TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1990

ROMANCING THE STONE: ULRICH RÜCKRIEM

Sculpture is not science but extremely mechanical art, for it generates sweat and bodily fatigue for its maker; and simple measurements suffice for this artist. . . and thus in itself it ends up demonstrating to the eye that which it is, and on its own doesn't provide a sense of amazement to the contemplator.
—Leonardo da Vinci, Quaderni (Notebooks)

I BELIEVE THAT, from a historical distance, one of the legacies of the artists of the 1970s might be defined as education: education primarily in living and feeling, but also education in the practice of language and of expression. The 1960s saw the exhaustion of a transformation, revolutionary in its time, in the way art and its making were defined, a change that had closed one era and begun another, echoing what had happened during the second decade of this century within the historic avant-garde movements. And it is no accident that the term “neo-avant-garde” came up again and again during those years. Then, with the reduction in the noise that inevitably accompanies the emergence of new models, the revolutionary wave was shattered. The all-encompassing unities of theoretical-ideological assumptions were broken, resulting in a multiple fragmentation of singular practices. In fact, beyond the still-persistent and repeated labels that conveniently cover experiences that are quite disparate, in this period groups and currents lost meaning. The shift was to the artist, affirming him/herself as a separate individual, secure in the knowledge of his/her own role and of his/her own nature within a social context. And this occurred, not so much in theoretical terms, but in corpore vili—the work and through the work. Likewise individual research led to the breakup of the various components of artistic propositions, and to the loss by the discourse of art of an interest in the centuries-old rhetorical and ideological superstructures of Western culture. This process, practiced by each artist in the elaboration of his/her own work, came to acquire, on a general cultural level, educational value: education through influences, both direct and indirect, and without the necessity for organized groups or guiding personalities that had marked the earlier decades of our century, from Cubism to Conceptual art, from Picasso to Joseph Beuys.

According to this view, the artists of the ’70s might seem like “a dispersed, nameless mass”1 of pedants and maniacal teachers, if it weren’t for their typical eccentricity, founded on the knowledge of individual isolation, a knowledge made more alarming by the threat of suffocation and silence imposed on the individual by the mass system—mass communication, mass media, mass culture. Thus constituent, fundamental identities were formed that could also break down and become lost in repetitive mania or in obsession, but that, nonetheless, tended toward the irreplaceable affirmation of the self as an authentic and substantial unit, beyond which lies only the gratuitousness of an abstract and mortifying system. And yet, at the same time, careful attention was given to the context and to history reexperienced in the concrete terms of subjectivity. The individual, personal experience of the artist in the work and through the work, which is his/her confrontation with the world, constituted the germinal core and the necessity of his/her existence. Thus artistic education no longer took place through excellent models to which one could refer, from which one could move on or go beyond—the typical evolutionary code of Modernity—but rather through the indication of possibilities, of potential variations. Looked at from the present vantage point, the most profound effect of this attitude was a principle of optimism that allowed one to glimpse, rather than to know with theoretical and empirical certainty, the possibility of reconciling hope and desperation, preparing the ground for the following decade. We are still enjoying its fruits.

If this was true, however, it was so principally in Europe, even if there was no lack of American contributions (and not exclusively from New York, but also from Canada and California). In fact, there were continuous formal and stylistic echoes from both shores of the Atlantic, although on this level as well a process of differentiation had already begun that led to a distancing of European from American art. During these years, the internationalism of art, always a well-rooted principle of Modernity, began to deteriorate, and one could already see the first signs of a desire to prove oneself more concretely grounded in the field of effective and personal experience. And yet there existed interwoven with these particularizing aspects a broad, supranational circulation that nurtured both artists and works and from which they drew considerable energy. It was as if the infinite possibilities of variation were inscribed within a rigid program, and these eluded control, bursting from below in a continual ascent to the surface.

Within this framework, German art occupied a peculiar position. It combined multiple, broadly differentiated tendencies with a completeness of propositions that was surprising after some 30 years of isolation—Nazism, war, reconstruction—and a decade, the ’60s, dominated by the Fluxus movement and by the disquieting figure of Joseph Beuys. Even in their reciprocal peculiarity, these fit into, or came to fit into, that “international” of art which was the hallmark of the decade. Although this condition persisted into the ’70s, it no longer affected the work of those artists who, freed from the pressures of the system thanks to the “commitment” of the artists of the preceding decade, continued along their own path, confident in their own means and in the means of art, no longer feeling the need to group together in bands in order to progress in their differences, and in the difficulties that every difference implies, toward a means that can be called common.

