New York

View of “Franz Erhard Walther,” 2013.

View of “Franz Erhard Walther,” 2013.

Franz Erhard Walther

View of “Franz Erhard Walther,” 2013.

The first thing to greet viewers in this exhibition was an imposing gallery wall, appended to which was Franz Erhard Walther’s Vier Körperformen (Four Body Shapes), 1963, made when he was still a student at Kunst-akademie Düsseldorf and had just begun to work with fabric. Each of the work’s four parts, which are crafted from sewed and stuffed canvas and resemble sea creatures’ limbs, was mounted to one of the wall’s four corners, with plenty of space between them. Walther intended for viewers to hold these objects or attach them, like prosthetic pillows, somewhere on their bodies; they could then interact with other viewers, who could wear other forms or else participate in the wearing of the first and thus create a new social or psychological space. The shapes themselves are not the work; the work is complete only when a viewer makes him- or herself part of it and perhaps interacts with someone else. Although Walther is often credited with being one of the fathers of performance art, he is said to dislike this distinction. Much of his work suggests a precursor to relational aesthetics—the focus on participation, on quiet reshaping, on speculation rather than spectacle.

The rest of the exhibition comprised pieces made in the past seven years, and represented the first time Walther had shown new work in New York in more than two decades. There were five new sets of Body Shapes, each in a different color from a muted palette of maroon, ocher, and burnt umber. These are more sculptural than the works from the 1960s. They are larger (roughly human size), freestanding, and meant to be looked at rather than interacted with. Each set is made up of four to six forms that can be arranged in any configuration, and rather than effect a relationship between two participants, as did Walther’s early works, they serve to shape the surrounding space. Some of the forms do explicitly suggest how a body might fit into them—one has a notch where a person might sit and then lean forward and embrace the shape; another recalls the languorous curves of the chaise longue designed by Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, and Le Corbusier (with a set of small, squarish forms suggesting a deconstructed Fauteuil Grand Confort)—but they are suggestive, too, of horizons and landscapes, of monuments and moments in art history. Whereas Walther’s early Body Shapes were anti-monumental in that they were complete only when in contact with a human body, the new works tweak monumentalism with unexpected forms and upholstery materials—Minimalism gone all loose and loopy.

Also on view was a series of drawings based on photographs from Walther’s archive showing his early actions and Body Shapes and demonstrations of his Werksatz (Work Set) instruments being used outdoors, in galleries, and at the kunstakademie. The figures who appear in some of these drawings remind us of the fertile environs in which Walther found himself in Düsseldorf: Here is Eva Hesse visiting Walther’s studio; here are Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys (with his distinctive hat) at a performance in Jörg Immendorff’s apartment; here is Sigmar Polke demonstrating one of the instruments. (Walther, like Polke, had a famously fractious relationship with Beuys. That artist—whose title at the academy was “professor of monumental sculpture”—at one point called Walther a “tailor.”) The drawings are arranged chronologically, and each is assigned a letter, which appear in alphabetical order. All sorts of inadvertent connections emerge—between shapes and words and ideas—in a kind of archival game of chance.

There is something decidedly low-key and backward-looking about these new works—the events of the past redrawn and rearranged, the sculptures that no longer require physical interaction on the part of the viewer—a feeling of an older artist settling down into his place in art history. Even the 1963 Body Shapes hang on the wall, inaccessible, turned into objects of contemplation rather than action. What completes the work now, to a large degree, is history.

Emily Hall