Reiner Ruthenbeck

Galerie Nachst St. Stephan

Reiner Ruthenbeck studied with Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf in the ’60s. Since then, he has become one of the most ardent “cleansers” of art, purging it of all semblance and illusionism by reducing it to its elementary pictorial dimensions. He examines the simple behavior of forms in combination with solid, rigid, elastic, tensile, and flexible materials such as cloth rings, cast-iron plates, steel poles, and glass panes. Yet his works, which are usually geared to a specific site, do not exude the cool rationality of Minimal art; instead, a meditative atmosphere of suggestive silence emanates from them. Their form is never determined by abstraction or by added symbolic content; it is, so to speak, legitimized entirely by the internal physical conditions of the material—gravity, elasticity, etc. Thus, Hängendes Deckentuch (Hanging ceiling cloth, 1970) hangs from the ceiling, deriving its character as art entirely from its unusual placement.

Ruthenbeck is also known for his mobile cloth rings, which are stretched into a taut, signallike triangle by the simple use of a horizontal pole. In visualizing the construction, the viewer is led from an initial surprise back to the level of everyday perception. Rote Kugel unter Metallbandüberkreuzung (Red ball beneath crossing metal ribbon), originally conceived in 1970 and reexhibited here in the first room of the gallery, is a knee-high red sphere, on which a cross is placed. Two four-meter metal bands extend away from the sculpture and structure the space around them. The route of these bands, however, levels the wave of physical sensation back into a unified field of rest.

The second room was devoted to a new, site-specific installation, Fensterblech Diagonal 200 (Tin window diagonal 200, 1989). At the left, a suspended strip of black aluminum plate loomed diagonally across the window, disturbing the viewer’s perception with its ambivalent tensions: this element could be construed as either an arrowlike symbol or a brace blocking the view from the window. Eckblech Diagonal 79 (Tin corner diagonal 79, 1979), a diagonally folded sheet mounted in the corner, splayed its own corners out from the right-angled surface, as if to indicate that a right angle is impossible within these old Viennese walls.

Eckplatte mit weisser Spitze 89 (Corner plate with white tip 89, 1989), created especially for this exhibition, covered a beveled corner of the room, thereby constituting, at a prominent spot, the exhibition’s actual center. These components were joined by small wall pieces, some of them produced as multiples. Verdeckte Überkreuzung Weiss/Schwarz (Covered intersection white/black, 1989) represents an important recurring element in Ruthenbeck’s work––the space braces and crosses, the biggest version of which he created on a column at the 1977 Documenta.

Ruthenbeck presented his works coherently; with the help of the older, more familiar pieces, this show also offered some new and surprising constellations. Despite the severity and frugality of the means (the overriding black/white contrast was disrupted by only a very few color accents), this installation retained something of the anthropomorphic origins of Ruthenbeck’s formal thinking. Abstract power relationships such as deflection and extension, tension and relaxation, refer even today to elementary physical gestures that were demonstrated in his sculptures of the ’60s. Ruthenbeck has found a consistent way of completely separating such anthropomorphic formal qualities from the body, reducing them to planar dimensions, and having them interfere, as autonomous elements, with the architectural space. If we survey his development to the present, we can see that, by combining European (or even just Beuysian) thinking about material with the formal rigor of American Minimalism, Ruthenbeck has achieved a new, independent artistic position.

Markus Brüderlin

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.