There is lots of empty space in Isa Genzken’s art, which is odd given her propensity to create visual mayhem and to coax an overflow of detritus into messy collages that describe all manner of ruination. All used up. Nothing there. The end. The idea of empty or blank space as material, as concept, as experience, has been a constant in her work. This productive vacancy lends itself to the uncertainty we all live with, and it permits various readings about the cultures we live in, while owing allegiance to none. Despite the lack of dedication to a discernable social narrative, she situates her inquiries very consistently at the yawning gap between what was and what’s next. Notably, her impulse is not to theorize the ineffable, but to decorate it.
In the late ’80s, Genzken materialized ideas of empty space in a series of small concrete maquettes that approximate architectural ruins. Collectively, the fragmented sculptures engage the debris fields of damaged and destroyed buildings that stretched across post-war Germany, like the ones she grew up around. These early iterations of prefabricated ruins are related to the architectural follies that once proliferated in Europe to delight the Romantic imagination. It was understood that their appearance overshadowed their purpose—they were designed not to inform, but purely for pleasurable longing.
Genzken’s contemporary follies extend from her early sculptures of bombed-out buildings, to her mute "transmission sculptures." Begun in the early ’90s, these boxy, concrete forms, implanted with actual antennae, mimic various types of transistor radios and pose suggestively as relics. In an instant they communicate their inability to communicate and playfully propose some grand dysfunction. They amplify the idea of failure—failure to communicate, failure to receive. At the same time, they are darkly humorous. Plug in any disaster narrative, and it works with these punchy pieces. Genzken’s contemporary ruins epitomize emptiness and abandonment in a very literal way, yet notably without being elegiac. Rather, like everything she produces, they might be seen as opportunistically borrowing from the cultural context in service of an aesthetic which values, above all, being unfashionable and wrong.
Slick and disheveled, superficial and mysterious, ambitious and anti-establishment, nonsensical and high-concept, funny and dour, avant- and post- all at the same time, Isa Genzken’s work embodies contradiction. It also has one foot in 20th-century modernism and another in 21st-century consumer flotsam. It’s a precarious balancing act, but the German artist has spent more than four decades honing her elegantly insouciant, influential aesthetic. She’s a sculptress (her word) who also makes work that hangs on the wall, using spray paint, packing tape, and other scraps from her life. Anything around her is fair game, street fashion included.
Taking center stage in her current show at David Zwirner, Genzken’s Schauspieler (Actors) are distinct from most of her work in that they involve actual human figures, in the form of mannequins swagged out with getups that make them look like svelte neophyte hominids struggling to get dressed. It can be tempting to make up stories about the figures, but they’re finally inscrutable. In one, for instance, a Britney Spears-like figure sports wildly disheveled hair but wears nothing but a sheet held up by a clothespin, shades, and—in a sly joke—a Supreme baseball cap beneath another hat.
The white-on-red Futura look associated with Supreme is, of course, artist Barbara Kruger’s invention, though this didn’t stop Supreme from attempting to sue a designer for infringing their copyright on a style they appropriated in the first place. Kruger, for her part, got into the fray by publicly calling out the litigious Supreme crew and brilliantly responding to a reporter’s request for comment with a blank Word file titled “fools.doc.” If Genzken is providing oblique commentary here, one presumes she’s in solidarity with Kruger, her contemporary.
Almost all of the work in the show at Zwirner is from this year or the last: the Schauspieler (Actors) as well as paintings, assemblages, and a selection of weighty but unfinished-looking concrete sculptures. The exhibition derives its name, Sky Energy, from a sketch for an unproduced screenplay written by the artist in the mid-1990s, Sky (Fragments for a movie); it also evokes a Genzken exhibition from 1993, titled Everyone requires at least one window. Revolving around a shady secret in a suburban home, Genzken’s unrealized script invokes several themes that animate the works now on view, including the cat-and-mouse interplays between public and private, and surface and façade. Windows and views play a starring role.
