PRINT November 2011


Rachel Harrison, Alexander the Great, 2007, mixed media, 87 x 91 x 40".

THE RESURGENCE OF THE HUMAN FIGURE in much recent sculpture cannot be separated from a renewed attention to the idea of the subject. Although it is so commonplace as to go unnoticed, the idea of the artwork as a kind of subject in itself was one of the epochal inventions of modernity, crystallized in the radical shift in aesthetic theory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At that juncture, it was specifically tied to painting: For Hegel, sculpture was able to “create a unity between body and spirit,” but painting alone allowed in a more abstract “principle of subjectivity.” In recent years, scholars have extended this notion to make room for considerations of both the changing contemporary status of the subject and challenges to the notion of medium. Art historian Michael Lüthy and philosopher Christoph Menke, for example, argue that all artworks function as “figures of the subject.” In their continual negotiation between subject and medium, artworks dissolve such stable categories in a give-and-take that results in the medium assuming anthropomorphic qualities, while the subject in turn takes on the properties of a “quasi medium.”¹

This notion challenges the high-modernist idea of art as transcending subjectivity, most famously posed by Michael Fried in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” As is well known, Fried here both diagnosed and decried “a kind of latent or hidden . . . anthropomorphism”² at the heart of Minimalist sculpture. Considered in this light, the objecthood in Fried’s essay could be interpreted quite differently—as subjecthood in disguise. Even the obdurate, industrially fabricated objects of Minimalism can, it turns out, be considered as quasi subjects. Consider how Fried compared the “obtrusiveness . . . even aggressiveness” of works by Donald Judd or Robert Morris to the feeling of “being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person.” One could say that it is the “behavior” of these works that he disliked: They reminded him of how it feels to be bothered by someone occupying the same literal space.

If the early post-Minimalists—think of Eva Hesse with her Sans II, 1968, or Vito Acconci with his Seedbed, 1972—insisted on the repressed, personal side of Minimalism, this underlying aspect was forced more strongly into the sphere of identity politics and ideology critique in works that took up a Minimalist vocabulary in the early 1990s. Janine Antoni’s Gnaw, 1992, for instance, confronted the cube with Antoni’s sexual identity and obsessive female behavior, while Mike Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart, 1991, demonstrated how the aesthetic of Minimalism belongs to a social order that disciplines and punishes.

The attempt to reconcile a Minimalist vocabulary with overt suggestions of the human figure is, however, a more recent phenomenon, typified by artists such as Michaela Meise (e.g., in Liegende [Reclining Figures], 2007), Kai Althoff (Solo für eine befallene Trompete [Solo for an Afflicted Trumpet], 2005), and Tom Burr (Addict-Love, 2008), as well as Isa Genzken and Rachel Harrison, in whose work it takes on particular resonances I will discuss below. Although Fried used the notion of anthropomorphism to describe a form of intense subjectlike presence, rather than an actual representation of a human figure (which is how the Minimalists themselves largely understood the term), such works suggest that the conflation of these definitions in many of the debates at the time has a renewed relevance today. Not only has the animation of Minimalist forms now become a sculptural convention, but it has itself often been conjoined with what Minimalist sculpture most wanted to avoid—the easy recognition of the human figure.

ALTHOUGH IT IS POSSIBLE to read human characteristics into Genzken’s early, more emphatically architectural work, over the past ten years her assemblages have become more and more explicitly anthropomorphic. The 1994–2003 series “Säulen” (Columns) operates largely according to a still-latent anthropomorphism. These pillars are made of rectangular sections of wood, copper, aluminum, glass, and mirrors, and some are titled after her artist friends: Wolfgang, 1998, for Wolfgang Tillmans; Dan, 1999, for Dan Graham; Kai, 2000, for Althoff. (One—Isa, 2000—is called after its maker.) But it is not only names that turn these sculptures into personages of a kind: They also ask the viewer to acknowledge their existence and relate to them as if they were bodies, since each side has a different “face” or surface. In addition, the mirrored sections reflect the viewer, inscribing the spectator’s own body within the work.

