PRINT January 2018


View of “Reinhard Mucha,” 2016, Kunstmuseum Basel. Left: Ohne Titel (Milch)—1:1 Modell des ausjurierten Beitrags zu „Kunst am Bau—Eingeladener Wettbewerb“ für die Volkswagen Universitätsbibliothek der Technischen Universität und der Universität der Kü nste Berlin 2004 (Untitled (Milch)—1:1 Model of the rejected proposal for “Kunst am Bau—Eingeladener Wettbewerb” for the Volkswagen University Library of the Berlin Institute of Technology and the Berlin University of the Arts 2004), 1979/2014. Right: BBKEdition, 1990. Photo: Gina Folly. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

THE LOWLY FOOTSTOOL: No element is more primary to the practice of German sculptor Reinhard Mucha than this. Fußbänkchen (to use the German plural) inhabit Mucha’s work in myriad guises. They stand firmly, perch precariously, lie flat on their backs with their legs in the air. In each case, the artist has noted, the footstool stands as a metaphor for his own labor. “In the hierarchy of service furniture,” he observes, “the footstool is at the bottom. . . . This matches approximately the service I am offering as an artist.”1 Much as a stool facilitates the connection of a hand with an out-of-reach lightbulb, Mucha’s role, as he himself understands it, is to elevate and extend the reach of his works’ disparate parts. These include everything from wooden doors and discarded metal tubs to linoleum flooring and battered suitcases—all of which he assembles into dense ensembles. His practice is one of collecting and re-constellating rather than of creating out of whole cloth. But if bricolage traditionally dramatizes materialist anarchy, entropy, or a fragile coherence wrested from the junk heap of consumer culture, Mucha’s project (to invoke the work of philosopher Alva Noë) is, by contrast, one of organizing—of “bringing out and exhibiting, disclosing and illuminating” the social matrices and technologies that structure our lives.2

View of “Reinhard Mucha,” 2016, Kunstmuseum Basel. Frankfurter Block, 2012/2014/2016. Photo: Gina Folly. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The complexity of this dynamic was elegantly elucidated in the Kunstmuseum Basel’s brilliantly staged 2016 exhibition of a sampling of Mucha’s key projects, his first solo institutional outing in two decades. The selection centered on Frankfurter Block, 2012/ 2014/2016, an assembly of thirteen works made between 1981 and 2014. The newest of these, Galerie 4.1—zerlegbarer Museumsraum (Gallery 4.1––Demountable Museum Space), 2014/2016, was a kind of metawork, a re-created exhibition room newly built for the Basel show and based on the Frankfurt gallery space in which eleven of the thirteen works were first shown. Cutting across Mucha’s career and demonstrating his long-term focus on West German popular and material culture—reference points ranged from 1980s mail-order consumerism to Mies van der Rohe’s Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie to the Joseph Beuys multiples in the Kunstmuseum’s own upstairs galleries—the Basel installation was supported (literally) and animated (figuratively) by the artist’s signature stools. Sixteen served as pedestals for fluorescent-lit vitrines displaying framed advertisements and coupon clippings; a lone metal straggler sat plaintively beneath a wall-mounted case, and a humble wooden specimen propped up the toppled-over jute-covered plinth of Easton & Amos, 2014, while its twin peeked into the hollow form from its opposite side.

Reinhard Mucha, Gewußt wodurch, nicht wissen womit. Gewußt wohin, nicht wissen Wobei (Knowing Whereby, Not Knowing Wherewith. Knowing Whereto, Not Knowing Whereat) (detail), 1983/2007, diptych, aluminum, alkyd enamel on glass, four ink-jet prints, blockboard, corrugated cardboard, each 52 × 75 7/8 × 11 3/8". From Frankfurter Block, 2012/2014/2016. Photo: Reinhard Mucha. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Mucha establishes an equipoise between his materials’ utilitarian functionality and their status as signs and aesthetic forms.