There were the shamans who sank legs, genitals, chest, heart, head into the Nordic swamp, and they traversed the various tectonic layers, causing tremors that bear afloat zones and substances that the history of Western culture, in its own progressive horizontal path—east to west, surface, economy, information—has deliberately forgotten or openly rejected. I am referring again to Beuys, and, in addition to him, to Sigmar Polke, to Michael Buthe, to C.O. Paeffgen. And there were also the wild conservatives—Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, A.R. Penck, among others—who, nostalgic for a lost supremacy (if it ever existed) of art, reclaimed for themselves a position of presumed magical-functional primitivism; they were the ones who anticipated and prepared the neo-Expressionist and academic revival toward the end of the decade.

Beyond these two poles, however, other more interesting positions were being determined. Among the most revealing, coming under the heading of “education” as proposed above, one should note the presence in Germany of artists/masters who reflect the history, the tradition, and the sense (Sinn) of Western art in the synthesis that their own work represents. These are masters in the sense in which this term is used in the expression maître-à-penser: Gerhard Richter for painting, Ulrich Rückriem for sculpture, Lothar Baumgarten for landscape. Enlightened maîtres in the 18th-century sense of the word, who bring together the arguments of the self and those of the social realm, considering the latter a precarious but necessary extension of the former. (Blinky Palermo is an isolated flower, whose beatific figure fades into myth, but I couldn’t fail to mention him.)

And so Ulrich Rückriem. He not only assumes, at the same time that he repeats and comprises in his essentiality, the history and the tradition of sculpture. He also assumes their essence and recognizes its origin: “I stop where others begin”2; “in the beginning is my end.”3 The work is built upon this essence and upon the recognition of origins; its duration goes beyond the time of its own manifestation and the space of its own perimeter, to draw upon the timelessness and the infinity of place. “The time of the stone is concentrated within us where the eras crowd together.”4 Even if they are, in fact, dated, Rückriem’s individual pieces possess no evolutionary chronology that might determine their progression through successive developments; rather, we perceive each as the essential realization of the most intimate part of a subject that persists, even if in an undefined state, throughout and despite the vicissitudes of existence.

The first object of recognition is the stone. It is the stone being, “among the stones,” that “allows the space to contain, in addition to its own uniform empty continuity, also that special manner of being in space which is the stone being.”5 The first act of the artist is construction. And construction is first of all elevation, erection; the phallic megalithic European menhirs, the Asian, Polynesian, and African ones as well, share this sexual characteristic, that of primal male sexual excitement. The moment of excitation is indirectly linked to the reproduction of life directly insured by the mysterious receptivity of the female, whose ways are completely internal, hidden. The sexual opposition demonstrated by the difference in reproductive roles implies the necessity for the symbolic male act to fix the link that the female by nature hides within her viscera. The male symbol is thus presented as the primary end of a (symbolic) chain of continuity that is, in any case, insured by the female body. This first necessity confers form, determines symbolic form, and as such traverses the course of human history. The result is an art that, declined as male, bifurcates into the two traditionally principal branches: the erectile encumbrance of sculpture and the phantasmic projection of painting—penis and symbolic imagination—the male model.

Other sociocultural events—the emergence of architecture—can be grouped immediately with this first pulsating instance. So there are those for whom the menhir, the “upright,” must serve “to qualify and to define the space surrounding it.”6 Here it is a question of a primary construction—the other primary construction being constituted by the dolmen—without internal space, which presents itself as a volumetrically and plastically conclusive element that ends up being related through successive descent to the architecture of “tumuli, stele, the high platform sites, Mesopotamian ziggurats, Indian stupas, and the like.”7 Rückriem always considers this clear original link to architecture, arranging his own divided stones, whether “upright” or not, in strict relationship to the space/environment, be it inside—the gallery, museum, exhibition site—or outside—the city, park, countryside. Outside, the relationships become more complex and vary according to whether he is dealing with an urban environment in its globality or a single building, an infinitely open landscape, a park with a finite design.

If ab origine there is a passage from initial σῆμα to permanent μνῆμα, from sign/recall to recollection/memory, in Rückriem’s work the complexity of the μνῆμα is reduced in its semantic references to the evidence of the artistic act and of the creative and concretely operative processes that have produced the work, opening it up to an essential perception: volumes and the nature of the stone, partitions, environment, landscape; all data that preexist in a specific, autonomous configuration, and that anticipate the presence of the work, but that are revealed by this presence in the same way in which a stone thrown into a still pool reveals the nature of that diaphanous and reflective surface. The return to the σῆμα is impossible, and this impossibility is the basis for the suggestive charm of Rückriem’s pieces. I still remember an encounter with one of his works in the parco di Celle, near Pistoia, in Italy. It revealed itself within the low branches of the underbrush, and absorbed within its rough surfaces the changing light of day, bearing witness, in its achieved static state, to the timeless substance of a passage, and how this passage—the work of the artist as a sign of passage—was charged with other substances concentrated there, as if a lenticular bubble had formed on a sheet of transparent glass, absorbing and reflecting its surroundings. The memory is not closed off within the meager circle of personal testimony or in the faceted figure of culture. Rather, it is a recollection of its being and its vastness. It is as if the experiences and the emotions of individual existence, which are neither negated nor exalted, and the knowledge accumulated, had found, in the squared-off, cut, and then recomposed block of stone, its own quiet echo, which alleviates the suffering of existence and conquers, at that point, the ephemeral nature of time.