The human figure is represented more literally in many of Genzken’s recent sculptures. Some incorporate mannequins or dolls as stand-ins for the human being, such as the action figures in the twenty-two assemblages that make up Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death, 2003. These plastic figurines not only invite us to read human traits into them but strongly suggest that we are dealing with surrogate people, if not with human beings themselves. Even where the dolls or mannequins are absent, as in the wheelchair sculptures Genzken has made since 2006, we are asked to imagine the presence of an absent person. It is impossible not to project the image of collapsed people into the wheelchairs, an association encouraged by the fabric that is typically thrown over them, whose bright colors themselves convey a sensation of life.

View of Isa Genzken’s “Sie sind mein Glück” (They/You Are My Luck), 2000, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Germany. From left: Isa, 2000; Lehmbruck, 2000; Kai, 2000; Andy, 1999; Dan, 1999; Bill, 2000. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

The return of the human in Harrison’s work similarly demands to be examined alongside its attendant sociopolitical and art-historical ramifications. Instal- lations such as Trees for the Forest, 2007, transform rectilinear Minimalist elements into tall painted pedestals supporting painted portraits found at flea markets to create what art historian George Baker has called “sculptural objects masquerading as people.”³ In both Genzken’s and Harrison’s work, the suggestion of a subjectlike presence—even the “subjecthood” of the work itself—becomes paradoxically even more emphatic through the incorporation of Minimalist forms.

It is not only their shape or size, however, but also the painted surfaces in both artists’ work that forcefully implies subjectivity. Consider how the specter of modernist color was already conjured up by the metal and mirror plates applied to Genzken’s “Säulen,” which, like her earlier works, asserted the properties of a “sculptural body in actual space.”⁴ In Genzken’s Untitled, her assemblage at Skulptur Projekte Münster in Germany in 2007, the brightly colored parasols function as a canvas ground for the figures—dolls mistreated and distorted by silver spray paint. Or consider how many of Harrison’s sculptures, not only Trees for the Forest but also, for instance, Claude Lévi-Strauss, 2007, activate a whole set of painterly gestures, from Impressionism to Abstract Expres­sionism to graffiti-like sprays of color. I believe that an expanded notion of painting has a concrete purpose in these sculptures: It supports their subjecthood by making them seem more alive.⁵ Indeed, Harrison and Genzken both activate the traditional role of color as the element of painting by which a sense of vitality can be produced.⁶

The two artists’ multimedia installations exemplify what Rosalind Krauss has termed our “post-medium condition,” demonstrating once and for all how the borders between genres have dissolved. Within this hybrid framework, however, painting is understood as a specific set of conventions and as a belief system even as it undergoes a fundamental expansion and distortion. Consider Harrison’s Al Gore, 2007, a rough-hewn block the height of a tall human that David Joselit has aptly described as “painted in patches of green, deep red, and pink in a manner that brings to mind Impressionism without falling into camp reenactment.”⁷ His choice of words rightly implies that painterly codes seem to be deployed without ironic intent. Gestural painting, conventionally seen, suggests an indexical relationship to its producer: The person who leaves its traces seems to be contained in the product. But something different is happening here: What enables Harrison’s reenactment of a belief system called “painting” to be taken seriously is that it occurs in a highly theatrical antimodernist setting—a setting, ironically, created by the very “stage presence” that Fried had censured in Minimalism. So, too, many of Harrison’s objects (for example, Tiger Woods, 2006) confront Minimalism’s shapes with amorphous forms in order to suggest a lifelike energy—an impression that is enhanced in turn by the application of paint.

