Franz Erhard Walther

Deichtorhallen/Galerie Vera Munro/Kunstverein Hannover

For about thirty years the Hamburg-based artist Franz Erhard Walther has pursued—with admirable persistence—an elusive approach to artmaking that he calls “another concept of the work of art.” Over the years Walther’s innovative projects have often suffered from critical neglect, but three comprehensive retrospective exhibitions in Cologne and Hannover recently provided a long-overdue opportunity to reevaluate his career.

While he was still an art student, Walther began to take a radical approach to sculpture, choosing to return to a ground-zero point at which the only materials that remained were, in his own words, “language, body, space, place, and time.” In 1963 he presented a small but extremely controversial exhibition in Fulda that featured a two-meter-long banner emblazoned with words such as “orgasm,” “Ovid,” “penis,” and “pope,” in alphabetical order; alongside it appeared a typewritten letter dealing with aesthetic questions, in which entire lines had been covered over with opaque paint. The show also included a number of objects: two inflated white paper pillows (one of which was covered in green muslin and placed casually on a chair), five glued-together pillows, and a hemp cord attached to the floor and wall in such a way that it formed a cube. A yellow box was also hung on a wall, appearing to float against it. From a ’90s vantage point, it is understandable that these works (a number of which were exhibited at the Deichtorhallen) caused a stir in 1963, because they seem so contemporary in feeling.

After the Fulda exhibition, Walther began constructing objects by sewing together sturdy fabrics. These works are usually presented wrapped up, in what the artist calls “storage form,” but they can also be removed from their packaging and used. For example, viewers were invited to lie down on the two large pads—one comprising four parts, and the other two—that were displayed at the Deichtorhallen. The remaining fifty-eight works in the series from which they are derived, “Werksatz” (Set of work, 1963–1969), were spread out on the floor in the Hannover show (which was titled “I am the sculpture,” after a remark made by the artist). When Walther’s objects are actually used, one’s body becomes an integral part of the work. Time is another essential element in his oeuvre: it is often only when one actually walks through the installations that they are transformed into art. One thinks in particular of Eingang mit zwei Ausgängen, frontal, seitwärts (Entrance with two exits, head-on, sideways, 1973), a narrow wooden corridor lined in red fabric. Like many of the other works, the objects Walther makes out of cloth can never really be considered finished, in this case because the material, thanks to its flexibility and softness, never takes on a set form.

Together, these extensive exhibitions demonstrated the range, depth, and consistency of Walther’s ideas, as well as their forward-looking nature. His project bears affinities to the work of many younger artists, as well as to movements including Minimalism and Conceptualism. With the distance of time, the relevance of his ideas can only become clearer.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Diana Reese