Rather than positing any particular angle in her work, Genzken literally frames multiple angles. There are, for example, eight large concrete sculptures here, all of which have differently shaped holes to look through. Four of them resemble gigantic hinged picture frames or dressing-room mirrors, angled to provide an assortment of views. What’s being framed could be a projection screen, a gauze scrim, a mirror, a photograph or painting, or a transparent pane of glass. But Genzken gives us none of these. Looking at, or through, the sculptures, one faces either in, or out, or both, or neither. There’s no single, correct way of positioning oneself in relation to the gray, industrial solidity of Genzken’s frames; these assertive structures place unavoidable emphasis on human physicality.
Genzken’s import is no longer up for debate. Her full-dress retrospective at MoMA in 2013, in addition to a lifetime of awards and critical plaudits, demonstrates her rightful place in the contemporary canon. Her particular elusiveness and allusiveness, however, take on special significance in our 2018, dominated as it is by the post-factual and the outright fake. But lest the artist seem aloof, she includes in this show a work she’s shown before, a highly personal exploration of the possibilities of inside and outside. The lone object in the show with a title— X-Ray (1991/2012)—it shows the side of the artist’s head as she sips a glass of wine. Here, as usual with Genzken, it presents the most transparent thing imaginable—yet it still isn’t quite the whole picture.
On the fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art right now stands a phalanx of mannequins sporting plaid button-downs, tinfoil bandeaux, flower leis, ski caps and cowboy hats, designer jeans, velvet tailcoats and many less easily identifiable accessories. Immense, mysterious wooden tools lie prone near neatly framed advertisements for hi-tech stereos. Clunky-yet-sensitive concrete radios huddle together while X-rays of a skull lifting a glass of wine to its missing lips hover close by. Hauntingly elegant resin and steel windows frame distant views of a miniature city risen from plywood, neon plexiglas, pizza boxes, shredded tin cans and red duct tape. Spray-painted airplane parts line the walls and life-size astronaut dolls hang overhead. Suitcases, decorated with photos of cute animals, go nowhere.
Despite appearances, this is not a group show surveying the last 40 years of artistic practice, minus a few isms. It is a deeply overdue career retrospective for the German artist Isa Genzken, who was born in 1948 near Hamburg and has lived in Berlin for the past two decades, ever since it became the center of the German art world. The MCA show, organized jointly with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Dallas Museum of Art, is the first major consideration of her work in a U.S. museum. Despite some baffling curatorial decisions—sculptures installed so close to the wall they can't be seen in full, stanchions so distracting they seem like sculptural interventions—it promises to be hugely influential among Chicago's young artists. Many will not have had the chance to see much if any of Genzken's work in person before. Most will be startled by the permissiveness and gutsiness of her sprawling, anything-goes career.
Rare is the creator who has kept pace with art world trends—or better yet, outpaced them—for 40-plus years, radiating electrifying energy and total commitment from then until now. Recent sculptures, assembled from off-the-shelf junk and tapped in to a dizzying combination of terrorism and consumerism, feel almost shockingly of the moment, politically and artistically. Tenderly empty concrete pavilions, set atop tall steel tables some two and a half decades ago, reproduced a postwar German landscape at its moment of transformation. Before came strange, sleekly enormous objects, calculated by computer but crafted by hand, riding an edgy wave between technological advance and its opposite. In between Genzken has dabbled in nearly everything else, save perhaps for social practice and the trend of outsourcing production to an army of assistants. She has always made everything herself and continues to do so.
The fearless breadth and inexhaustible zeal of this motley output thrills. It can also be dizzying and strange. Genzken has clearly never been one to just stick with what's expected or what sells. She has never stopped experimenting with materials and forms. She makes a mess and appears immune to the fear of failure. Indeed, not all of the work on view at the MCA is great, or will seem so to any one person. There are flops here alongside the knockouts — though viewers may have trouble agreeing on which is which.
I myself am partial to Genzken's architectural meditations, be they concerned with the hulking fragments of war-torn Germany, the elegant severity of international modernism, or the postmodern gaudiness of contemporary New York. Someone else—though not me—is sure to dig her idiosyncratically hip mannequins and a foppish, melodramatic comedy made in collaboration with friend and fellow artist Kai Althoff.