Just as Minimalism lost its (fictional) purity, becoming contaminated by what it had sought to exclude, painting, too, is no longer a clearly delineated practice. Genzken demonstrates another aspect of this shift, by pointing out the ways in which painterly codes have been used and abused in graphic design and in club culture. Consider her use of colored foil, strips of negatives, spray paint, and tape in recent works such as Memorial Tower (Ground Zero), 2008. Though one could certainly argue that the tape is here used like pigment, or that the different types of fabric “expressively” thrown over assemblages such as the “Wind” pieces of 2009 act as a kind of painterly animation, all these elements are ultimately just wild decorations. As much as these seemingly expressive gestures remind us of painting’s capacity to suggest a Hegelian principle of subjectivity, we are also confronted with the loss of agency within painting, the absorption of painterly traditions by popular design.

If painting and Minimalism are mobilized in Genzken’s and Harrison’s work in support of a renewed anthropomorphism, then it is significant that both are deployed in a way that makes plain their contamination by other discourses. It is in large part through the ways in which these works use the legacy of Minimalism and the codes of painting alike that they convey a new sense of subjecthood, a kind of subjectivity that is itself also corrupted and disfigured (and so one that questions, at least symbolically, its own autonomy).

THIS CONTEMPORARY SENSE of a distorted and contested subjecthood is still more explicit in the recent resurgence of mannequins, masks, and celebrity portraits, not only in Genzken’s and Harrison’s assemblages—see, for example, Genzken’s Straßenfest (Street Party), 2008–2009, or Harrison’s Alexander the Great, 2007—but in many other works as well, including Heimo Zobernig’s Untitled, 2008, David Lieske’s Imperium in Imperio (Domestic Scene I) (Artist in Compliance with the Requirements I), 2010, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Crystal of Resistance, 2011, his work for the Swiss pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, to name but a few. This anthropomorphic return is emblematic of life under the conditions of celebrity culture, where products become persons, and persons are themselves commodified. More broadly, the entire emphasis on vitality—in the use of painting, Minimalist tropes, and anthropomorphic dolls or mannequins—should also be considered in light of the changing role of the subject under contemporary capitalism. The culture of post-Fordism, as many theorists have argued in recent years, aims squarely at our human resources, seeking to exploit not only our bodies but also our affects and desires.⁸ What the new form of capitalism is after is life itself.

Isa Genzken, Wind I (David), 2009, mirror foil, plastic foil, color prints on paper, spray paint, lacquer, tape, metal, 78 x 118 1/8".

As soon as a mannequin appears in an art display, we are met with a commodified quasi person. This strange amalgamation strikingly maintains the difference between product and person while symbolically collapsing it. Yet if mannequins are symptomatic of the unstable border between product and person, what does it mean that in the works under discussion these artwork-subjects do not appear to be coherent, but rather disfigured, dismantled, and out of control? How are we to understand the fact that Genzken’s mannequins, dolls, and cheap plastic figurines are so often in bad shape, even mistreated and abused? And that some, as in her installation in Münster, are exhibited outside without any shelter? Others have noted that Genzken’s grotesque figures address the state of the subject in the grip of consumer capitalism, a subject that has been invaded by the external forces of the spectacle.⁹ Indeed, rather than reestablishing the subject, such objects point to its disintegration, even as they produce a sense of life and vitality in the midst of that disfigurement.

Although these dolls and mannequins present the subject as not master in her own house—an old psychoanalytic insight—they still allow the viewer to identify with them as quasi subjects. By presenting themselves as precarious, borderline subjects, they establish reassuring and familiar narratives about the pathological subject under what Alain Ehrenberg calls the “new psychic economy”¹⁰ that we live in and that we can therefore all identify with. They tell us something we already know and, in fact, live through. Whereas Genzken’s wheelchair sculptures only suggest absent, disabled humans, we encounter a Becky doll—a handicapped version of a Barbie doll—as one component of Harrison’s installation Perth Amboy, 2001, in which she sits in a wheelchair and contemplates a green screen. Like the mannequin, the doll is a readymade with a human face. This is true even for the can of Slim Fast atop Fats Domino, 2007, where it figures as the “head” of a quasi subject. Where Pop art already allowed for a more anecdotal exploitation of the readymade, as Krauss has argued, here the readymade becomes a vehicle for figuration.¹¹ Expanding its former role of forcing the world of commodities into the sphere of art, it now confronts us with the persistence of the human form.

