PRINT September 1989


THE PEOPLE OF BABEL, we are told, tried to build a tower to the sky; tried to storm the infinite regions of God. The story has an inhibiting moral—it is arrogant to imagine a life other than the one we already know—but like the Greek Prometheus myth, it also testifies to an enduring desire to try the limits of the possible. Actual history has shown that the consequences of that desire can be both as liberating and devastating as the myths imply. The early European visitors to the Americas, for example, such as Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, broke through the boundaries of an age’s comprehension; through them, the whole earth could be described by the name we still call the lands they explored—not the New Countries or even the New Continents, but the New World. Yet the gilded increase in the power of the conquerors was effected through a subtraction from, a destruction of, the vital energy of the conquered. Such memories as these remind us of the dangers of reaching beyond our grasp—dangers within ourselves as much as out there. But given the cruel restrictions of our rationally ordered, mechanically driven Western society, it is both unsurprising and welcome that that restless urge should endure.

The work of Thomas Virnich, a sculptor of the ’80s generation of West German artists, stores a perilous complexity of memory, yet his pieces have a powerful simplicity, for he combines in them a radical abstraction of cultural references and an elemental concentration on the issues and possibilities of sculptural action in the 20th century. Like the architects of Babel, he may build, for example, a tower, yet its basic component is not the mud brick but the geometric Minimalist box. Virnich begins where the Minimalists deliberately left off. Those artists suppressed the presence of culture, of history, of everyday life in their work; supposedly, the Minimalist object had no content, or had content only in its own terms, had meaning only in itself. By lining up positive elementary forms, or isolating them in space as their own reason for being, the Minimalists “reduced” and radicalized art’s shaping of the process of perception. But Minimalism’s drastic treatment for that sickly patient the artistic genius, the divinely inspired esthetic prince, has been concluded in ’80s art, which is free to explore the flotsam and jetsam of history wherever it has washed up. Thus Virnich’s conceptually based, autonomous, concrete sculptures nonetheless have a narrative and emotional content.

In Schachtelturm (Box tower, 1983–85), Virnich’s versions of the Minimalist box are stacked up into a shape that the title identifies as an ancient architectural form. As in serial production, this stack is potentially extensible to infinity; yet infinity here is not only an abstraction but a place striven for throughout history and myth. The idea of the infinite column has been addressed before in Modern art, notably by Constantin Brancusi, who sought to express it in noble material and noble form (thus trying to point beyond the inevitably finite limits of shaped material and form, no matter how noble). Schachtelturm, on the other hand, is a ramshackle, precarious affair. The rough boxes look delicate and fragile, and their surfaces are sensually uneven. As much as art history, myth, memory, and philosophical abstraction, the everyday, the banal, which art always rubs up against, is a channel for the energy of Virnich’s work. Schachtelturm approaches possibility through limitation; it expresses visions and dreams by embodying their opposite.

The simple structure of the tower recurs often in Virnich’s oeuvre, always linked both to its cultural content and history and to issues immanent to art, or more specifically to sculpture. The relationships of form and content it articulates stand in contrast to those of Amerigo Vespucci, which Virnich began in Florence in 1987, provisionally finishing it (the completion of his works is always only provisional) for the “Zeitlos” (Timeless) exhibition in West Berlin in 1988. The piece suggests the disassembled fragments of a boat, stamped by history in the form of traces of decay, which the artist has accentuated and accelerated. Its almost 400 individual parts are covered with lead; laid out on the floor and leaning against the wall, they fill the space, a vast domain, an archaeology, of the past. The dynamic energy of the static tower aims up out of the earth, but Virnich shatters the boat, an actual instrument of motion, and binds it to the ground. Its movement develops solely from the power of suggestion in its constellation of parts. Like much of Virnich’s art, Amerigo Vespucci is a variable piece; it can be installed differently in different spaces. Where earlier work had dealt in the ambivalence of closed and open, interior and exterior, core and covering, given shape and cast shape, this boat becomes a free magnetic field of disintegrated forms.

Schachtelturm and Amerigo Vespucci can be seen as opposites in Virnich’s sculpture, but they share an expansive energy, a notion of potentially infinite extension. They may differ in specific terms—emptiness and fullness, say—but they follow the same principle of alignment. It is on the protean interweavings of such alternating accents and emphases that the work, and our understanding of it, rests.

Hausblöcke (Housing blocks), begun in 1984, is a multipartite sculpture like Amerigo Vespucci. The nucleus of the piece is a dollhouse built for Virnich by his father when he was a child. The dollhouse outgrown, another man might have given it away, or thrown it out; Virnich destroyed it—sawed it up into four sections. Then he elaborated on these wooden elements, filling their cavities and hollows with further parts that can be removed, or “unpacked,” and arranged to fill a much larger space. In 1985, in the catalogue for the installation of Hausblöcke at Mönchengladbach’s Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Klaus Flemming wrote, “It is no accident that Virnich selected a dollhouse as the departure point for his sculpture-in-sculpture; after all, this toy architecture involves a highly peculiar type of space, which could be the foundation for Virnich’s box principle.”