Very real differences exist between Genzken's earlier work and everything she's done since. The shift seems to have occurred in the mid-90s, around the time of her split from the preeminent German painter Gerhard Richter, her move to Berlin and her introduction to a younger set of artists. It's hard to miss. Genzken went from producing elegant minimal forms to throwing rowdy maximal installations. She stopped carving sculptures out of raw material like wood and resin and began to piece them together them from bric-a-brac. Her politics changed from being subtle—the way a rough, concrete shell with rosy insides hints at a heartbroken landscape—to hitting the viewer over the head with dripping red paint, photos of lower Manhattan covered in dust, and titles like "Oil XI." Then again, World War II was over before Genzken was born. September 11 happened while she was visiting New York.
Nevertheless, certain themes have persisted in her work for all 40-odd years of it. The city and its architecture form a continuous backdrop and even foreground. Chicago plays a cameo role with a John Hancock tower sculpture and a road trip movie, but it's New York and Berlin that are clearly Genzken's most beloved towns. Despite this affection, or perhaps because of it, their destruction is deeply felt. So is their life, nowhere more vividly described than in scrapbooks made while Genzken was on an extended hiatus in New York in the 1990s. These books collapse a portrait of the irrepressible artist with a portrait of the irrepressible city.
This unlikely collision of architecture and portraiture recurs in a group of pillars patched together from shiny panels of mirror, veneer and mesh, and named for some of Genzken's best friends. She named one for herself as well, and really it is Genzken who persistently pops up throughout the show, cutting an impish figure while posing for her own exhibition posters, dressing mannequins in her own clothing, starring in her own films, and even inscribing the catalogue to herself.
And why not? Few artists have displayed as much moxie and versatility as Isa Genzken, nor sustained as vast and exciting a career. If she wants to dedicate her work to herself, she's more than earned the right. Not that she would care.
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.
Do you know the art of Isa Genzken, the subject of a dazzling retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art? Or have you, like me, been only spottily aware of the work of this mercurial German artist? Genzken, now sixty-five, is a sculptor whose sporadic output, abrupt stylistic changes, and personal vagaries have kept her at the margins of art-world notice, until now. The show finds coherence in works that range from minimalist sculpture, charged with cryptic emotions, from the nineteen-seventies, to recent hilarious assemblages, featuring plastic toys and gussied-up mannequins, which secrete a steely aesthetic discipline. Unifying it all is a brash spirit that is strangely both celebratory and bedevilled. Genzken takes on the ideals of modern art and architecture along with the joys and the anxieties of life in contemporary cities. The show rejiggers recent art history; in particular, Genzken emerges as the chief inceptor of a trend in sculpture that has been termed Unmonumental, from the title of the New Museum show that introduced it, in 2007. The work employs vernacular materials, pop-cultural allusions, and seemingly slapdash procedures to mock—while also exploiting—the passive-aggressive obduracy of classic minimalism.
Genzken’s lack of fame owes much to a difficult life. Der Spiegel recently reported that she has struggled with alcoholism and other troubles, and she bears scars of German history. She was born in 1948 in a town near Hamburg, “the only child of two art freaks,” she has said. Her father was a medical student who longed to be an opera singer; her mother trained to be an actress but became a technical assistant at a pharmaceutical company. Genzken’s childhood was culturally enriched but, as she has told it, far from happy. A photograph in the MOMA show, blown up to poster size, shows Genzken as a small girl, weeping in her mother’s arms. In 1960, the family moved to West Berlin, where Isaâs paternal grandfather, Karl Genzken, had lived*. A doctor and a committed Nazi, he was the head of the medical office of the S.S. and oversaw experiments on concentration-camp inmates; he was convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg, and died in 1957, three years after being released from prison. According to Der Spiegel, the artist “hinted to” a friend about a childhood visit to her grandfather in prison, where she saw an open umbrella in his cell. Whether that relates to the frequent use of umbrellas in her work seems moot. It’s like Genzken to tantalize with inklings of particular import, which slip away when you try to parse them.
