Erwin Wortelkamp

Hans Thoma-Gesellschaft

Being a sculptor means much more to Erwin Wortelkamp than just wanting to find answers to questions of form and content. For him the sculptural process is synonymous with life, growth, and destruction, in equal measure. Wood, Wortelkamp’s favorite material for the past nine years, provides him with a surface to attack. It is material, resistance, and reagent all in one. Using a power saw as well as traditional tools, he works the wood by sawing, splitting, and inflicting wounds. He assaults the amorphous trunk with the defiance of one obsessed with finding form. For him more than for many others, the act of sculpting is a constant challenge to his physical powers. He pushes himself the way he pushes his materials—wood, iron, and clay—to their utmost limits, testing their strength, balancing them precariously. That is why some of his sculptures are very massive and others are extremely fragile, almost unstable, exposed to the assault of space.

Wortelkamp uses the artistic process to enter into a dialectical relationship with nature, personal experience, and the history of art. His themes evolve from ideas that are generated—and made clear—by the activity of working on the pieces themselves. This is reflected in the two central motifs of his work: the head as a symbol of human existence in concentrated form, and the human body. In the ’70s Wortelkamp constructed head-cages out of iron. They were meant to make us conscious of the condition in which thoughts exist. Thus, it was only a logical further step when Wortelkamp began, at least symbolically, to break open these cages. The heads he has sculpted from heavy blocks of wood since 1980 are all grooved, cleaved, and gashed; they are manifestations of an act of liberation. But he avoids creating the impression of false pathos. Latex paint in pure primary colors is often applied to the heads in a way that contradicts their form but helps articulate the structure of their bared innards. Through this use of color, the heads allude to the iron cages. As the disguised remains of the cages, the heads communicate the old conflict in a new form.

In the context of Wortelkamp’s dialectics, all of his preceding work comprises both a forecast of and a challenge to the complex of works yet to come. Among the works he has produced during the last two years, this applies especially to the steles, whose forms are derived from the human figure and represent a response to the compact form of the heads. Upright, slender, and of great formal severity, the steles are very reduced in form. Their reduction is perhaps no more extreme than that of the heads, but they possess a new lightness that calls for a different handling of color. Most of them are monochromatic, with pure color (powdered pigment instead of latex paint) rubbed into the worked surface of the wood, which through repeated sandings and reworkings has become nearly transparent. It is as though the steles had been encased in a kind of skin. A few carefully placed grooves produce the laconic, graphic articulation of the three-dimensional bodies.

Wortelkamp has said that his sculpture is “not doctrinaire but receptive, many-sided, open to multiple interpretation, without thereby becoming any the less cryptic and elusive,” a statement that applies to both the heads and the steles. And, to quote a remark by Francis Picabia that succinctly encapsulates the premise of Erwin Wortelkamp’s life and work: “Our heads are round so we can change the direction of our thinking.” Wortelkamp’s importance lies not least in his remaining alert and uncompromising in this thoroughly unpolitical time.

Reviewed by Anne Krauter.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.