And this effect is achieved, not through an ascensional, abstract sublimity, but in the materiality of the elements presented and in the evidence of the process of construction—construction that is still connected to archetypal architecture and also to the disposition and organization of space, which, in 20th-century tradition, finds its own antecedents in the “planets” of Kasimir Malevich and its descendants in the works of so many young German artists of the 1980s, such as, for example, Isa Genzken, Reinhard Mucha, and Harald Klingelhöller. While, for his part, Malevich doesn’t seem to have lost faith in built architecture, Rückriem distances himself from built form, placing himself outside or inside it and clearly distinguishing his work from it, emphasizing a difference. (Thus, after him, Genzken, with her iron and cement sculpture, denounces the polluting and mortal wreckage of the ruin, constructed as the final stage of the glorious architectural undertaking. In his assemblanges, Mucha boldly rejects architecture in favor of autonomous construction, thereby revealing the thwarted union that the world and history have accepted and in which they risk suffocating. And Klingelhöller, less passionately, sets a stage for apparatuses and parades them prettily, without even an attempt at montage.)

Every construction has at its foundation a cut, a rupture, a break. As in articulated language, a primary division through a cut that separates the part from the whole is established, and upon this germinal partition, this rupture of the natural continuity, the constructive work begins. Only through this decomposition can one obtain the material necessary for construction. It is the differentiation of the phonic matter that gives rise to language, as Ferdinand de Saussure has demonstrated, and it is such matter, placed in relationship to thought, that “is like a nebula in which nothing is necessarily delimited,” “a plastic matter that is divided in its turn into distinct parts to furnish the signifiers which the thought requires.”8 For Rückriem, this division is the cut, an effective, not symbolic cut, but one that is also archetypal, original, a cut that produces “reciprocal delimitations of unity”9 between space and solid mass, between stone and construction. Yet this cut doesn’t provoke the materialization of thought or a spiritualization of matter, but only the elaboration of a unity constituted among substances. The nature of this unity is something distinct from the necessities of construction—“The stone doesn’t want that which is wanted from it”10—and it finds its own raison d’être in the act of constructing.

The parts are then reconsolidated. When this doesn’t occur, the absence of one part reveals the nature of the material substance that the presence covers. The cut is then the trace and part of the action and the substance in which the action occurs. Rückriem always works with a boundary, that which separates the substance of the stone and the substance of the space, the action of the artist and his project; and the work emerges from the combination of these elements, without which, even at the perceptual level, the form deviates from the substance or the substance from the form. If the artist’s action consists in the cut and construction, his project also has a binary character. On the one hand there is the choice of the stone—dolomite, granite, sandstone—and its place of origin: the quarries of Westphalia, of Portugal, of Normandy, of Wales, of Ireland, of Scandinavia. Stone as nature, place as culture: the places of European megalithic culture, but without philological pedantry, chosen almost through instinctive assimilation. On the other hand there are the compositional parameters: support—works on the floor (they rest on the floor and cover a portion of it); works on the wall (they are placed next to a wall and cover a portion of it); stelae (sometimes they are fixed in the ground and partially conceal it, sometimes they only rest against the ground); mechanisms of division, which refer to the traditional mechanics of working with stone (splitting, cutting, polishing, smoothing); and finally the assumption of a clear geometric structure, a socially accepted compositional module with a preference for orthogonal forms (horizontal/vertical as primary spatial orientations). One can add to this list the use of numbers of an extremely elementary nature, whether it be the single unit, the pair, or larger numerical sequences.

In this way the artist reconstructs a “harmony between matter and idea, which remains evident in all its phases,” a harmony that, in Rückriem’s words, must be “immediately evident” so as to be “better grasped visually.” "This programmatic mechanism continues a 20th-century tradition, running from Constantin Brancusi to Minimal art, that while binding Rückriem the artist to the history of his time also reveals the definition of identity through which an individual agrees to belong to both his species and history, comparing both through his own actions. If the epoch in which his work achieves true completeness of proposition, that is the second half of the 1960s, sees the grand theoretical lesson of Minimal art, and if in certain ways his work might seem similar, the meaning is profoundly different. Where Minimalism is immersed in puritanism, tending toward a desire for absolutes, and is practiced by febrile thinker-gods, Rückriem is both Catholic and idealist, anchored to the relativity of experience. In his ethical and esthetic drive, the Minimalist thinker admits no error, which for him is both limitation and failing. But for Rückriem the practitioner, there exists the possibility of error and rejection. The expansionist will of Minimalism is mirrored by a retractile discretion. If, in fact, Rückriem’s work consists in the project, which is articulated in a limited though complete series of fundamental principles, the work is not exhausted in its execution, in the most perfect realization of the idea; rather, it is the true thing that the work, led according to those principles, has set in motion.

