New York

View of “Isa Genzken: Retrospective,” 2013–14. Foreground, from left: Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998; Isa, 2000; Soziale Fassade, 2002; Soziale Fassade, 2002.

View of “Isa Genzken: Retrospective,” 2013–14. Foreground, from left: Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998; Isa, 2000; Soziale Fassade, 2002; Soziale Fassade, 2002.

Isa Genzken

View of “Isa Genzken: Retrospective,” 2013–14. Foreground, from left: Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998; Isa, 2000; Soziale Fassade, 2002; Soziale Fassade, 2002.

THE ISA GENZKEN RETROSPECTIVE currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York reveals both the range and the ambition of this influential artist, and the Modern has given her the large galleries that she deserves; this is all the more important in the United States, where her work is still not well known.* In this light, responses to the exhibition have proved more problematic than usual: Though often positive in tone, many reviewers have positioned Genzken in relation to the men in her life, both older (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, her onetime partner, and Gerhard Richter, her former husband) and younger (her close friends Wolfgang Tillmans and Kai Althoff), and some have dwelled on the fact that her paternal grandfather (whom Genzken barely knew) was a prominent Nazi. It is not likely that a male artist of her stature would be treated in this fashion; certainly he would not be subject so often to the epithet crazy. Although this is a term Genzken has also used (as in her 1995–96 collage ode I Love New York, Crazy City) in the course of a life that could hardly be called trouble-free, there is a great deal of method in her performance of the madness of everyday existence under advanced capitalism. As the MoMA survey demonstrates, her work not only possesses historical sweep—from reconstruction Germany to the “War on Terror”—but also articulates a grimly dialectical view of that history. In this sense, Genzken has picked up in art where Rainer Werner Fassbinder left off in film, at once following her vision and tracking her times mercilessly.

At MoMA we see how astutely Genzken has engaged modernist art and architecture. Like Blinky Palermo (whom she met at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1970s), she took postwar American abstraction as her point of departure: The lacquered wood strips of Untitled, 1974, resemble Barnett Newman zips pulled from his paintings and propped against the wall, and her long and sleek “Ellipsoids,” 1976–82, and “Hyperbolos,” 1979–83, also in lacquered wood, lie and stand on the floor with an engineered precision that outperforms any Minimalist object. Yet Genzken does not evade German associations thereby, as is sometimes claimed: Her nonobjective “Basic Research,” 1988–91, and “More Light Research” paintings, 1992, are in direct dialogue with the oddly null abstractions of Richter as well as the faux-kitsch patterns of Sigmar Polke; and in the gimcrack models of her “Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings for New York),” 2000, and “New Buildings for Berlin,” 2001–2006, Genzken alludes, brutally enough, to key Germanic modernists such as Herbert Bayer and Mies van der Rohe. These are aesthetic connections, not personal ones, and she is the agent that binds them.

Genzken is also keenly involved with modern media, technology, and commodity culture: The show begins with Weltempfänger (World Receiver), 1982, her presentation of a multiband radio as an immaculate readymade, and follows with her appropriations from the late ’70s of magazine advertisements for high-end stereo equipment by high-tech corporations (represented here are the languages of four powerhouses of the postwar period: the US, West Germany, Japan, and France). With these enthusiasms—Genzken once said of her radio that “sculpture must be at least as modern”—she shows her affinities with Pop art, too (the technophilic designs of Richard Hamilton come to mind). Yet once again things take a turn for the worse, and by the time Genzken gets to her caustic proposals of the 2000s—for mock memorials to the afflicted powers that brought us the wanton wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death, 2003) as well as for mock institutions to be sited at Ground Zero in New York (e.g., Osama Fashion Store, 2008)—she has soured on our contemporary version of modernity almost completely. As there is a lot of burlesque in this art, none of these concerns is straightforward, yet a through line does emerge in the largely chronological sequence of galleries at MoMA. It is a dialectic that almost revels in the dystopian underside of utopian dreams, whether proposed in prewar modernism or in postwar consumerism, but it is also one that glimpses a weird vitality amid these ruins—that reveals not merely the failure of utopia (which is easy enough to do today) but also the energy in disaster.

In the world according to Genzken, this dialectic has penetrated into the very nature of things. For example, only two years separate her high-tech radio from her near-informe plaster sculpture Müllberg (Pile of Rubbish), 1984, and in her hands a single substance such as concrete or epoxy can appear both perfect and corrupt. As Genzken stacks her concrete blocks roughly or bores through them excessively in the ’80s, this key material of twentieth-century architecture returns to us as failed, not much distinct from rubble, as if any reconstruction—whether after the catastrophe of World War II, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or after the collapse of the Twin Towers—could only end up as another form of destruction. Despite titles that allude to rooms, pavilions, and galleries, her structures in concrete and in epoxy are either too closed or too open to offer any shelter; Genzken reveals structure to be no less degraded than material. In another instance, even as her “New Buildings for Berlin” allude to the visionary skyscrapers that Mies proposed for the German capital after World War I, they also underscore how distant the modernist vision of glass architecture now appears. These colored planes, some in glass, others in silicone, prop each other up with adhesive tape in a way that has no tectonic integrity: Like the modernist value of truth to materials, the modernist faith in rationality of structure dies a definitive death here.

