Silke Schatz

Wilkinson Gallery

“The New Architecture,” a movement based on a sociopolitical awareness of the built environment, dawned in the early 1920s. Central to its cause was the improvement of housing through the provision of natural light and fresh air and the creation of outdoor space. German architect Otto Haesler ranks among the most significant proponents of the movement, but while no other architect in the ’20s was as committed to the modernist claims of efficiency and rationalism as he, Haesler remains virtually unknown despite his vital contributions to the modernist canon.

Haesler’s practice in the small Saxon city of Celle lasted thirty-four years. A decade or so into his tenure there, he was asked to become the director of the Bauhaus—an offer he refused because he was so committed to his modernist vision in Celle—and his friends and collaborators included Bauhaus members such as the painter Karl Völker, the photographer and designer Katt Both, and the architect Hermann Bunzel. His social housing in Celle, including the Italienischer Garten, Georgsgarten, Volksschule Hankenbüttel, and Blumläger Feld complexes, is at the center of “Private Public,” Silke Schatz’s new exhibition of drawings and sculptures, which explores her family history in Celle, her birthplace, as it intersects with Haesler’s work.

At odds with Celle’s half-timbered traditional houses and precious, postcard-perfect castle— and representing the “Public” portion of the exhibit—Haesler’s primary-colored, boxy housing projects were, according to the artist, unknown to her while she was growing up. So it’s with fresh eyes that Schatz has skillfully interpreted the architect’s modernist vision in detailed, blown-up views of the building plans (based on archival prints) and two tabletop models of works of his in Celle (Celle, Siedlung Georgsgarten Block 1 and Celle, Direktorenwohnhaus After Otto Haesler 1930/31; all works 2006), the latter embellished with stenciling and carpeting, echoing the search for architectural idealism also apparent in some of Schatz’s earlier work.

Most moving, however, if slightly vague, is the lead piece at the gallery, the “Private” one—Wurzelkind, an installation that viewers find themselves within immediately on entering the gallery. Martha und Erich Schatz, a pair of life-size puppets (with photocopies of photographs of the artist’s grandparents’ faces stitched to their heads), dominate the room, surrounding a ’50s Lagerfeuer (or “campfire”-style) lamp that the artist salvaged from the Thaers Gartenhouse, notorious for having housed SS officers and their families, including—something of an open secret in the Schatz family—the artist’s own grandfather. Erich Schatz, in addition to serving in the SS, was a war criminal tried for murder, who committed suicide before the artist ever had a chance to meet him. Despite its potent immediacy, this portrayal of her grandparents leaves the viewer unsatisfied—there is certainly more to the story than has yet emerged.

As in her previous work—such as her 1998 photo albums and her drawings of houses she’s lived in—Schatz here delves into her own memory, the recollections of members of her family, and various archives to bring an interpretation of what used to be modern up to date.

Eugenia Bell