In this, at least, the artist continues Minimalism’s intensification of phenomenological awareness through sculptural form.” 3
In the late ’80s, Genzken switched to cast concrete, creating sculptures that look like nothing so much as bombed-out, roofless buildings, their walls marred by deep horizontal and vertical fissures. These moderately sized structures are presented on tall openwork steel pedestals. They partake of a contemporary fascination with ruins that runs from French theorist Paul Virilio’s 30-year photographic study of Nazi bunkers on the coast of France to Cyprien Gaillard’s 2006-09 Polaroids of abandoned resorts, vandalized monuments and crumbling tourist destinations. Genzken’s upbringing in the postwar landscape of Germany likely had its effect as well. One concrete sculpture, from 1990, is in the form of a window—a recurring motif Genzken explores more fully in a series of cast-resin pieces nearby.
The resin sculptures, from the early ’90s, appear as luminous as the concrete pieces are opaque. Like many of Genzken’s later works, a number of them were made in response to the architecture of a specific city—in this case Chicago, where Genzken had a solo show at the Renaissance Society in 1992. They include a large open resin cube, each side composed of an X shape borrowed from the facade of that city’s John Hancock Center. Dominating the gallery is a stacked structure, each of its sections repeating the shape of the three-part window ubiquitous in Chicago School architecture (Fenster [Window], 1992). Its two lower levels are cast in golden translucent resin reinforced with metal, its top level in smooth gray concrete. The piece attests to Genzken’s extraordinary facility with materials, even the most unwelcoming.
Two groups of rarely seen contemporaneous paintings are ranged around the walls of the same gallery. The first series, called “Basic Research” (1989-91), consists of frottages of Genzken’s studio floor made with squeegees à la Gerhard Richter (to whom she was married at the time). The largest is a diptych almost 10 feet across. They resemble blown-up photos of the surfaces of her concrete sculptures. In the 1992 “MLR (More Light Research)” series, Genzken built up layers using stencils and multiple applications of metallic paint sprayed through screens to create shimmering images, including one of the Hancock Building X, another of a grid of lightbulbs and several featuring a pair of gymnastic rings.
Genzken’s interest in art that engages the space between viewer and object is less evident in this room, where the works tend to remain self-contained. Nevertheless, curious discrepancies in scale occur between the model-size concrete sculptures, the life-size resin windows and an outsize lamp with a resin shade that creates the impression that museumgoers are visitors to a Brobdingnagian living room.
The mid-1990s were a turning point in Genzken’s life and art. A divorce from Richter in 1994 was followed by a year during which she made relatively little work. A group of three scrapbooks, I Love New York, Crazy City (1995-96), hints at a complicated time for Genzken, documenting a sojourn in New York through snapshots of bars and hotel rooms, newspaper and magazine clippings, CD inserts, receipts, price tags and ranks of black-and-white photographs of buildings taped in layers into large artist’s journals with red and brown packing tape.
Out of these books, however, came an entirely new sculptural vocabulary. In quick succession Genzken produced several bodies of extraordinarily assured assemblage pieces. The first group, 1997’s “Schwules Baby”(Gay Baby)—the title inspired by the club scene in Berlin, where Genzken moved in 1996—consists of cheap, battered metal objects, sometimes adorned with splotches and arcs of spray paint; they suggest a cross between Cady Noland’s beer-can assemblages and John Chamberlain’s crushed-metal sculptures, although more delicate and airy than either. One powerful example is a wall-hung arrangement of a crumpled sheet of mirrored Mylar, a pair of kitchen tongs and a piece of chain, given a quick spray with fluorescent orange spray paint.
A second group of assemblages at MoMA was originally presented in a 2000 show titled “Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings for New York)” at AC Project Room, a small artist-run gallery in New York. The six sculptures, set on rough plywood pedestals and resembling disheveled architectural models, are cobbled together from cardboard, Plexiglas, foam core and corrugated plastic and held together with little more than plastic mesh, red caution tape and glue. They pay homage to classical 20th-century architecture even as they subvert its ethos of simplicity and transparency.
One maquette, a U-shaped structure built of taped-together panels of green glass, red plastic and yellow foam core, has walls encrusted with oyster shells. Another is partially constructed from a pizza box and a framed black-and-white “art” photograph (signed) of a flower. Surmounting these elements is a twist of orange plastic mesh of the sort found on construction sites, threaded through with a lightbulb pull chain. A third piece, looking like something out of “The Jetsons,” is simply a stack of metal fan clutches topped with a twist of red tape. While apparently provisional, these works are as deliberately composed and constructed as her earlier fabricated sculptures.