Nevertheless, she was creative and gamely independent from early on. She studied film and acted in high school, and learned photography at a design college. The MOMA show includes many wonderfully fresh photographs of buildings and crowds in New York, a city Genzken has loved since her first visit, in 1960. In 1969, she took the entrance exam to the University of Fine Arts, in Hamburg, for which she was handed a sheet of paper, drawing tools, and scissors, to show what she could do. She crumpled the paper and threw it on the table. Her temerity either impressed or didn’t dissuade the admissions committee, which accepted her.
Piquantly attractive, she took odd jobs as a fashion model, for money and the opportunity to travel. In 1972, her boyfriend, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who soon became a leading art historian and critic, encouraged her to apply to the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where his friend Gerhard Richter was teaching. There she absorbed influences of American minimalist and conceptual art, in particular the phenomenological aesthetics of Bruce Nauman. (She had an epiphany about the nature of space, she has said, while performing an exercise conceived by Nauman: lie on the floor for half an hour and imagine sinking into it.) She was also inspired by Russian Constructivism, especially the graphics and the architectural schemes of El Lissitzky. In 1982, she and Richter married.
Genzken knew Andreas Baader, of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, who had been a schoolmate of Buchloh’s. It seems that she influenced Richter to make his suite of paintings “October 18, 1977” (1988), about the deaths in prison of Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and two other gang members. Genzken and Richter’s marriage—they divorced in 1993—was marked by obsessive discussion of German political turmoil. During those years, she created a series of works by prevailing on “a very nice doctor,” she has said, who “was drinking, like me,” to take X-rays of her head as she drank, smoked, and laughed. Even in distress, she could muster a rigorous focus on her art.
Genzken’s first mature works, starting in 1974, are slender, gently curved forms in painted wood, oval in cross-section, and as long as twenty feet. Made with the help of a physics student, using a computer program, and a craftsman, they are paeans to precision, as is Genzken’s one readymade sculpture, from 1982, which is a touchstone in the show: a handsome multiband radio. Fascinated by high-tech audio gear, Genzken said that “sculpture must be at least as modern.” Later, she rendered radios in concrete, with metal antennae.
Throughout the eighties, she fashioned plaster and concrete sculptures resembling the walls and the recesses of ruined buildings, surely invoking memories of bomb devastation in Hamburg and Berlin. The pieces are little more than two or three feet high, but in the show, mounted at eye level on welded-steel tables, they loom. They are some of the most melancholy things I have ever seen. And yet, after prolonged viewing, every crack, dent, and crumbling texture seems specific and intended, as if destruction could be inflicted with finesse. The same sense of exactitude in disorder attends Genzken’s shift, in the nineties, to wild-looking assemblages.
Until 2005, when Genzken joined the David Zwirner gallery, her most substantial New York show was “Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings for New York),” at an artist-run space, AC Project Room, in 2000. That exhibition, most of which has been reconfigured at MOMA, consisted of architectural models made of refuse—including pizza boxes and oyster shells—and of colored sheets of Plexiglas, swatches of fabric, and toy cars. Spiced by gossip about the artist’s fecklessness, which, on an earlier visit to the city, had caused her to be ousted from a series of hotels, starting at the Waldorf and ending in a youth hostel, the show is legendary; Laura Hoptman, a curator of the moma show, told me that art-world types who didn’t see it (including me) are tempted to pretend, or may even believe, that they did. At first glance, the work appears frivolous. A small, motorized, hula-dancing doll gyrates next to one pedestal. But, again, look long. The flimsy maquettes, barely held together with tape, conjure deep as well as farcical thoughts about architecture’s history and its potential. A red Plexiglas tower draped with a rainbow plastic Slinky suggests a skyscraper wearing its wiring on the outside. A propeller on top of another tower expresses its upward aspiration. What might we build if, at a whim, we could build anything? Getting to the point of taking Genzken seriously requires an effort of trust, but the payoff is exhilarating. It wasn’t lost on young New York artists, including Rachel Harrison, the current star of Unmonumental sculpture. “Fuck the Bauhaus” proved to be the starter’s gun for a movement.