Mucha’s Basel Fußbänkchen duly illustrated the artist’s vision of the footstool’s paradigmatic service function, but the show’s varied stools also undercut that vision, registering simultaneously as meandering and even wayward free agents. This twofold operation illustrated the dialectic of instrumental use and aesthetic display—or, alternately phrased, of tool and artwork—that permeates his practice. Mucha activates this opposition in myriad ways. He establishes an equipoise between his materials’ utilitarian functionality (as container, support, electrical connection, etc.) and their status as signs and aesthetic forms, while his frames (that is, the built structures, from literal frame to vitrine to room to building, that delimit representational space in his work) are consistently foregrounded as elaborately staged constructions in their own right. His glass reflects back at us, his cords snake and coil in plain view, and his display cases are marvels of intricate workmanship. In Basel, Galerie 4.1’s exhibition room—a gallery within a gallery—was both impeccably built and positioned slightly off-kilter in relation to its adjoining museum wall, the discrepancy foregrounding and activating the simultaneous linkage and separation of the room-cum-work and its institutional container. This conflicted entwinement was crystallized in the electrical cable that inhabited the resulting gap between the two walls: Elegantly coiled, the cord umbilically tethered Mucha’s chamber to its host institution in a manner at once lyrical and prosaic.

Reinhard Mucha, Seelze, 2012/2014, aluminum, alkyd enamel on glass, steel, zinc-coated steel tub, felt, plywood, 52 5/8 × 91 3/ 8 × 19 7/ 8". From Frankfurter Block, 2012/2014/2016. Photo: Jochen Arentzen. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

In conversation, Mucha repeatedly refers to his installations as “Bilder”—pictures—and comparative illustrations of works by Vermeer and Picasso, among others, fill the binders he keeps on each of his projects. However counterintuitive it may seem, his practice is guided by fundamentally pictorial imperatives; his cords, glass, and frames, like his footstools, are all made to be seen, and his works are created with specific aspects of the visual encounter very much in mind. Yet at the same time, and even in the case of such wall-bound and utterly absorptive display pieces as Seelze, 2012/2014 (a felt-lined metal tub mounted behind painted glass that was also on view in Basel), Mucha’s “pictures” are never self-contained. Quite the opposite: His objects and assemblages are always explicitly embedded within complexly developed and continually transforming material and symbolic networks. Mucha’s works conjure industrial modernity, but not by evoking the machinery of mass production per se. What they more readily suggest are hulking mainframes, sprawling cybernetic organizations of data and material. His works situate object, viewer, and surrounding space as parts of an indeterminate system, one that snakes and stretches across cords, surfaces, images, and materials all the way to the museum’s physical and administrative infrastructure and the larger networks of which this is a part. In doing so, Mucha’s work both precedes and extends the model of transitive art put forward by David Joselit in his 2009 essay “Painting Beside Itself,” in which the author influentially considered contemporary practices that thematize and perform the “behavior of objects within networks,” proposing the work of art not as a static thing but as a “transitive” entity.3

Mucha’s “pictures” are never self-contained. His objects and assemblages are always explicitly embedded within complex networks.

It’s this transitivity that makes Mucha’s art so compelling today. His densely material and mnemonically loaded works mirror and invert the networked devices of our own daily lives, the burgeoning “internet of things” so celebrated by technophiles and venture capitalists. In contrast to the contemporary ideal of machines and tools disappearing from view, however—of our personal archives evanescing into the cloud, and hidden sensors replacing the switches and buttons we use to control our environments—Mucha pursues a sculptural process by which not just objects and assemblages but the histories, protocols, and technological regimes they animate and embody are made ineluctably real, irrevocably present.