There is one further way that these artworks “come to life,” one grounded in the increasing structural likeness between the art world and the fashion industry. The transformations that occurred in the fashion world thirty years ago—individual designers being controlled by large corporations, the penetration of the laws of celebrity culture—reached the art world in the late 1990s, ushering in its transformation into a global industry specializing in the production of visuality and meaning. In art-market transactions, artworks are treated like living beings: An artwork takes on the qualities of a subject as it becomes “a Koons” or “a Hirst.”¹² Note, too, the way a collector expects to get closer to the life of an object’s maker by acquiring the object. When artworks are purchased, their value derives in part from their being saturated with the “living labor” of their makers. The artwork as quasi subject thus also points to the fact that artworks are always personalized when they are exchanged.

How could figuration—the use of the mannequin, for instance—“address” such a state of affairs? One could say that Genzken’s and Harrison’s anthropomorphic sculptures recognize and exaggerate the animation of the artwork as a cultural condition. These objects are designed to do what the artist of legend is conventionally expected to do—to perform, expose, and market herself. Since these duties have become widespread not only among artists but among most of the population, then perhaps the mannequin is actually better equipped than the artist—or the viewer, for that matter—to execute them. The exhausted self, beaten down by networking fatigue, is displaced by a stand-in. The mannequin does what we, like Melville’s Bartleby, would prefer not to.

THESE SURROGATES thus reveal the embattled subjectivity at the heart of what Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have famously called the “new spirit of capitalism,” which demands the exploitation not only of labor but of personality, emotions, social relations, and other noneconomic aspects of our individual lives.¹³ Since this new regime works on and within subjectivity itself, even absorbing it into capital’s own flows, Harrison’s and Genzken’s recent sculptures could be seen as delivering what is currently most in demand: subjectivity as a product. It is hard to decide, in fact, whether these works merely satisfy the current desire for staged subjectivity, or whether they exaggerate it in order to point to its problems. In either case, though, these disfigured, quasi-human assemblages reinscribe the all too familiar story of the damaged and even pathological subjects we have all become. Rather than suggesting that art could be an antisubjective or even purely epistemological activity, these works cannot escape being simultaneously both lifeless and seemingly alive.

Isabelle Graw is a critic, the publisher of Texte zur Kunst, and the author of High Price: Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture (Sternberg, 2010).

David Lieske, Imperium in Imperio (Domestic Scene I) (Artist in Com-pliance with the Requirements I), 2010, wood, waxed cotton, mannequin, velvet house shoes, two parts: base, 4 x 44 x 44“; mannequin, 42 1/2 x 19 x 25”.


1. The summary is that of Michael Lüthy and Christoph Menke, in their introduction to Subjekt und Medium in der Kunst der Moderne (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2006), 10.

2. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essay and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 148–72.

3. George Baker, “Mind the Gap,” Parkett 82 (May 2008): 143.

4. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Isa Genzken: The Fragment as Model,” in Isa Genzken: Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster (Cologne: Walter König, 1992), 137.

5. Ina Blom was the first critic to note that “aliveness seems to be a key issue” in Harrison’s work. See Blom, “All Dressed Up,” in Parkett 82 (May 2008): 134.

6. The Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, for example, noted in his diary that “color gives the appearance of life.” 7. David Joselit, “Touch to Begin . . . ,” in Rachel Harrison: Museum with Walls (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 2010), 186.

8. See, for instance, Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2009).

9. I am indebted here to André Rottmann’s summary of a lecture on Genzken’s work by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh at the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, in “Keine Kapitulation, Nirgends: Über Isa Genzken im Museum Ludwig Köln,” Texte zur Kunst 76 (December 2009): 240.

10. Alain Ehrenberg, La Société du malaise (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010), 226.

11. Rosalind Krauss, “The Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture,” in Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: Viking Press, 1977), 240.

12. Isabelle Graw, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, (Berlin: Sternberg, 2010), 128–30.

13. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005).