Isa Genzken

Isa Genzken called this overview of her work since 1976 “Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster” (Everyone needs at least one window). The title refers directly to some of her most recent interests, serving as an apt metaphor for a body of seemingly divergent work. In a series of photographs from 1980, Genzken examines the multifoliate physiognomy of women’s ears, celebrating in close-up detail the design of pinna and lobe: ears as windows for the body, orifices functioning as intermediaries between the self and the surrounding world. The architecture of the ear is examined as an independent phenomenon but one causally linked to its function. Genzken’s photographs highlight how ears are adorned by jewelry and surrounded by coiffed hair, how these particular “windows” receive their accoutrements, the framing devices that extend and modify their meaning. Ears, like windows, can be overlooked portals, zones of transmission or reception that only appear neutral and impartial, but everywhere find themselves culturally encoded.

Genzken’s oblique assaults on the perceptual underpinnings of systems extend into a concurrent series of sculptures from the early ’80s. Incredibly elegant and of great formal beauty, her extraordinarily elongated, painted wood pieces hug the floor with determined persistence, suggesting the shapes of long ceremonial oars or jousting poles. El Salvador, 1980, extends almost 20 feet in length and rises no more than 8 inches off the ground, though it rests on only two points, stretching the expected profile of sculpture to something that nonetheless fulfills all of its medium’s requirements, creating a tension of great delicacy. Her subsequent poured-concrete or plaster pieces adopt a different profile, usually comprised of crude rough-hewn slabs evocative of bits of architectural forms in various states of decay. Exhibited on carefully ordered steel bases, her pieces ineluctably draw close attention to an ordered disorder. Architectural motifs, especially those relating to systems of armature, are critiqued for their nostalgia, and for their functionality. The skeleton of structure, its methods and poetic residue, finds resurrection in Genzken’s surprisingly wistful gestures.

Genzken’s most recent sculptures, germinated by an earlier visit to Chicago and her interest in its architecture, continue to stretch the possibilities of meaning within architectural vernacular. Chicago Window, 1991, elliptically quotes the Chicagoan design principle, in which fixed central panes of glass are surrounded by two smaller sashed windows. In Genzken’s window noglass appears at all; her piece critiques the hierarchy implicit in the piece’s architectural organization, and the frame carries the metaphor for the ideation it surrounds. Imposing and august, while totally nonfunctional, these windows continue to separate space, creating zones within the gallery that bring the viewer into the work as an active participant. X, 1992, is a variant of the crossbars that climb the side of Chicago’s John Hancock building—less a reduction in scale than a representation that calls for a re-examination of the rhythms and aspirations of the originating motif.

The window as threshold, as distinct membrane between inside and outside, is continually shifting in Genzken’s work. While windows are usually transparent, their frames and their adornment are not; recreating their strategies can tell us much of how we organize and receive meaning and information.

James Yood