Reinhard Mucha, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, found objects, mixed media. Installation view, K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2002. Photo: Thomas Riehle. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

MUCHA WAS BORN IN 1950, in Düsseldorf, where he attended the Kunstakadamie and where he still lives. By the end of the 1980s, he had become something of a star, widely regarded as the central figure in a group of young German sculptors (including Thomas Schütte and Katharina Fritsch) dubbed the “Model Makers” on account of their often theatrically staged constructions. He enjoyed high-profile outings in Bern, Basel, Paris, and Frankfurt, and was chosen (with Bernd and Hilla Becher) to represent Germany at the Forty-Fourth Venice Biennale in 1990.4 Thereafter, things slowed down: Mucha passed up exhibition opportunities, shunned publicity, and continued to work in his particular corner of Düsseldorf (for more than thirty years, he’s kept his studio in an old factory building where railroad cars were once manufactured, located around the corner from the city’s central station). As globalism became the art world’s watchword, he remained committed to materials and reference points anchored in the West German culture of his youth and early adulthood. He participated in Documentas 9 and 10, and had dual New York gallery shows in 1998, but he waited eleven years for his next solo show, which took place in his hometown. Mucha’s work—created at a measured pace, often immense in scale, and unfailingly challenging to exhibit—was championed by those who knew it well but only infrequently seen by those who didn’t

Reinhard Mucha, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, found objects, mixed media. Installation views, German pavilion, Venice, 1990. From the 44th Venice Biennale. Photo: Heiner Wessel. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Mucha’s 1990 Biennale installation, Das Deutsch-land-gerät, gives a good sense of the difficulty, both logistical and semantic, of his practice. Its title, which could roughly be translated as “The Germany Device,” refers to a hydraulic instrument used for lifting up derailed locomotives and setting them right. In 1990, this allusion was immediately evocative of the newly reunified nation’s attempts to get itself, as it were, on track. (There were darker implications, too, given the role of trains and heavy industry in Germany’s barbarous recent history—something inevitably brought to mind, in any case, by the country’s Nazi-era Venice pavilion.) Inside the exhibition space, Mucha created a marble-covered chamber whose surfaces perfectly matched that of the surrounding floor and whose dimensions corresponded to those of his own studio. He then lined the interior of this structure with dark-gray felt, across which were hung twenty-seven metal-and-glass cases containing floorboard fragments from his Düsseldorf studio building; the abstract markings on the wood recorded and communicated not just his own labor but that of the space’s previous tenants (following the train manufacturer, a pipe supplier had occupied the building until 1980). Surrounding this, in the German pavilion’s primary room, Mucha installed thirty-eight columnar vitrines containing simple footstools, each standing atop a matching bronze cast held up, in turn, by a tape measure. Completing the ensemble was a heavy wood table on which one of Mucha’s elaborately constructed vertical vitrines lay prostrate, seemingly exhausted by the sheer proliferation of material around it.

Reinhard Mucha, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, found objects, mixed media. Installation views, German pavilion, Venice, 1990. From the 44th Venice Biennale. Photo: Heiner Wessel. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The question confronting visitors to the Venice pavilion that year, as to any Mucha installation, was: What do I make of all this? The opacity and difficulty of Mucha’s practice are repeatedly raised in articles about it, and there’s no doubt these qualities can leave a skeptical viewer cold. But given a bit of time and attention, such projects as The Germany Device begin to establish and multiply channels of meaning almost against the viewer’s will. And they do so precisely through their carefully orchestrated formal and associative density. Though his work is conceptually grounded and suffused with historical references, Mucha is a fundamentally sensual artist—and it is his objects’ and installations’ material pull, not any preconceived set of facts or ideas, that ultimately makes them so enthralling.

Reinhard Mucha, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, found objects, mixed media. Installation views, German pavilion, Venice, 1990. From the 44th Venice Biennale. Photo: Heiner Wessel. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Mucha, as this description suggests, is singularly attuned to the historical nuances of specific materials, which he deploys with subtlety and skill. He utilizes not just marble and felt but this marble and this felt.5 With its Beuysian theatrics, its pastiche of Nazi architectural bombast, its techno-scientific display cases, and its cryptically confessional array of scratched, abraded floorboards, Mucha’s Venice installation wove together personal and national narratives with exacting precision while self-consciously foregrounding its own institutional and discursive conditions. Such associations are never formulaic, however, never pat—they don’t add up to a neatly discernible takeaway. The worn floorboards at the center of The Germany Device, for instance—now on display in Düsseldorf’s K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen—create a series of supple abstract compositions that exceed the bounds of any cleanly formulated referential program, even if the viewer knows they were produced by decades of industrial and postindustrial trudging.