Genzken’s inspirations since the eighties have swung between the techno-music scene in Berlin—as with dangling clusters of kitchen utensils, splashed with pink spray paint, entitled “Gay Babies” (1997)—and traumatic world events. War comes and goes as a theme, most explicitly in “Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death” (2003), a group of chaotic assemblages—toy soldiers, photographs, household objects, fabrics, foil, mirrors, splurges of paint—made in response both to 9/11, which she witnessed firsthand, on a visit to New York, and to the Iraq war. Unusually, for Genzken, it feels out of artistic control. I suspect a conflict between her antiwar sentiment and her long identification with the energies of American culture. The effect is less expressive than purgative, but “The American Room” (2003-04) is fully grounded. An executive desk, topped by a sculpture of Scrooge McDuck, is flanked with American eagles, artificial flowers, various bric-a-brac, and other signs of prideful complacency. The work’s critical bite is softened by unmistakable tones of amusement and relish. Also, it’s gorgeous.
Genzken reconsidered 9/11 in “Ground Zero” (2008), a fanciful non-entry in a contest for proposed building designs for the site. Jerry-built structures of shiny, cheap materials, on wheeled plinths—a memorial tower, a church, a hospital, a disco, a car park, and a fashion store, with a twisted metal tower of glowing light fixtures thrown in—suggest wreckage sprung to life. The spirit of the work is a kind of anguished buoyancy, optimistic against steep odds. Genzken erases the distinction that T. S. Eliot thought must be strictly maintained between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” It may be hard, at first, to believe that you are in good hands with this unquiet soul. But put it to a test. You’ll see. ♦
The Museum of Modern Art’s grand, sometimes grating 40-year survey of the German sculptor Isa Genzken is a disturbance in the force of the New York art world. It counters the season’s trend of big retrospectives devoted to male artists and increases from a paltry four to a still paltry five the number of full-dress sixth-floor retrospectives the Modern has bestowed upon women since taking back its expanded building nine years ago.
“Isa Genzken: Retrospective” also makes the museum feel alive and part of the art world, rather than a tourist destination where everyone lines up for the Magritte show or throngs the modernist parts of the collection even as galleries devoted to overthought, pleasure-averse displays of recent art stand virtually empty. The dour, largely color-free sampling of art since 1980 in the museum’s large second-floor galleries is a perfect example.
Upstairs, the best parts of the Genzken show present a markedly different species, one that is brash, improvisational, full of searing color and attitude and that decimates taste and frequently looks nothing like art. Inspired by popular culture and historic events, and influenced by its creator’s many annual trips to New York, Ms. Genzken’s mature efforts are bristling assemblages and installations that she began making in 1997, using cheesy materials and objects to concoct a raw, unapologetic beauty and a weirdly elliptical if literal-minded social commentary, often about the United States, power and war. Their seemingly jerry-built components run to office furniture, tiny toy soldiers and cars, baking pans, torn beach umbrellas, mirrored foil, metallic tape, ribbons, jewelry, fabric and all manner of bright colored plastic — flowers, chairs, rain boots, American eagles, bowls, buckets. Architecture is a frequent inspiration and reference.
Ms. Genzken, who turns 65 next week, has spent so much time in New York that she might almost qualify as a German-American artist. It is hard to imagine her work without the city’s skyscrapers, street life, trash and style, not to mention Canal Street and its rich vein of cheap shiny materials and job lots, already exploited by artists across generations and as diverse as Lucas Samaras, Lynda Benglis and Steve Keister. And while it may be largely a coincidence, most of her best work has been done since the Sept. 11 attacks, which she witnessed during a visit here and has made one of her themes, especially in the superbly assured works in the show’s final and strongest gallery.
The first comprehensive Genzken exhibition in an American museum, this show has been organized by Laura Hoptman, the Modern’s curator of painting and sculpture, and Sabine Breitwieser, its former curator of media and performance art and now director of the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria. They collaborated with curators at the museums to which it will travel: Michael Darling of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Jeffrey Grove of the Dallas Museum of Art. Ms. Genzken is unusually prolific, and the group’s effort provides plenty to look at and only improves as it goes along, cycling and recycling through an extraordinary range of postwar styles, from Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism up to the present.