The house in this work is simultaneously starting point, end, and, above all, sculptural principle. Like much of Virnich’s art, Hausblöcke begins with a found object, marked by time, intact but no longer useful for its former purpose (here through the biographical circumstance of its owner becoming an adult). The artist’s first step is to destroy the object, to cut it up. This act of destruction paradoxically adds a dimension to its preexisting structure: the openness of the dollhouse architecture is expanded at the same time that its original intention is denied. Virnich’s process here suggests a combination of lucid sculptural thinking and intuitive, emotional action. Destruction as a medium of creativity for the artist is an essential idea in Hausblöcke; aggression—in both the artist and the given sociohistorical situation—lies at the foundation of the work. This aggression, and the subsequent reparative work of transformative building, are linked to a basic, constitutive feature of Virnich’s approach: playing, or playfulness, or what Christine Tacke has called “cheerfulness,” as an artistic impulse. As Tacke writes, “The playful element gives rise to a cheerful world.”1 To describe Virnich’s simultaneously constructive and aggressively destructive approach as childlike is not to ignore the potentially ruinous consequences of such a heedless kind of quality in the adult world. More important in his case, however, is the model of creative behavior he advances. Virnich’s playfulness sustains an essential quality of pleasurable human shaping that Western culture has progressively been losing. His procedure in Hausblöcke reveals more than a subjective delight in cutting apart and putting together (though that enjoyment is certainly there); it is an artistically relevant action that addresses our technological environment.

The dollhouse is simultaneously a vessel of memories and emotions and an architectural and sculptural object. This object produces four more, each a part of something that used to be whole—an artificial, emotionally charged fragment. Left idiosyncratically different from each other by Virnich’s saw, the fragments become the cores, the starting points, for all of the interrelated yet autonomous Hausblöcke pieces. They are the determinants for the artist’s actions. As Virnich fills up their empty spaces by adding forms made to fit, which he in turn covers over by a skin of various materials, the core develops into an abstract closed block, its interior concealed. But Hausblöcke can also be opened up, dissected, its diverse constituent parts spread out over the floor. Each of these parts is a valid piece of sculpture. None is identical with any other, yet all are containable within the four overall structures, and have the same space-filling function within them. So we have multiplicity and sameness at the same time, the drive toward infinite variety embodied in crudely shaped forms whose differences from each other have an aspect of the slightly comical.

It is crucial to the piece that art here is derived from a dollhouse, a means of play, a house and not a house, a house of heightened artifice. It is equally relevant that the openness of the original structure has led to its opposite, closure, though closure of a nonfinal, reopenable kind. The playfulness that one senses here undercuts elevated notions of artistic seriousness; which is not to say that the piece lacks serious engagement. Like all the mental objects that recur in his oeuvre, the house form is connected to the essential needs of human life—here, the need for a protective space. At the same time, it is a symbol of social order, of bourgeois comfort, of the terms on which we are taught to aspire to live. Representing it through a dollhouse, then radically dissecting and reconstructing it, Virnich ponders the possibility of overt social action in a culture oriented by production and consumption. He implies a revolt against the rule of the norm in a world governed by the manufacture of products. He suggests that the geometric, rational structure of the house is vulnerable to intuitive thinking.

The same holds true for the variety of vehicles—ships, airplanes, cars—to which Virnich’s work also refers. Here too a concrete found object, perhaps a former toy evoking memories of childhood, is often the core, the point of departure, for sculptural treatment. It is not the objects per se that interest Virnich; what is important to him is the image they afford of the existential possibility that imbues life. Modern advertising has robbed the promises of motion, speed, and freedom of their credibility; in deforming and transforming the instruments of these promises, Virnich restores their imaginative energy. Dalmatiner-Schiff (Dalmatian ship, 1985), for example, in its state of closure, is an essentially abstract form with no apparent narrative content. If the sculpture is opened up, however, and its interior parts spread out for display, they relate to one another spatially in such a way as to suggest a fleet of boats, with all the associations that the sight conveys. Yet this cultural imagery is contained in an abstract hull, as though the one were the subconscious of the other. Another group of works takes off from musical instruments, chiefly stringed, and from their usual protective cases, exploiting the wide variety of sculptural possibilities in the molding, coating, shaping, and filling of these forms. Perhaps the instruments’ combinatory roles as spatial envelopes and generators of sound waves make them a bridge between Virnich’s Hausblöcke genre of pieces and his images of motion.