Reinhard Mucha, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, found objects, mixed media. Installation views, German pavilion, Venice, 1990. From the 44th Venice Biennale. Photo: Heiner Wessel. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Mucha views his work’s perceptual and referential effects as inherently in flux, and adapts many of his projects from venue to venue or installation to installation. Time—not as an abstraction, but as itself a concrete thing that takes shape in objects—is as much a concern for him as for artists whose work is more overtly durational. Take, again, The Germany Device. Housed since 2002 in the assembly hall of the former parliament building of the German state Nordrhein-Westfalen—opened that year as K21, the contemporary outpost of the city’s excellent museum of modern art—the work was carefully adjusted to fit its new space and augmented by thirteen video monitors showing sequences of still photographs, including views of its original Venice installation, Mucha’s nearby studio building, footstools, and the hydraulic lifting device of its title. In addition, the artist added a soundtrack of cars passing over a local bridge across the Rhine.6 These new elements expanded the work’s associative scope while weaving its own history—from studio to Biennale to Mucha’s hometown museum—back into its reconfigured material assemblage.

Reinhard Mucha, Straight, 2013, found objects, mixed media. Installation view, Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo: John Berens. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Arguably most striking for visitors to The Germany Device today is how these elements are inflected by the work’s continuing history since its 2002 installation at K21. Slated for removal by the space’s previous director Marion Ackermann, and the subject of a wave of subsequent debate, Mucha’s installation appears as a sort of repressed antithesis of the polished monument to cultural capital in which it is housed. With its display cases rattling from the bangs and whirs of its recorded cars and a number of its video monitors out of order, The Germany Device shows its age—and reincorporates this wear, of its own accord, into its structural logic. While one hopes and expects that Mucha’s broken equipment will soon be working, his piece effectively turns such disfunction against itself: From encased footstools and excised studio floorboards to blank, floor-bound monitors and clattlering cases, the components of Mucha’s K21 installation function by making present the institutional, historical, mnemonic, and material complexities that converge within it. Housed at the center of the converted museum and hovering above its ticket counter—but oddly absent from the institution’s website and promotional materials—The Germany Device thus anchors and inverts the museum’s carefully orchestrated symbolic program. Put another way: The work stands like an overlooked but essential footstool, undergirding and putting on display both the sprawling organizational apparatus of K21 and the over-burnished infrastructure of contemporary-art spectacle of which the institution is a part.

Reinhard Mucha, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), 1990/2002, found objects, mixed media. Installation view, K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2002. Photo: Reinhard Mucha. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

MUCHA HAS DESCRIBED the railroad—which, along with the footstool, is another key reference point in his practice—as a nineteenth-century predecessor to the internet, for among train travel’s primary impacts a century and a half ago was the complete reorganization of patterns of communication and movement, and a related redefinition of relations of time and space. The artist’s predilection for railway materials and images—evident throughout his oeuvre, as for example in 2013’s Straight, which features model trains, as well as in The Germany Device—should be understood with this analogy in mind.7 His early work Wartesaal (Waiting Room), 1979–82/1986/1997, finds him already attending to the semiotic and cybernetic dimensions of this quintessential signifier of industrial materiality. Exhibited in Mucha’s important 1987 solo show at the Kunsthalle Bern and later included in Catherine David’s Documenta 10, the piece consists of eleven wheeled shelving units, each with twenty-two drawers, that altogether hold 242 wooden signs painted with the names of German train stations. These names, all six letters long and taken from a 1948 reissue of a freight-train fare directory first published in 1943, are rendered in the typo-graphy used by the Deutsche Bundesbahn, the West German rail company that replaced the Reichsbahn after the war. Each sign can be removed and displayed on a brightly lit table nestled within an imposing furniture assemblage (which also includes a heavy antique hutch), its eclectic elements unified by a band of fluorescent tube lighting that lines its upper perimeter. Waiting Room, in its mix of historical reference points and materials, and in its explicit call to viewer activation—visitors are meant to examine the wooden signs on the table, then return them to their places—dramatizes the mutually constitutive relationship of macrohistory and microhistory, grand narrative and personal experience, while emphasizing the textual and material valences by which these function together. Indeed, these valences continued to run through Mucha’s subsequent practice, many of whose works are titled after place names taken from Waiting Room’s 242 signs.