This exhibition is a one-artist celebration of the increasingly loose-jointed, detached form of assemblage that may be the central, most robust aesthetic of our time. This tendency was explored in 2007 at the New Museum with “Unmonumental,” a broad survey of 30 assemblage artists. As the oldest participant in “Unmonumental” by at least 14 years, Ms. Genzken was its presumptive éminence grise. Yet her originality and influence, while often alluded to, are rarely parsed in detail, and the Modern’s catalog continues this habit. I don’t doubt her influence on many younger, especially European artists. But she is one of a host of women who began in the late 1980s to view assemblage — the piecing of disparate parts into unruly wholes — as an expansive, unbounded, antiheroic mode that could be simultaneously personal, political and formal.
Several of these women — including Jessica Stockholder, Cady Noland, Sarah Lucas and Rachel Harrison — actually began expanding assemblage before Ms. Genzken. Sadly, the catalog essays associate Ms. Genzken only with established names like Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter (to whom she was married in the 1970s and ’80s), Eva Hesse, Dan Graham and a few others. It omits Sigmar Polke, whose pop-culture-based, often tawdry paintings are at least a precedent, and Rosemarie Trockel, another female German artist of her generation struggling in a field that was and maybe still is unusually male. Whether by the writers’ choice or Ms. Genzken’s directive, these omissions perpetuate the myth of the artist as isolated genius unconnected to a crowded field. The same questions apply to the catalog, which does not mention that her grandfather — whom she may have met only once — was a Nazi, which is strange for an artist for whom catastrophe is a theme.
But back to the show, which begins by setting the teeth on edge with 12 raucous new sculptures in the form of bizarre looking “Schauspieler” (“Actors”) mannequins. Clustered a bit too densely outside the entrance, they are garbed in strange combinations of garments and headgear and festooned with swaths of fabric and various masks. Forming a very mixed gathering that evokes the homeless, loners, extreme fashionistas, transvestites and members of other subcultures, these beings pay tribute to difference, eccentricity and imagination. Yet they are so outlandish that the mannequins also serve as pedestals for the assemblage sculpture they wear.
And as if this weren’t enough, the walls behind them are covered with posters for her previous exhibitions. Impressively large, some feature photographs of her, including one in which she slouches in a chair in a black jacket and pants. Suggesting a well-known image of Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo, it is evidence of the cool, clearly competitive, sexually ambiguous persona Ms. Genzken often presents.
In the galleries, the works move in roughly chronological fashion, in distinct, often startling series, presenting an artist who seems to become younger and more vital with each decade, as her work becomes more spontaneous and grounded in reality. Sleek, painted-wood, low-lying floor pieces — evoking futuristic weapons or spaceships — and a few feints at found objects and Conceptual art give way to rough ruinlike structures from cast concrete and paint. While not terribly original, they strike a haunted emotional note and, shown with a series of translucent resin pieces resembling French windows, turn the show’s largest gallery into an eerie indoor Monument Valley.
Around the edges of these early series are undistinguished paintings, some openly derivative of Mr. Richter’s work, and glimpses of spontaneity: a few small aggressively modeled forms in plaster, one garnished with bits of trash and two wiglike formations of bright epoxy resin poured over cloth, slowly rotating on motorized iron poles, looking a little like severed heads.
Some of these pieces reveal a talent for conjuring competing senses of scale and reality, the way painters often combine contrasting notions of space. First, the concrete pieces have high steel pedestals that enable them to loom above the viewer. In later works, she juxtaposes everyday objects with small figures that give them a monumental scale. In one of the “Ground Zero” works, a stack of plastic, basketlike tables becomes a vast, alienating parking garage with the addition of rows of minuscule cars.
The second half of the show is more or less explosive. Ms. Genzken breaks into her assemblage style, first with a group of modest hanging mobiles from 1997 made of shiny aluminum kitchenware punctuated with a burst of spray paint, then with a series that sends up the Bauhaus (from 2000, with an unprintable title). It combines splintery plywood bases, neon colors and disjointed buildinglike forms, one covered with seashells and tiny architectural-model trees. She circles back to Minimalism, with corrupting elegance, in the next series, tall squared-off columns covered in various sheets of mirror metal and wood veneer. Then follow small tableaus, on pedestals at eye height, of calamities and conflicts, piled with debris and sometimes manned by the toy soldiers. Finally, there are the “Ground Zero” sculptures, whose shiny forms read as resilience.
