Franz Erhard Walther

Breaking down the barrier between art and its viewer was one of the main artistic tendencies of the ’60s. This preoccupation distilled in the oft-quoted formula, “art is life,” resulted in happenings, performances, and artistic actions that deliberately required audience participation. Within this overall trend, Franz Erhard Walther prefers a concept of “work” that implies process and challenges the viewer to act, to the concept of art. Walther’s statement, “I am sculpture,” presumes the existence of a viewer who, either conceptually or by active physical involvement, takes part in the artist’s work. Hence, for Walther, sculpture is the active individual, who regards the artist’s work as his own instrument.

In this retrospective works from the years 1957 to 1987 show the gradual development that led to Walther’s “other concept of work.” Marked at the outset by a focus on the representational picture, Walther retroactively added cuts to those early drawings, as if trying to eliminate their figurative character.

A skepticism towards the informational value of the figurative picture leads Walther to introduce strategies that further challenged the images representational status. Instead of the front of the picture he showed the paint-drenched back; or in the same spirit, covered the canvas with spackle. It seemed almost consistent of him to later abandon this approach and allow the material to speak for itself. He examined the qualities of materials such as wrapping paper, by tearing, wrinkling, and folding it.

In the early ’60s, however, he gave up this practice to develop the work we now identify him with: textile pieces that deliver meaning only in connection with the viewer. In the first set of 58 objects, Walther’s intention was to make the viewer the user of the pieces. The viewer’s subjective and highly physical relationship with the object was a decisive consideration in determining their forms. A second set of objects, which followed, negated the unconditionally instrumental character of the first set. Now the eye alone was allowed to confront the work. Without moving, the viewer negotiates the “walking lanes,” conjuring up spatial and temporal dimensions by purely imaginative means.

In his wall pieces Walther uses architectural references that pop up in the form of boxes and columns. Furthermore, many of the wall formations are oriented to a human scale, either by their proportions or by the way they are hung. Human beings are meant to find themselves in these pieces—physically or mentally. This exhibition demonstrated Walther’s development in terms of his “other work concept.” One can easily sympathize with his goal of relying on a viewer who engages the work on a spatial, temporal, and physical level. The difficulties are caused by the meaning of such actions. What is actually gained? Here, Walther needs to offer us some more proof.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.