View of “Reinhard Mucha,” 2016, Kunstmuseum Basel. Left: Easton & Amos, 2014. Center: Galerie 4.1—zerlegbarer Museumsraum (Gallery 4.1—Demountable Museum Space), 2014/2016. Both from Frankfurter Block, 2012/2014/2016. Photo: Reinhard Mucha. © Mucha, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

If the footstool for Mucha is both emblem and instantiation of an objecthood that’s insistently yet never fully present—never quite reducible to itself, because always transitive, always at least partly constituted by its current position within whatever circuits it’s moving through—then the railroad is emblem and instantiation of networks that are never entirely virtual, never fully dematerialized. (The cloud is not really a cloud—it’s an agglomeration of servers.) Mucha’s art, in short, is a poetics of objects and of the connections that animate them, and which they themselves animate in turn. Old suitcases, doors, vitrines, bundled-up magazines, boom boxes, light fixtures: In Mucha’s work, such items are never mute objects or simple placeholders. They are revealed, instead, in their thick identity as things: material, functional, ideological, poetic, both organized and organizing. Can we ask for much more from an artist, however low he understands his own place in the hierarchy of things to be?

Graham Bader is an associate professor and chair of the department of art history at Rice University in Houston.


1. Aimee Walleston, “Reinhard Mucha—Luhring Augustine,” Art in America, February 2014, 93.

2. Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), 16. Citation slightly modified.

3. David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October, no. 130 (Fall 2009): 125–34.

4. On Mucha as “Model Maker,” see Jürgen Hohmeyer, “Städtebilder im mobilen Wartesaal”[Cityscapes in the Mobile Waiting Room], Der Spiegel, February 2, 1987, 184–87.

5. Mucha’s discussion of linoleum gives a sense of his thinking on the specific historical resonances of his chosen materials. Commenting on the Minimalist ethos of declarative materiality, he stated: “I have always countered the minimal statement ‘You see what you see’ by saying ‘You don’t see what I see.’ There are no neutral materials. My cupboards are covered with linoleum. Linoleum goes back to my childhood, to the tax office and public housing. But you do see exactly what you see! I reveal every single detail of what I’m doing and that’s how I make a picture. Linoleum as a natural product has a lot in common with artists’ materials. It is a mixture of cork dust and linseed oil on canvas backing. In Carl Andre’s case, the result is images, too, but done as if they were independent of context, etc.” Patrick Frey, “Reinhard Mucha: Connections,” Parkett, no. 2 (1987): 119n1.

6. This description is indebted to Ulrich Loock’s discussion of Mucha’s K21 installation and subsequent debates around it in “Può un museo di arte contemporanea sostenere l’anacronsimo di un lavoro che contesta alla radice la missione storica del museo?” (Can a Contemporary Art Museum Support the Anachronism of a Work Which Fundamentally Challenges the Museum’s Historic Mission?), Cura, no. 3 (Winter 2010): 59–62. For another synopsis of Mucha’s K21 installation’s contested status, see Hans-Joachim Müller, “Raum und Zeit,” Monopol (November 2009): 48–63.

7. Relevant in this respect is Jerry Saltz’s 1994 article “History’s Train,” which discusses Mucha’s interest in the railroad as a specifically German metaphor, one evocative of the collective mentality of the “hive mind.” See Jerry Saltz, “History’s Train,” Art in America, January 1994, 78–81.