For this reason, the work, in its frontality, also requires an experience on the viewer’s part, which, while different, is similar to that of the work’s maker; an experience both perceptual (the stone, the dividing lines, the quality of the surfaces, the occupation of space) and cultural (the composition, the artistic value), which is rendered necessary to its very life, and which establishes it beyond the gesture of its builder/conceiver.

By virtue of these principles, for Rückriem the relationship between the work and the site has always been fundamental, and when, over the years, he continued to observe the increasing inadequacy of the site in terms of the work, he came to the decision that he would not abandon the work to the world, and that he himself would define its location. The gallery, while being the necessary site where the work encounters the glance of the viewer for the first time, provides an ephemeral experience. There, the works follow along in a parade, one after another, slow or rapid, leaving but faint traces in the memory of those who were present. Museums are filled with examples whose original vital power has been diluted—the work has lost its own flagrancy. In its changing growth, the urban stage suffocates the work, distorts it, buries it. So the artist must create for himself, and make for his work its own space.

In the summer of 1988 Rückriem took possession of a two-story industrial building in Frankfurt, and prepared its vast, bare interiors for his work: a significant and exemplary compendium in its variety of materials and articulations that encompassed all existing spatial and environmental elements and, at the same time, came together in the space and in the environment like a hot spot of life in its own ravine. On its own it marked no context, but existed within the context.

About one year later, on the estate of Huntington Castle in Clonmel, County Wicklow, Ireland, Rückriem constructed a container for another series of pieces. He also planted two large stelae near the castle, in such discreet fashion that the landscape was unmodified, once more marking the trace of a passage, in much the way that a tree, rather than a monument, might do: one of the stelae was revealed only by a bend in the road, the other in proximity to the stables, one part of which was readapted for the artist’s living quarters. (There was also a living space in the Frankfurt building.)

(This morning—not only did a humid and mild January bring out the crocuses and the snowdrops, but the rosemary bushes in the orchard were also in bloom—the sky was serene. I went there by myself. The space has a square plan. At the center is another square of pebbles from the nearby river, above this, corresponding in exact measure, an opening in the roof. Eight pieces on the walls, two at each corner, made of stone from Normandy. Eight pieces on the ground along the outer edge, stone from Wales. Eight stelae in limestone from Ireland along the inner edge. The diagonals cross empty squares. Through the square opening in the roof, in which the changeable sky of Ireland passes, the considerable noise of the wind penetrates, along with the brief and melodious flights of birds. To have a total view it is necessary to stand in the corners, as close as possible to the walls, and to empty the space of your own encumbering presence. Red antirust girders of iron support the vaults and the sloping roof made of corrugated aluminum; a continuous strip of fiberglass at the top of the walls; beams of light wood; white plastered wall; cement floor. . . . Some days later we leave together via the sea in the direction of Normandy, to visit a house, just bought, and to see an attached garden enclosed by tall walls of stone where . . . perhaps tomorrow. . . . )

“The products of sculpture are bodies. Their mass . . . receives the form. . . . The form occurs in such fashion as to circumscribe, like an inclusion and an exclusion with respect to a limit. Thus the space enters into play. . . . Once one admits that art is the placing-into-the-work of the truth, the letting-be-in-the-work of the truth, and that truth signifies the nonsecretiveness of Being, then can it not help but follow that in the work of art it is precisely for the true space to assign the measure, that which reveals its own specific being?” (Martin Heidegger)12

Pier Luigi Tazzi is a writer who lives in Florence and contributes regularly to Artforum. He is one of the curators of Kassel’s Documenta IX exhibition scheduled for 1992.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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NOTE

1. Alessandro Manzoni, Adelchi (1822), 2nd ed., Turin: G. Einaudi, 1973.

2. Conversation between the author and Ulrich Rückriem, Ireland, 1989.

3. T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets, 1935–42, collected in The Complete Poems and Plays 1909–1950, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952, p. 123.

4. Italo Calvino, “Essere Pietra,” Standing Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Rivoli: Castello di Rivoli, 1987.

5. Ibid.

6. Oreste Ferrari, “Strutture, elementi e tipi edilizi,” Enciclopedia universale dell’arte XIII, Venice/Rome, 1965, p. 232.

7. Ibid.

8. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986.

9. Ulrich Rückriem, quoted in Jurgen Hohmeyer, Ulrich Rückriem, Munich: Verlag Silke Schreiber, 1988.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” Holzwege, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977.