Anna Oppermann

“Somewhere in this world, complexity must still be valued.” Anna Oppermann (1940–1993) wrote these words midway through a brief yet prolific career during which she endured the disdain of many critics perplexed by the large, unruly installations she called “ensembles.” Consisting of hundreds of photographs, drawings, annotations, found objects, and scraps of paper, these works, meant to change every time they are shown, seem to unflinchingly portray an obsessive impulse to accumulate words and images in a chaotic and hermetic manner. But despite a position of relative marginality—partly due to the failure of her work to adhere to a recognizable genre or movement but also a product of the condition of being a female artist confronting the masculine ethos of postwar German art—she could count among her supporters curators of major international exhibitions including Documenta and the Venice and Sydney biennials.

Among the works on display here was Künstler sein (Zeichnen nach der Natur, zum Beispiel Lindenblütenblätter) (Being an Artist [Drawing from Nature, for Example, Linden Blossom Petals]), 1969–85, an ensemble first exhibited in 1977 and now “restaged” by curator Ute Vorkoeper, who has worked closely with the artist’s estate since 1994. From a distance one saw numerous photographs—many of them printed on canvas and partially hand-colored in a poetic, slightly kitschy gesture—climbing from floor to ceiling and endlessly mirroring one another as they register variations and details of the ensemble itself as it has developed over the years and through different spaces. The titular linden blossoms could be seen on a small twig on the floor, or on a branch hanging in the corner of the installation. In the center a draped three-tier stage was lit from below and adorned with small pictures, sketches, text fragments, and assorted objects, such as an empty slide holder labeled MOTIVSUCHER (viewfinder). It looked something like a vernacular shrine, although Oppermann dismissed such claims, preferring the analogy of “the unorganized desk . . . of an intellectual” or “a child’s messy room.” Resembling the scattered contents of an artist’s sketchbook that might elucidate the work’s meaning (or at least the ideas behind such a work), these smaller elements invited a proximity made impossible by a frame, painted directly onto the floor, that acted as a spatial barrier, enforcing a sense of two-dimensionality on the formlessness and dispersion characteristic of Oppermann’s practice.

In her writings, Oppermann describes how her working method originated in the observation of everyday objects, a contemplative state she desired to reproduce for her viewers through an expansive chain of associations. The ensuing visual language marked an attempt to work through ontological and epistemological issues. Throughout the ensemble, as well as the series of verbal diagrams or “schemata” titled Künstler sein—Über die Methode, Dilemma der Vermittlung, 1979, Filiation (Being an Artist—On the Method, Dilemma of Communication, 1979, Filiation), 1979, the artist’s knees appear in the bottom foreground of her drawings in a very literal metonym for subjectivity as it confronts the world of objects in a post-Freudian dialectic of autonomy and dissolution. From here multiple themes, often of a broader social nature, fan out in a connective, nonlinear web encapsulated by the words and phrases—“art and politics” or “the economic aspect of making art”—penned by Oppermann during the construction of each particular ensemble for subsequent inclusion in accompanying publications. Like subject headings, they draw attention to particular elements among the ubiquitous images of the ensemble itself: photographs of friends in studios, household detritus, newspaper clippings, and handwritten or typed passages from books the artists might have been reading at the time—all of which, taken individually, provides a brief relief from the vertiginous experience of attempting to grasp the ensemble in its totality.

Michèle Faguet