Although Ms. Genzken sometimes seems to change ideas and approaches rather than develop them, her work accumulates with an insistent force and momentum that will keep you alert to what turn she will take next.
The art student was shocked. The carefully prepared presentation collapsed under a surprisingly simple if not quite obvious question the visiting guest professor posed: Why do your paintings look like those of a fifty-year-old man? Why would a well-educated young artist want to emulate the historic gesture of a different generation?
Today, what strikes me in Isa Genzken’s work is exactly what Tino Sehgal ridiculed in his contribution for the German pavilion in Venice, the dancing wardens and their hysterical chit chat of “This is so contemporary.” Today this is what I greatly admire in Genzken’s work, the way it is there, with a resonating presence, and that it is so obviously not classic, not imposing, not spectacular, and indeed contemporary. In fact the work of this fifty-year-old artist appears more youthful than most of what much younger artists produce today. Full of disparate, if occasionally idiosyncratic elegance, it is armed with a charming ridiculousness and ruthlessness, effortlessly pairing minimalist purity with decoration, in rickety assemblages of everyday souvenirs, featuring precise spray-paint attacks on high-design objects, all stacked hideously on high white plinths, allowing a weirdly playful improvisational streak to shine through with narrative fragments and careful constructions. Sculptures they are, but of parts that stubbornly reclaim their place; they never really come together and instead remain instable. Probably the most precarious work the artist has ever produced.
However another piece comes to mind, in all its clarity, scale and composure — quite the opposite of her latest work: a five meter high, thin, high-grade steel frame entitled Camera, from 1990. Very much a private work, but by leaning dangerously from a private, third-floor balcony, it assumes public significance, referring not only to the rectangular modern architecture and the context it is placed in, but also the frame of a camera’s viewfinder, the frame that directs the eye. Seen from street level in Brussels, this piece looks like a rather suicidal sculpture, on the brink of falling. What is striking in it is the way the world is split into what is inside and outside of the frame, just as the viewer’s perspective is split into the private looking down, like the viewfinder of the camera, framing the public, and the public perspective, of the passerby, looking up, threatened by the potentially dangerous tilting metal frame looming over him.
The concept of a point of view, a perspective, an act of framing on account of the viewer is as evident in Camera as it is in the Window sculptures presented in the solo show at Frankfurt’s Portikus in 1992 — a traveling exhibition with other stations in various places, among them the Renaissance Society in Chicago — with the evocatively shimmering and metaphorical title “Everyone needs at least one window.” These sculptures — single, doubled or quadrupled frames of reinforced epoxy-resin casts, sometimes on the skinny stilted pedestals familiar from her earlier concrete pieces — deal with openness and closure, with transparency and translucency by revealing their inner, supporting structures, plain, steal-wire mesh or grids. Their framing constructs an overlapping of inside and outside, resulting in a tautological short circuit, wherein layers of meaning reconstruct each other, and thereby expose with perfect conceptual clarity a notion of fragility that belies the ruggedness of the actual construction. Perhaps it is something about the idea of reinforcement as such that subverts the simplicity of the applied cubic geometry and its symbolic levels, appropriated by modern architecture, most notably since the Bauhaus. All these imposing cubes, rectangles and grids, with all their calculated reflections and transparency, imply classic, predominantly male values: straightness, clarity, resolve. So, consequently Genzken’s answer was “Fuck the Bauhaus,” the title of a group of works that are predecessors to her most recent body of work.
But Genzken’s concept of geometry has always been fluid — the chaotic elegance of her current works echoes the surprising volatility of her early, elongated ellipsoids and hyperbolas from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today it appears difficult to believe that these forms were made before Photoshop. However, in a time dominated by hot “Neue Wilde” painting and a nearly all-male cast of more or less macho painters, Genzken, like Hanne Darboven before her, turned to the soothing coolness of mathematics and used computers for complex sinus-calculations to develop her suggestive abstract objects. Painted in bright colors, they are physical, but in a strange way also from out of this world. Scientific, nearly weightless and touching the floor at only one point, they hover in a precarious equilibrium. Like musical instruments or sporting equipment, say, surfboards, an abstract and impossible mechanical idea of functionality emanates from them, while they occupy their space less than they bend it, proving too big for any context.
