“De Sculptura”


The show’s straightforward title promised honesty, but its precious subtitle, “Tu Sculptura Felix Nuba—Spatium” (You, happy sculpture, marry—space), a paraphrase of the famous Hapsburg dynastic motto, swiftly revealed curator Harald Szeemann’s exhibition strategy: the legitimization and ceremonious conquest of space through sculptures specifically chosen for the site. Szeemann’s three-generation show from Joseph Beuys to the 28-year-old Austrian Heimo Zobernig, was meant to be neither an exemplary survey nor a history of developments or ideas.

This enabled Szeemann to delete some of the standard repertoire of this type of undertaking. Instead of the fanfare of the German team or the theatricality of the Italian mythomaniacs, he staged an active silence. According to Szeemann, his intent was not to create a “poem,” as in the Zurich sculpture exhibition of winter 1985–86, “Spuren, Skulpturen and Monurnente ihrer Präzisen Reise” (Traces, sculptures, and monuments of the artists’ precise journey), but to forge a vibrating energy field of different types of designs that could manifest their physical and spiritual characteristics freely. This event made it possible to see the works of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Richard Long as if for the first time, but was hampered by the ungainly convention-center hall. An intricate web of relations sharpened one’s reception to both the relative differences as well as the underlying contrasts between the American and European viewpoints. Similarities arose on the subject of gravity, as with Bruce Nauman’s floating Triangle, 1977, and Richard Serra’s shifting steel-plate construction Right-Angle Corner with Pole, 1969. Then there were the polarities between Judd’s or Andre’s association-free, art-for-art’s-sake primary structures and sculptures laden with metaphor in the service of social utopia—Mario Merz’s glass igloo with flowering tree, Che fare? (What’s doing?, 1969–86), or Beuys’ Grond (Ground, 1980–81),which dominated the exhibition. The issue at stake was the cancellation of any baroque or expressive tendencies in favor of a new and very personal view of the last fifteen years’ sculpture, an attempt to locate its dramatic, poetically enlightening, and meditative energies.

Alternatives to this dominant “historical focus;’ in the form of young artists and opponents, seemed negligible save for four subtle exhibitions in the “side chapels:” Yet Szeemann achieved poetry in these seductively beautiful rooms, particularly in the presentation of Cy Twombly’s lyrical sculptures (1979–83), fetishistic white objets trouves of a peculiar nonmaterial character, and in the fragile works of Wolfgang Laib, Milchstein (Milkstone, 1978), Reishaus (Rice house, 1986), and Die Fünf Unbesteigbaren Berge (The five unclimbable mountains, 1984), this last made of shining golden flower pollen.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Cornelia Lauf.