New York

Thomas Schütte

Though Thomas Schütte and Stephan Balkenhol have much in common—they have been “competitors” since each was chosen for the 1987 “Münster Sculpture Project”—Schütte has stridently disputed any link to Balkenhol’s sculpture. He regards it as repetitive and untheoretical, as Neal Benezra notes in a 1995 catalogue essay that accompanied Balkenhol’s show at the Hirshhorn that same year. And yet Schütte’s series “Die Fremden” (The strangers, 1992) has a certain affinity with Balkenhol’s figures: both artist’s sculptures are allegorical and expressionist, although Schütte’s are more conspicuously surreal—public monuments with psychopathological import. Both artists have rejected steel in favor of traditional materials—Schütte adopted ceramic; Balkenhol wood—and each is an assiduous craftsman. Schütte’s figures are in fact as compulsively repetitive as those of Balkenhol, though Schütte’s seem more emotionally primitive than Balkenhol’s expressively static works, whatever may be churning in them: they maintain the difference between social mask and inner life that Schütte’s collapse.

The stranger is always implicitly us: a projection of how alien we feel to ourselves—our sense of dissociation exacerbated by the discrepancy between our external appearance and our inner reality, the former never adequately conveying the latter, despite all our efforts. Schütte’s Fremden attempt to abolish this difference—to close the gap between social mask and private life—and thus to achieve a measure of existential authenticity. They brilliantly succeed in doing so, daringly conveying the mass depression of our age. A combination of the abstract and the figurative, each is carefully differentiated and socially typed by clothing and above all by facial characteristics. In a manner that strongly resembles ancient ithyphallic figures, each incorporates its own base, even as the base and the urn that accompanies it—a decisive differentiating factor that functions as a signifying attribute—are theatrically mounted on a steel platform with a high wooden pedestal. All have downcast eyes, which seem to seal them off from the world, and all stand at rigid attention—these are their emotionally defining, indeed their unifying characteristics.

Like Balkenhol’s figures, Schütte’s Fremden are decidedly German and medieval. They hark back to those sculptures mounted on the outside of cathedrals, at once participating in and standing above the community, as if to offer moral instruction. Much as did August Sander’s documentation of German life, Schütte’s figures reflect the great tension between social and individual identity. But this tension is resolved in their depression, which is at once collective and individual: however separated by class, they suffer from the same social disorder. They look down and close their eyes to avoid contact with each other, in a conformist gesture of isolation. With a kind of innocent irony, Schütte’s everyday figures powerfully convey the internal meaninglessness of modern life.

Donald Kuspit