San Francisco

“Sculpture from Germany”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Why does so much of this sculpture look vaguely familiar? Not because it has been exhibited in the Bay Area or, in the case of most of the artists, elsewhere in the United States; nor has much of it been discussed in the American art press. Yet many of these 10 sculptors work within well-known conventions of “ . . . American Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, the European developments of Arte Povera of the ’60s, and the earlier schools of Constructivism, Surrealism, and Neo-Plasticism,” as listed by guest curator Michael R. Klein in the beautifully designed and well illustrated catalogue. Organized by Independent Curators Inc., New York, for a tour of six cities in the U.S. and Canada, the exhibition functions better as information about, and documentation of, contemporary West German sculptural activity than as a directly satisfying art experience. One does not want to believe Klein’s statement that the artists here “form the core of a sculpture movement in Germany,” because a large proportion of this sculpture appears derivative, or, more simply, dated.

Klein discerns three general approaches in this sculpture: primitivism (Joseph Beuys, Michael Buthe, Rebecca Horn, and Ulrich Rückriem); analytical processes (Wolfgang Nestler, Reiner Ruthenbeck, and Franz Erhard Walther); and construction (Wolfgang Luy, Barbara Schmidt-Heins, and Thomas Schütte). These distinctions are broadly appropriate, but the work overlaps extensively into a pervasive, highly conceptualized investigation of materials, perception, and the nature of art, all concerns characteristic of the ’60s and ’70s.

For instance, Horn’s Messkasten (Measuring box, 1970), an open cage of sliding horizontal poles whose end points duplicate the contour of the figure who has stood within it, examines bodily shape through its absence, in more of an intriguing analytical procedure than a primitivist response to experience. The same is true of Rückriem spare cuts in granite blocks, which simplistically and reductively investigate the nature of the stone. Likewise, “construction” is a grab-bag category including not only Luy’s loosely stacked and leaning plywood boards, which with the addition of a small replica of a Roman statue and a live plant are called Stilleben (Still life, 1982), but also his Myrte/X= Y2 (Myrtle/ X = Y2, 1983), an eccentric café setting in which shapes are skewed as if by perspective and table or chair legs are missing or, in one case, replaced by a Doric column. More stylistic references to Constructivism per se are Schmidt-Heins’ bas-reliefs—small irregular wood blocks or narrow wood rods attached directly to the walls to suggest a geometric painting made actual.

There is actually a diversity of approaches here, but much of the work shares a cerebral perspective that at this moment, years after conceptual art was fresh and exciting, seems arid. In contrast, Buthe’s “primitivist” constructions exude an expressive immediacy. His Elvira, Oasis, 1972–77, loosely drapes a tattered blanket around a trisected weatherbeaten plank hung vertically on the wall, as if it were a shawl around a dynamic but aged figure. Pompons of shiny, greenish-black feathers are scattered along the wood, a decorative touch with animalistic allusions. Even more texturally rich is The Wanderer, 1972, an enormous (144-by-120-inch) painting stained and brushed in deep blues, browns, crimson, white, and metallic gold, and loosely hanging like an atmospheric backdrop for a “figure” with branches for legs and a panel and ring of rusting corrugated metal for a body, above which is a thick spray of dried leaves. The imaginative juxtapositions of natural and aged materials with the figurative forms suggest a deep sense of personal connection to nature. But he stands out here for his striking combination of an almost lyrical humanism with an expressionistic primitivism. In the context of its production in the early ’70s, and in that represented by this exhibition, the work is the more remarkable as a synthesis of sensory as well as intellectual responses to materials.

Suzaan Boettger