Thomas Schütte

Modernism was pompous; long live modernism! This is among the contradictory critical sentiments running through Thomas Schütte’s work since the early ’80s. His art, which both undermines and continues artistic traditions of the early twentieth century, grows more complicated and fascinating as he becomes even more accomplished.

On the ground floor of the recently relocated Frith Street Gallery were five large female nudes in bronze, steel, and aluminum, set atop steel tables and surrounded by a related group of delicately colored prints and beautifully rendered Nolde-esque watercolors. As with his ceramic heads—one of which, Green Head, 2006, was also shown—Schütte’s figure sculptures are at once recognizably influenced by artistic precursors and uniquely his own. They immediately suggest modernist greats from Maillol to Picasso and Moore—even Botero. Schütte’s women succeed as stylized, “neo-modernist” sculptures while boldly denouncing the implicit sexism and even kitsch thereof. The vast, bulbous, shining ass and various amputations of Aluminium Woman No. 7, 2001, or the decapitated, legless Steel Woman No. 9, 2002, both portrayed in convincing modernist language, make us acutely aware of this kind of sculpture’s recurring violence and deeply unflattering portrayal of women. Steel Woman No. 14, 2003, is an abstracted figure with flailing limbs—either outstretched arms or obscenely open legs—punctured by a circular hole and a very rude slit, disturbingly sexual and raw. And yet, executed in the most traditional of sculptural materials and beautifully installed in this elegant interior, the works drive home just how comfortably such overblown and sexist portrayals of women occupy the white cube. His detailed mimicry of the early avant-gardes—in the women’s blank expressions; the overbuilt, architectural pedestals; the outdoorsy, sculpture-garden scale—suggests that Schütte has carefully observed the covert machismo of his predecessors’ work, and yet he confesses his own ease with the genre.

Downstairs is a model for Hotel for the Birds, 2006, a multistoried, candy-colored Plexiglas birdhouse commissioned for the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square. Hotels (of any scale) are the ideal building type for Schütte; the typology arguably did not inspire many great modernist masterpieces, but hotels lend themselves perfectly to anonymous modernism, with their cheap towers of endlessly repeated windows and Corbusier-style piers to accommodate taxis and tour buses. Schütte’s birdhouse is a cross between high-modernist idealism and Vegas vulgarity, boasting cantilevered floors to maximize efficiency using the diminutive hotel’s airspace—an irony especially on target in this free-of-charge accommodation for London pigeons. Surrounding the maquette is a print portfolio of visionary architectures that includes other overlooked building typologies, among them a cave, a ruin, and a tombstone (Schütte’s own). One building, Tower for Talkers, 2003, is shaped like a bottle, complete with a spherical top; it looks unoccupied, as if the genie once trapped inside had escaped. Is that genie the spirit of modernism itself? Schütte’s artistic innocence? Are these two the same thing? This is extremely knowing work, which only gains in strength as Schütte matures into a modern master in his own right.

Gilda Williams