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PRINT Summer 2009

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Hanne Darboven

ONE AFTERNOON, SOMETIME in the mid-1980s, I paid a visit to Leo Castelli’s gallery on West Broadway to see a Hanne Darboven show. The only other person in the room at that moment was the artist herself, whom I instantly recognized from photographs. After some minutes, I approached—whether to introduce myself or to comment on the work, I hadn’t quite decided. As if suddenly sensing my presence, she turned and blurted out: “No questions.” Then, without giving me time to parley, she left. So began what would develop into, despite this unpromising debut, a close professional and personal friendship. But it took time.

Hanne Darboven in her studio, Harburg, Germany, 2005. Photo: Michael Danner.

Time, in its manifold forms, was in fact the very focus of Hanne’s art: For her, it was the primary entity structuring human life. Though at first confined to numerical and mathematical writing because, in her words, “it’s a way of writing without describing,” in the late ’60s her art came to center on the calendar, a ready-made temporal system with a universal orientation. Ostensibly systematic, ordered, and strictly regulated, the form of a work could on occasion, as seen in Posthum Meiner Mutter (Posthumous to My Mother), 1999, incorporate a highly subjective experience of duration in conjunction with a collective, public one.

Following the death in 1999 of Castelli, whom Hanne esteemed both personally and professionally (and with whose gallery she exhibited from 1973 to 1995), she found her annual visits to New York far less enjoyable. When, shortly afterward, smoking was banned on major airlines, she reluctantly transferred from Lufthansa to Air India for long-haul flights. After that carrier, too, was forced to conform, she preferred to stay at home. Our meetings thereafter usually took place at her family domain—a cluster of historic brick buildings that served as both residence and extended studio facility—in Harburg, just outside Hamburg. Always gracious and appreciative of the efforts I’d made in undertaking the transatlantic trip, Hanne would begin each meeting by giving me an extended tour through rooms dense with books and artifacts collected over decades, in order to reveal her latest treasures. Some of these objects might be rare and beautiful, but many, equally prized, could be kitsch trinkets bought from sources she’d long cultivated in the United States and Europe. Then, after seating me on a very low chair, as we consumed a bottle of champagne, she would play the newest recordings of the many scores she’d composed. A brief glimpse of the writings she was currently engaged with might precede the much-anticipated feeding of the Mickeys, her beloved pet goats, at least one of which (taxidermied) featured in a major late work. During lunch in a neighborhood restaurant, where her appreciation for the family-style cooking was remarkably acute, conversation would drift within well-defined boundaries: Off-limits subjects included discussion of her artworks, their points of departure, content, and critical interpretations; what she thought about any of the many books from diverse disciplines on her shelves; her (increasingly uncertain) state of health; and much else.

If, in general, she seemed to feel that no words of her own were required when others engaged with her art, she also acted as if no critical interpretation could lastingly undermine it. In one group of works, including For J. P. Sartre, 1976, she even copied verbatim long passages from a preferred author (often from a tome in her precisely culled library). Her role here seemed to be one of transmission, calling attention to texts she regarded as crucial and advocating their further study. And while she gave occasional interviews, she didn’t attempt to dictate curatorial, critical, or scholarly approaches to her practice. The rich and substantial literature on her work, written by historians and philosophers as well as art historians, attests to the soundness of an axiom she borrowed from Carl Andre and used often: Never apologize and never explain.

In the mid-’90s, Hanne agreed to show Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), 1980–83, arguably her most ambitious and complex work, at Dia:Chelsea in New York. Comprised of some sixteen hundred panels and almost twenty objects, this monumental compendium of material ranges from troves of postcards to a saccharine annual calendar, images of contemporary artists and artworks taken from a catalogue for an exhibition in Cologne in the mid-’60s, fragments of some of her own earlier pieces, plans for military battles from World War I, a series of photographs of doorways along streets on the Upper East Side in New York, pinups of film and rock celebrities, designs for textile patterns, religious imagery, busts of political figures, manikins, and much else. In addition to this broad assortment of miscellany, the piece also has an extensive array of sculptural components, which combine into an environmentally scaled installation unprecedented in her oeuvre. Accompanying the exhibition was a performance of a work for double bass, Opus 17A, 1996. As with all her musical compositions, its score was derived by transposing the numerical constructions in one of her visual works into a notational system. The result is a polyphonic composition in which processes of growth and diminishment are interwoven with more constant elements. Following the piece’s premiere at the opening, a recording was played each day in the gallery.

	Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983 (Cultural History 1880–1983), 1980–83, mixed media. Installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY, 2003. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

Once Hanne had given us the unpublished score and the contact details for the shipping company where the artwork was stored, she made it clear that her role in the project was over. Even though she had never visited Dia’s galleries, she was not interested in seeing floor plans or in discussing the layout, the lighting of the piece, or any of the other myriad details that contribute to a work’s presentation. Arriving in New York only hours before the opening, she never commented in detail on the installation or proposed changes. And while she clearly enjoyed the event, she wouldn’t analyze the challenges of learning to perform the piece with the awestruck bass player. From this and related experiences, I’ve come to think that Hanne had a remarkable and rare confidence in the integrity of her works. For her, curatorial interventions were never likely to blight a piece. Of course, one might have deduced the opposite: that she was rather indifferent to the public presentation of her work. Certainly, in later years, she expended great efforts to have “facsimile” versions printed of each of her major pieces, sometimes in the form of multivolume publications, sometimes as boxed sheets of loose pages. (An excellent exhibition focusing on these “books” appeared in 2002 at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum in Münster. By contrast, no major retrospective of her work for galleries or museums has recently been attempted, no doubt partly due to the oeuvre’s vast dimensions.) And she even once expressed the view that she preferred her work in the format of a handheld book.

Those anxieties Hanne did express focused on the question of her work’s placement in major institutions. Excepting the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto, which had acquired a significant body of her work from which it mounted an impressive show in 1991, Hanne felt she’d had little support from North American museums, even though she had come to maturity as an artist in the late ’60s while living in New York, and even though she’d exhibited regularly in the city for more than thirty years. Once Dia took long-term custody of Kulturgeschichte following its acquisition by the Lannan Foundation in 1999, Hanne focused on getting other major late pieces into American institutions.

Several years ago, she announced that she was giving up visual art in order to concentrate fully on the production of her many unrecorded scores: Tellingly, music had been her first field of study, and comparisons between the abstraction integral to music and to mathematics must have fueled her early thinking and signature works. Nonetheless, as if to complete the circle of her artistic trajectory, she also recently realized a compelling group of abstract geometric sculptures in wood, based on drawings she had made over forty years earlier, at the beginning of her career.

In the late ’90s, the Hamburger Kunsthalle acquired a substantial group of Hanne’s works spanning her formative years and early maturity, roughly between 1952 and 1969, which it replicated in a well-documented publication. This, together with the facsimile versions of the later works and the CDs of her music, means that much of her oeuvre is now accessible in reproduction. Her contribution to both Conceptual and postwar art is well recognized, as are those of her close friends and peers Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner. In recent years, LeWitt and Weiner—who had once foregrounded the ideational aspects of their practices, leaving the question of material realization to others to determine—engaged closely with the installation of their works: The experiential consequently became key to the apprehension of their art. While Hanne had never consigned her work strictly to the realm of ideas, her practice arguably followed a similar trajectory. For example, Kulturgeschichte reveals its content, as many have noted, by means of the physical as well as the conceptual process of reception. Wandering through it, making happenstance associational links between various sections, subjects, and motifs, is essential to any understanding of the piece. Through this interaction, a synthetic, if subjective, reading of history emerges. Darboven, then, could not have been indifferent to the way her work was presented in public: On the contrary, her confidence in its ability to communicate through direct engagement, however open-ended, was securely grounded. As she insisted so memorably in that first encounter years ago, no words—no exchanges with the maker herself—were needed.

Lynne Cooke is chief curator and deputy director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, and curator at large, Dia Art Foundation, New York.