View of “Franz Erhard Walther,” 2012.

View of “Franz Erhard Walther,” 2012.

Franz Erhard Walther

View of “Franz Erhard Walther,” 2012.

In recent years, the story of Franz Erhard Walther, when told, has been of his influence. A classmate of Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo at the art academy in Düsseldorf, later the teacher of Martin Kippenberger, Christian Jankowski, and Jonathan Meese, among others, in Hamburg, Walther occupies a pivotal position in postwar German art history. This narrative of influence, however, threatens to obscure the importance of his own work, with its material sophistication and conceptual acuity—as evidenced by the four dynamic pieces that constituted this very thoughtfully conceived exhibition, curated by Peter Weibel and Andreas F. Beitin.

One hundred and fifty-eight pieces of steel comprised the bulk of the exhibition—slender forms laid out across wide expanses of the museum’s cavernous ground-floor space or stored out of the way in neat stacks. Together, the Schreitsockel (Stride Plinths) and Standstellen (Stand Pieces), both 1975–76, delineated gently curving arcs and straight stretches of metal pieces of different lengths for viewers to walk or shuffle across. They ushered viewers along with minimal sculptural inflections, such as their less-than-half-inch rise from the plane of the floor and the small square protrusion along one edge of each unit. A video produced by ZKM to accompany the installation showed visitors how they might interact with the works, and illustrated (perhaps accidentally) the humor resulting from the modesty of the works’ form and use contrasted with their grandiosity in installation; it featured several actors interacting with the art, slowly and in chorus.

Participation and performativity are keywords often uttered in describing Walther’s artistic concerns. However, the fact that the artist intended viewers to interact physically with some of his objects is merely emblematic of the multifaceted investigation into the nature of art that he has pursued throughout his long career. In his Werkzeichnungen (Work Drawings), 1963–73, Walther outlined his understanding of how a work is located within and activated by a network of agents including the artist, the material, and viewer perception. Combining washes of color in geometric shapes as well as figures and hand-lettered words, the drawings argue that time, space, movement, and physical presence in the site of exhibition are just as constitutive of the work as the artist’s intention and chosen means for realizing it: DER KÖRPER IST DER SOCKEL-ORT (The Body Is the Site of the Pedestal), proclaims one drawing. And when the work does not directly propose a physical interaction, as is the case with Fragmente der Form C (Fragments of Form C), 1992, which consists of fifteen discrete three-dimensional forms made of a maroon-colored cotton spaced evenly across one vast wall, the viewer’s perception of the work in relation to the architecture of the exhibition space takes precedence.

Primary, and in ways valid, criticisms lodged against interactive art have focused on the possibility that theatricality might obscure inherent qualities within a given work and on the way that interaction may resemble entertainment as a self-indulgent rather than outwardly reflexive experience. Walther’s work, which has surmounted such pitfalls, should be credited as a pioneering case that simultaneously opens up to viewers and out to the contextual nexus shaping its perception and meaning.

––John Beeson