The constant friction between pictorial energy and basic forms is constant in Virnich’s work. Among the most recent examples are the lead “boxes” that the artist showed in the “Zeitlos” exhibition. Cast from pedestals marking the staircase in the Berlin railroad station where the show was held, the boxes, removed from their original context, are also offered another way to “expand”: they are open at the top, and Virnich has filled their interiors with a variety of shapes in fired clay. As with the travel and music pieces, these clay forms can be removed and arranged next to their leaden containers. Autonomous objects, they yet refer to the pedestal into which they fit. Besides raising such issues as inside and outside, emptiness and fullness, given shape and cast shape, the pedestals’ removal from their original function in the world invokes the Duchampian tradition. At the same time, the fact that they are pedestals introduces the idea of the conventional artworks that such stands would traditionally support.

This issue of the pedestal, which has haunted Modern sculpture, is a leitmotif throughout Virnich’s oeuvre. Pedestals have numerous meanings in his work: they support one element of a multipart sculpture; their function is denied, as they stand next to a piece they might once have held but no longer do; they become a shell for elements they contain, as in the “Zeitlos” works; they support a kind of lid, which, when closed, transforms them from pedestals into sculptures, standing directly on the floor. Virnich exercises similar variations on the theme of inside and outside, another significant issue for present-day sculpture: his work constantly moves among conditions of open and closed, empty and full, content and container. The tension between inside and outside is echoed in that between original and copy, which appears in works that multiply similar but nonidentical forms all of which in some way take their shape from a single parent object. A lengthier discussion of Virnich’s work than mine here would also discuss the interrelations he sets up among different materials. He is completely aware, then, of the formal, or internal, issues in contemporary sculpture, at the same time that he demands a broad cultural address.

Virnich’s working method is of seminal importance here. His procedure is improvisatory, spontaneous, each step amplifying and nourishing those before and pointing the way to the next. The constant in his art is the multipartite structure that yet allows its individual elements a role as independent, self-contained sculptures. That overall structure is dictated reciprocally by its constituent elements, which call for a flexible and variable arrangement. The work’s shape is never finally determined. Between the completely closed and the completely open arrangements of a piece like Dalmatiner-Schiff are countless possibilities dependent on the space and whatever other contingencies are present during the installation of the work—which Virnich often does as performance art, before an audience. The freedom and playfulness in his disposal of space is apparent in his “presentation” of the work when he declares the installation finished. Manfred Schneckenburger has described sculpture informed by the spirit of the ’70s as “a form of action”;2 no artist of the ’80s, I would argue, has drawn as many meanings from this theme as Virnich.

A visit to Virnich’s studio, in a former schoolhouse in Mönchengladbach, reveals “raw materials” extending from the living area to the work rooms and out into the vast yard: some found materials still in the condition in which they came, others in different phases of transformation, finished works or fragments of them spread about—a panorama of possibilities, of ideas for works in progress. The overall effect is of some anarchic grammar of sculpture, an archaeological field laid out for study in some yet unknown branch of intuitive science. Passing through the space, one thinks about both what is present and what is possible. Nothing is ever really finished as long as it is available to the artist’s hand. The works compress a multitude of possible artistic actions, and even once their direction is chosen, they can spontaneously deviate into another, adapting to whatever circumstances have arisen. This artistic choice reveals the philosophical or social-critical understanding of the art object in Virnich’s concept of sculpture. There is an intellectual arch from his notion of sculptural action to the experience he proposes of the artwork as simultaneously autonomous, nonrepresentational, and inextricably linked to the life world, to the human, to culture. The element of play, the intuitive progress from one step to the next, gives the work an aura of anarchy. Thus it stands opposed to our society’s mechanisms of production, to the ways of life they impose, and to the always exchangeable and therefore ultimately meaningless goods of mass consumption. Recalling the activities of childhood, Virnich’s sculpture points beyond sculpture, evoking the possibility of determining reality in other ways than by a bottom line of production and commodity.

The materials of Virnich’s work are important here, for they allow us to experience his contact with them, his physical action as a mode of sensing and thinking. He seems to feel the pleasure of molding soft material, shredding and smashing harder stuff, joining and interlacing the parts, looking for the suitable medium and adjusting where it is inapt, casting and shaping, dispersing and concentrating, discoloring (either directly or by leaving the object out to weather.) This confrontation with the specific energy of the material reflects a complex commitment to the possibilities of creative action, both inside and outside art. Virnich’s kind of playfulness, his anarchic dealings with the present, represent a philosophical demand on the future. Resisting the perverting of artistic tradition into unquestionably beautiful but all too commodifiable objects, he shows an earnest conviction in the freedom to act in a still overflowing field of materials, forms, and colors, and of relations between all these and living human beings. Unless playfulness and seriousness are profoundly connected in this way, the playful is not serious.

Annelie Pohlen is the director of the Bonn Kunstverein.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.


1. Christine Tacke, Thomas Virnich, exhibition catalogue, Munich: Kunstrauin, 1986, p. 11.

2. Manfred Schneckenburger, “Skulplur, als Handlungsform,” Kunstforum International_ 34 no. 4, 1979.