Playing on the ceiling of this gallery is Work (2000), a film shot from the window of an office building. Outside, the sun is setting over a river, while inside someone—visible only as a faint reflection on the glass—is tapping away at a computer. As darkness falls, the window becomes more reflective, revealing a clearer picture of the man at his work and blurring, once again, the boundary between body and architecture. Later works such as Genzken’s “Social Facades” of 2002, two-dimensional, geometric compositions made of mosaic foil and lenticular plastics that mimic the skins of modern skyscrapers while also reflecting the viewer’s face, reprise this idea.
Beginning with the scrapbooks, autobiography has openly played a role in Genzken’s art. Spielautomat (Slot Machine), 1999-2000, a self-portrait of the artist as a slot machine, features the title object covered with overlapping rows of images—snapshots of artist friends such as Lawrence Weiner, photographs of male movie stars torn from magazines, postcards and pictures of street scenes and storefronts—and is topped with a portrait of Genzken by Tillmans.
Through the turn of the millennium and the early 2000s, Genzken’s output alternated fairly consistently between pop and minimalist assemblage. Examples of the latter in the show include New Buildings for Berlin (2004), consisting of four simple arrangements of glued-together colored glass panels made in response to Berlin’s post-unification building frenzy; and a series of wood-and-metal columns marked with paint and a variety of laminates (made between 1998 and 2000 and ranging from 10 to 14 feet tall) that are named after friends or art-world heroes. The most uncompromisingly raw, in painted wood and corroded metal, is, of course, titled Isa.
At the same time, Genzken’s work begins to address, with varying degrees of success, such environmental and political topics as the world’s dependence on oil (Oil XI, 2007—her contribution, as the representative of Germany, to the 52nd Venice Biennale) and the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan (“Empire/Vampire,” 2003-04). In the series “Empire/Vampire,” disorderly dioramas on pristine white pedestals present plastic figurines—from giant frogs to superheroes to toy soldiers—battling for control of contested ground made of found objects, paint and glue.
Another political work, created during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Der Amerikanische Raum (The American Room), 2004, includes seven sculptures on pedestals—each an arrangement of toys and other objects—that form a kind of processional walkway leading to a modern office desk and chair. On one pedestal, two miniature carved eagles brood over hotel keycards offering subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Behind them, a broken pane of green glass (the color of money) is badly repaired with tape, while, off to one side, a figurine of Harrison Ford as Star Wars‘ Han Solo peeks out of an ornate Christmas ornament. In another of these, an enormous flower arrangement, such as one might find in a corporate lobby, goes horribly wrong. On the desk itself stands a big plastic model of Scrooge McDuck, waving a fistful of dollars. Nearby, a giant wineglass topped with what looks like half of an oversize drug capsule sits on an end table. Genzken is best when she is caustic; the installation is a hilarious and damning view of an America drunk on power, drunk on money, drunk on war, drunk on stuff.
A more hopeful vision, suggesting the possibility of renewal in the messy business of everyday life, can be found in the last room of the show, which presents a series of assemblages titled “Ground Zero” (2008). Based on Genzken’s close reading of the open call for design proposals for the former site of the World Trade Center, the group includes structures representing a parking garage, a church, a hospital, a disco, a clothing shop (titled Osama Fashion Store) and a memorial tower. Plastic frames, tables and storage units from the Italian furniture-maker Kartell figure prominently as materials, chosen as much for their primary hues and transparency, one suspects, as for their status as designer goods.
The works are some of the best of Genzken’s career, fully utilizing her sense of color, her skill with materials—particularly the products of consumer culture—and her effortless manipulation of scale. A column of plastic tables evokes a gigantic parking structure with the addition of a fleet of tiny toy cars. Two old metal dollies nested together, draped with blue, yellow and green plastic film and decorated with a straw carpet beater, are transformed into an International Style cathedral. Memorial Tower (Ground Zero), two stacks of Kartell storage cubes resting on a dolly, is both a model of the lost towers and a striking abstract sculpture.
We exit the exhibition via a 2012 walkway of Genzken’s laminated photographs of flowers, ears, friends, architectural plans and famous artworks, meeting the same crowd of mannequins that we did on our way in. But this time, they don’t seem quite so irritating. Instead, for a moment, these figures seem to be reflections of us walking through the museum. Coming from an artist who takes the interaction between the body and the constructed environment as an important point of reference, this work makes a fitting end to the show.