Isa Genzken

IN THIS RETROSPECTIVE of Isa Genzken, which opened in April at London’s newly expanded Whitechapel Gallery, the sheer range and depth of her work becomes clear, registered not in spite of but in the reeling effects of its many glitzy surfaces. Firmly establishing the artist as one of the leading innovators of the past thirty years, the selection of works made since the late 1970s brings into sharp focus the powerful logic at the heart of her practice. True, there are myriad media and materials—sculpture, photographs, collages, paintings and not-paintings attached to the wall, small models, and 3-D tableaux, as well as installations. The way Genzken deals with materials, and especially with degraded and ersatz, or gorgeous if flimsy, plastics and synthetics, looks at first like an aesthetics of excess, and it is hard to get the measure of this volatile mix of the voracious and the detached, the wayward and the reticent. But paradoxically, what emerges from the vertiginous welter of reflections is a sense of tight precision, of exactitude: While it is of course not uncommon for artists of Genzken’s generation to have worked in a range of styles, such eclecticism being the postmodern hybridiom of choice, in Genzken’s case there is an extraordinary underlying cohesion. Sometimes the almost hallucinatory impression of all her mirrored surfaces and metal plates recalls the shine of a surgical knife that cuts through orthodox ways of thinking about spectacle.

Genzken’s early works show clearly the rigor that underpins even her most flamboyant productions. Shortly before leaving the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1977, she began making elegant and spare wooden ellipsoids and hyperboloids that lie horizontally on the floor, with segments taken out and colors added in. Incredibly slender, barely arcing shapes, more Blinky Palermo than Bruce Nauman (let alone Carl Andre), they show an awareness of then-recent developments in sculpture in the US as well as a canny sense of how best to short-circuit those developments. Placed just to the right of the entrance to the Whitechapel, twin ellipsoids, long lacquered shapes accented with bright yellow excisions, are stretched out on the floor. They do more than nod in the direction of floor-based sculpture, but they then deviate into chromatic gestures that articulate the narrow intervals between spaces rather than the spaces themselves, and they transform a geometric rhetoric into a barely stated floorscape of elongations and curvatures. There is something very acute about these pieces, but there is also a casualness—partly because of the blasé way they lie across a space, partly because they are not obviously assertive.

It is a striking fact that Genzken drew the ellipsoids and hyperboloids on a computer, an unusual way of working at the time. Yet the artist, as if militantly living life backward, had abandoned this method by the mid-’80s and turned to plaster and concrete: unstructured or structured, poured or blocks. As a material, concrete has an extreme blankness about it. It does not “speak,” at least not in the historically expressive language of sculpture. On simple high supports, Genzken’s concrete works repeatedly play out an undoing and a redoing of sculpture before our very eyes. Just as the lingua franca of sculpture had become floor-bound, she put things back on stands that brought them to eye level, only to present you with something more like a sub-object, or an object in ruins, than a sculpture. The cast plaster works she was making at around the same time had the grayish tinge and visual weight of cement, as if in negation of this material’s long association with the atelier. In one of these, Müllberg (Pile of Rubbish), 1984—perhaps the most unformed and brutally material of all of them—jagged pieces of sheet metal have been embedded with alarming violence into the plaster, as much an assault on the kind of thing sculpture is as on any remaining sense of comfort we might have in this, our object world.

Though mixed-media eclecticism has become par for art’s course, several groups of works demonstrate the radical singularity of Genzken’s project. Beginning in the late ’70s, she presented a series of found photographs of hi-fis; took close-up photographs of women’s ears and blew them up to large scale; and made “radios”—her “World Receivers,” concrete blocks with aerials attached. This cluster of things, exhibited fairly close together at the Whitechapel, speaks loudly of a dialectic of silence and sound. The sonic component of the work, insistently present if only in its absence, wends its way like some kind of interference into our heads, fed by the low-level disturbance of the snippets of sound that surround us in the gallery. This prompted me to think about how hard it is to shut oneself off from the world and how art demands concentration and makes us work at it. Genzken’s approach to shutting off and shutting out is always ambivalent—she invites it while making art out of the fact that it is not always possible, even when it is desirable.

Most of the time, the shutter almost closes, only to let in more of the world than would seem initially plausible when one confronts, say, the apparent abstraction of her paintings. A series of frottage paintings from the late ’80s and early ’90s bears the title “Basic Research”—a neat subversive twist on the traditional place of painting in a hierarchy that was reestablished in the ’80s, a return to order abetted by flagrant amnesia regarding the work of the previous two decades. Genzken made the works by placing unstretched canvas on the floor of her studio, applying a layer of paint, and then removing it with a squeegee. A sense of a wordless conversation with the abstractions of Gerhard Richter (to whom she was married when she began the series) is striking but shouldn’t prevent us from seeing what is distinctive and powerful about this group of works, linking as it does to her own sustained engagement with the photographic and the purely indexical (as in her X-ray self-portraits from the early ’90s, for instance, though these are not on view in this exhibition). Picking up the textures of the floor is not so different from picking up sonic interference on a concrete “radio.” (What we are actually picking up is, of course, the ambient sounds of our environment.) Both activities are elements of a strangely familiar tactile vision rooted very much in the everyday environment, ours as well as hers.