Already this period shows the artist as a sculptor who aspires toward complex ideas and to wrangle the concept of sculpture from the hands of minimalists and take it to completely new places; this remains her game today. With great panache — or “with her almost Herculean ambition,” as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh said in an article published in Artforum) — Genzken managed to develop her practice inside of a specific historic vacuum concerning sculpture in Germany.
She was wedged between the overpowering ideas of minimal art coming from the US and the influence of the Düsseldorf scene, with the highly influential godfather Joseph Beuys and the rest of the Düsseldorf gang — from her former husband Gerhard Richter and his pals Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo to the then-upcoming generation of photographers, such as Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth at the famed Bernd and Hilla Becher school. Questioning the masculine notion of sculpture as such drove her to take upon her own shoulders the task of finding a new way to make sculpture all by herself. Without any predecessor, she went through the motions, and came up with one potent idea after another, ruthlessly discarding her approaches when she found them dissatisfying or no longer in accord with her vision, subjecting her works and ideas to rigorous and intense examination.
Given the mathematical precision of her early sculptures, the autonomy and tight rectangular rational at work in her concrete and frame pieces, her latest work looks like it has spiraled out of control: the artist’s hand is everywhere, the arrangements are overpowering, involving a surprising personal sensibility, humor, suggestions of adoration and campy seduction. Alluring from their pedestals, her concoctions come from the real world of the everyday and carry with them no irony but a comic touch, in the way that the cheap mass-produced perfection of her objects clashes with expensive design and artifacts. This is what happens for instance with a leporello by her Cologne-based artist friend Kai Althoff, which was draped around and woven into the structure of her sculpture Pope (2006) — shown in her recent exhibition of four stelae at her Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider. The poignancy of mundane activities and their apparent contrast with modernist rationalism allows her to use a certain friction to portray a schizophrenic state of interference and exchangeability. Agilely mixing styles, high and low culture, she allows fashion accessories to comment on concepts about modernism, urbanism and sculpture.
Genzken invites the viewer to witness arrangements of residue from everyday life that turn into provisional hybrid forms — including toys, kitsch figurines, colored glass, souvenirs and other knick-knacks — that mount up into altar-like complexes, transcending the idea of experimental architectural models. They remain flexible, similarly influenced by the egalitarian strategies of punk and dada as well as scatter-art, gaining their momentum in the obvious pleasure taken in the campy qualities reflected in the abundance of shiny materials, glossy, transparent or reflective surfaces and the decorative metallic and glitter spray paint employed to add some extra sparkle and friction — “plenty of sand in the Vaseline,” to quote Martin Kippenberger. Indeed, Genzken’s precarious structures are reminiscent of Kippenberger’s Psychobuildings — a book featuring a series of photographs of existing architecture that question the either plainly idiotic or really psychotic society that created them. In a complex reversal, Genzken’s sculptures reflect more of an individual state of tension, caught between the perception from the inside and the outside, but are just as slapstick as they are psychotic.
In her New Buildings for Berlin, the relatively small slates of resin-encoated wire lean on each other like diminutive Richard Serra sculptures, and are often placed close to windows to emphasize their translucent character. It is precisely here that her metaphorical gesture, informed by a lightness, the allure of the surface, the way of arranging and placing her work, prevents her from producing what could be defined as ‘painting,’ thanks also to the combination of extremely diverse elements. Abandoning notions of order and finally power, they allow the viewer to relate to their human scale with their powerful symbolism of fragility, haphazardness and poetry. Things remain light, easy; the elements are barely held together by hot glue, adhesive tape and cling-wrap. No weightiness, no imposing form, but a distinctively anarchist DIY idea.
Similar to the catastrophes of painting technique that are the trademark of much bad painting, the clashes in Genzken’s work are part of her narrative, unfolding simultaneously on many symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical levels. The world she shows is falling apart, it can’t contain the things in it anymore, because implicit notions of structure and order have become obsolete.