Isa Genzken

THE CHARACTERIZATION OF ISA GENZKEN as a traditional sculptor, along with the usual remarks concerning the heterogeneity of her method and the surprising breaks between her various bodies of work, belong firmly to the topoi of her reception. Genzken's approach, which includes recourse to photography, video, film, collages, and collage books, does, it's true, represent a continuous examination of the classic themes of sculpture: the ordering of masses and volumes; the relations between construction, surface design, and materials; the conception of and relation between objects, space, and the viewer. And regardless of the medium—from series executed in painted wood, plaster, and concrete to the more recent epoxy-resin hoods and lamps; assemblages of metal household utensils; and stelae—the artist questions the contemporary meaning of sculpture by taking up its vocabulary of forms, then expanding, discarding, and reinterpreting it.

What the “traditional sculptor” label can't quite capture, however, is Genzken's remarkable ruthlessness—the manner in which her work underlines the rejection of traditional understandings of sculpture and space while reflecting on and disclosing the specific circumstances of their production and reception. The integration of a range of references—personal, social, and institutional—with the question of the (im)possibility of exchange and communication constitutes the second pole of Genzken's working process. At times explicitly thematized, as in bodies of work like “Hi-Fi Series,” 1979, “Ear Series,” 1980, and “World Band Receiver,” 1982, 1987–95, this dialectic is suggested indirectly even in the varying degrees of formal openness in her sculptures.

Different in conception but complementary in meaning, the exhibitions “Sie sind mein Glück” (You are my happiness) and “Urlaub” (Vacation) in Braunschweig and Frankfurt, respectively, offer a concentrated look at Genzken's practices to date. The galleries at the classicist building in Braunschweig were spanned by a retrospective arc from Genzken's floor pieces of the late '70s and early '80s to the stelae she has produced for the past couple of years (the latter, divided among four rooms in a loose sequence, were the main focus of the show). While the horizontal expanse of Rot-graues offenes Ellipsoid (Red-gray open ellipsoid), 1978, and Hyperbola “MBB,” 1981, like Carl Andre's floor pieces, can be perceived by an observer only as he or she moves through the room, the columns, towering to nearly ten feet, offer a stark reminder of the medium's traditionally anthropomorpbic orientation, which Genzken, further developing a Minimal mode, had once left behind. Almost all these vertical pieces take their names (e.g., Daniel, Karola, Kai, and Dan) from figures in the artist's personal and professional life. Further undermining the work's upright, even architectonic solidity are two series of photographs in the final room of the Braunschweig show: shots of New York façades distorted through extreme perspectives, so that the buildings seem to have lost their balance.

While Genzken's stereometric floor sculptures share with Minimal art an interest in defining anew the relation between object and space, they are marked by their insistence on singularity. At the very least, the materiality of the wood lends the arrowlike bodies an organic dimension—an aspect that relativizes the fact that the works have their basis in the exactitude of computer-assisted mathematical calculation, even if this materiality can only be guessed at beneath the perfectly smooth enamel. In contrast, the surface texture of the stelae lets the production process shine through: mirror, steel, glass, copper, and marble plates are arranged in a grid pattern on a wooden framework, painted in different colors and interrupted here and there by photos of Genzken's studio or, in a kind of homage, by a postcard of sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck's Emporsteigender. Traces of worked and cut surfaces remain visible and impart an air of process and immediacy.

Genzken distills this feeling of temporariness and immediacy in the series “Strandhäuser zum Umziehen” (Beach changing houses), 2000, completed for the Frankfurt exhibition. Fabricated from cheap, trashy materials that, like readymades, reveal the vestiges of earlier use, in some places only loosely attached, in others taped together, these pieces are characterized by an extreme fragility. Like the plaster sculptures, they are piled on pedestals at eye level. But in contrast to the plaster works, whose historical frame of reference is that of Constructivism and its specific combination of architectural and sculptural elements, the glass and mirrors in “Beach Changing Houses” resonate more with a pavilion à la Dan Graham, and the readymade aspects bring to mind sketches of deconstructivist architecture.

Even the title of this group of works underscores their provisional quality: Beach houses, after all, are intended for limited stays only. In this sense they are transitional spaces, like the ship that is the scene of the black-and-white photo series “Yachturlaub” (Yacht vacation), 1993/2000. What they share is not just this transitory character, however, but also the fact that they break with the quotidian structuring of time. And so the 53-minute film Meine Großeltern im bayerischen Wald (My grandparents in the Bavarian forest), 1992, which Genzken presented for the first time here, describes an “other,'' heterotopic place. Not only are the old folks outside the social relations of production, but Genzken's visit also recalls memories of another time. With long, sweeping shots, the film follows the artist's grandparents through their daily routine and at the same time undertakes a kind of inventory of the house; the camera wanders slowly through the interior, hesitating over individual objects and constantly discovering new details. As with the ”Yacht Vacation" photographs, which were taken during a trip with the collector Frieder Burda and seem to offer an objective view of a ship and its details, tile artist's perspective ultimately returns: The one shot featuring a human being in the thirty-six-part series shows Genzken's feet—which we recognize from a short take in her film. Otherwise, the artist herself doesn't enter the picture. Only her voice may be heard when she chats with her grandparents about their daily life, as well as her life and art. Even if, for the bourgeois conception of autonomy, this art counts as a realm outside the usual forces of production, Genzken makes it clear that the place of art will never be completely other—without, however, drawing the conclusion that this specific logic of production should be abandoned.

Astrid Wege is a critic based in Cologne.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.