Perhaps more clearly than any other artist, Genzken shows us something about our everyday environment: She shows us how light works, demonstrating how reflective surfaces break up not only the unity and coherence of a thing called sculpture but vision itself, and here we may be approaching the crux of her practice. The kinds of surfaces she favors replicate those glimpsed in passing as blurred and illegible reflections of color. And it is through light, she implies, that contemporary forms of looking and feeling intersect with one another. A group of wall-based works from 2002 and 2003 are made of plastic mirror laid out in strips, activating precisely the kind of slightly seedy surface glamour embodied by a disco ball; the series is called “Soziale Fassaden” (Social Facades), as if to equate contemporary subjectivity with this sort of radical externality—surfaces of light scintillating and shimmering according to environmental conditions, like bits of data that somehow fail to quite add up to a convincing composite of any recognizable reflected image.

This research into light is everywhere in Genzken’s art—light that is urban and glossy but also full of its own mysteries, nowhere more so than in the forest of vertical structures that fill the downstairs galleries of the Whitechapel: Tall, jointed rectangular forms of epoxy resin and reinforced steel, recalling empty picture frames, mingle with rectilinear columns made from composites of mirrored glass, shiny plastics, vinyls, faux marbles, and so on. Here, there is a leap back to the historical avant-gardes—not only to their fragmentations of vision (e.g., the photo- montages of Dada) but more specifically to Hans Arp’s paper-column collage constructions built on the great edifice of chance. The ephemeral construction of a throwaway world has been transformed into three dimensions and whole environments (since Genzken always shows her columns in groups). The specifically urban character of these glasslike or chromelike textures—a character most explicit in her “New Buildings for Berlin,” made from 2001 to 2004, which resemble architectural models for a gaudy metropolis of the future—is very evident in her photographs, too, particularly those she took of New York skyscrapers between 1998 and 2000. These are shown at the Whitechapel alongside her scrapbook, in which more photos are collaged together and joined by broad bands of shiny colored tape—evoking the grids of early avant-gardist geometries, designed not to regulate but to express the intoxicating rhythms of the cityscapes they inhabited. The phenomenological effect is of course one of cutting the space and us into small bits. We are seduced even as we are made into bodies-in-pieces.

Add to this the way Genzken’s work plays out a complex game with frames in different materials—the resin I mentioned, as well as concrete and mirror mosaic. These frames may be translucent or opaque or reflective, big or small, freestanding or displayed on plinths or attached to the wall. I don’t think this preoccupation is just a matter of mimicking a rhetoric of enframement that has been an overriding condition of painting since the rise of the easel picture. Genzken’s frames are antipictorial. They do not make pictures but rather trade in the same seductive yet vicious phenomenology as the columns. One pair of tall double frames of yellow resin, Venedig (Venice), 1993, stands directly on the floor at Whitechapel, the double apertures at an angle to each other as if in homage to Duchamp’s enigmatic Door, 11 rue Larrey, 1927, which swings between two perpendicular doorways. Genzken’s frames simply make no sense as we move around them, at least in their failure to clearly demarcate an inside against an outside as a frame normally does. Some of the resin is translucent and reminiscent of the color of old celluloid. There is something deeply mysterious in these works’ almost visionary presence. It’s as if, dispersed across the gallery, they make imaginary architectures visible— they are skeletal, almost like her X-ray self-portraits but in three dimensions.

Genzken’s self-portrait as slot machine, Spielautomat (Slot Machine), 1999/2000, has a photo of herself, taken by her friend Wolfgang Tillmans, on the top, and is covered in found photos and additional snapshots, some of friends, including Kai Althoff and Lawrence Weiner. The work reminds me of the great poet Elizabeth Bishop’s own speculations on the slot machine as a kind of doppelgänger (“the workings of its metal heart / the grindings of its metal brain”). Bishop asked whether pleasure was only mechanics. Similarly, it is sensual life that is on the rack in Genzken’s art, which opens it up to the smallest and the largest tyrannies—compulsions and determinations both personal and political—that hold us in their merciless grip. Oddly enough, though the work is threaded through with a strong dystopian, even apocalyptic strand, it is not in thrall to the seductions of catastrophe, unlike that of, say, Robert Smithson. There is a cold burn that keeps such excess in check, at least when Genzken is at her best. (Bishop again: “The burning box can keep the measure / strict, always . . .” ) She does not mimic a world in breakdown so much as ask what, in the end, can hold art together. I don’t mean by this that the work is redemptive or repar- ative. On the contrary, it runs the risk of not surviving the gamble. Occasionally her mannequin mayhem of recent years gets a little out of hand, as in the newest works, “Strassenfest” (Street Finds), 2008–2009, made for this show. But to some extent that only goes to show how fine the line is that Genzken has trod from the outset. Her work is exact because it is exacting—and, as a result, it is lethal as a critique of the conditions under which we live.

“Isa Genzken: Open, Sesame!” remains on view at the Whitechapel Gallery in London through June 21. The exhibition travels to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Aug. 15–Nov. 15.

Briony Fer is a professor of the history of art at University College London.