In related works, Genzken highlights how reflective glitz has triumphed over modernist transparency in the capitalist environment at large; her Soziale Fassaden (Social Facades), 2002, made of strips of reflective metal, mosaic foil, and plastic, come across as a riposte to the floating world produced by spectacle architecture in recent decades. At the same time, such pieces express a delight in immersive effects, a delight that extends to the gritty ambience of Berlin club interiors and graffitied city walls evoked in other projects. Genzken has also produced columns in metal, wood, and mirror named after her friends; there is one (from 2000) called Isa, too, so she seems to identify with these tacky surfaces as well. Obviously, then, her models are not proper studies for actual buildings; even less are they models in the sense of ideal structures—just the opposite, in fact. At the same time, only a true believer could still be disappointed enough by the shortcomings of the Bauhaus to tell it to fuck off, and though her absurdist proposals for Ground Zero are scathing in their send-up of urbanist business as usual, they remain committed to the enterprise of metropolitan life.

This grim dialectic governs her view of technology and media, too, as Genzken moves from her early enthusiasm for radio and stereo equipment to later work such as Da Vinci, 2003, which consists of four pairs of airliner windows, the last one splattered with paint in a way that suggests an exploded body: Here the dream of flying machines in Leonardo collapses into the nightmare of the weaponized jets of 9/11. The same ambivalence is active in her relation to the modernist idea of art as experiment. Her “Basic Research” paintings, in which Genzken squeegeed oil paint across canvas placed flat on her studio floor, evoke demonstrations of indexical mark-making from Surrealist frottage to process art; and her “More Light Research” paintings, in which she stenciled images of designer lamps and other abstract forms with spray paint or lacquer on canvas or fiberboard, allude to the experiments with light by László Moholy-Nagy and his Bauhaus colleagues. Yet her versions of these practices seem intentionally flat, almost rote, without the access to the unconscious sought by the Surrealists or the faith in technology sustained by the Bauhauslers; in short, they parody the idea of art as experiment even as they perform it. At the same time—and here again a dialectical twist comes into play—Genzken remains resourceful, not to mention unpredictable, in her use of materials and techniques alike.

Modernist art and architecture are not the only ruins in Genzken; the contemporary capitalist subject is also in deep trouble. Her own image appears often in the show and in the catalogue, sometimes via photographs by Tillmans, and, though Genzken worked as a fashion model in her art school days, this staging is the opposite of vain: Instead she documents the ways in which time can not only age the body but also ravage the soul. Self-Portrait, 1983, now destroyed, was a misshapen head in clay that imagined the artist as Elephant Man, and My Brain, 1984, is another near-informe mound of plaster with a wispy wire on top like a dead antenna. The X-Rays, 1989–91, in which Genzken exposed her own skull as she laughed and drank, fall into this same line of black humor: Here again she inverts the techno-optimism of Moholy even as she also invokes any number of German death’s heads from Dürer to Dada and beyond. These stark images are followed by Haube I (Frau) and Haube II (Mann) (Bonnet I [Woman] and Bonnet II [Man]), 1994, produced the year of her divorce from Richter. Made of fabric hardened with epoxy, these lurid helmets, which appear almost viscous, are stuck, like chopped-off heads, atop steel poles, and they rotate slowly toward and away from each other: a portrait of husband and wife (Mann and Frau mean this too) as coupled Medusas whose gazes bring mutual petrification. After a typical performance at the Cabaret Voltaire, one that likely featured primitivist masks by Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball wrote in his diary of Zurich Dada, “The Gorgon’s head of a boundless terror smiles out of the fantastic destruction.” So it is with these bonnets.

The pièce de résistance in this portraiture of the ruined self is Spielautomat, 1999–2000, an actual slot machine covered with photographs of Genzken, her friends, and celebrities mixed with urban scenes of streets and facades. Ever since Walter Benjamin speculated on the herky-jerky behavior of Charles Baudelaire, we have understood the modern subject to be one that must parry the shocks of the world in order to survive, but the trope of the self as a slot machine, in which all play (including aesthetic Spiel) appears scripted and all chance automated (beyond anything Duchamp foresaw), is still hard to take, even as today we also must come to terms with the algorithmized subject. In this piece, Genzken places her friend Lawrence Weiner next to the celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio as though they were separated at birth: Eclipsed here is the boundary between private and public or inside and outside—the very distinction once thought to be the precondition of a self. According to Freud, the ego is, in the first instance, a body image, a figure that Lacan developed in architectural terms (in his “Mirror Stage” paper, he refers to the “I” as “a fortress or a stadium”); with Genzken, however, this ego architecture is broken down. Yet here again she provides a dialectical fillip, for in the end her work valorizes a fragmented ego over any fortified one, which can indeed turn aggressive in its very armoring. In this way, Genzken suggests a critique of the subject that is different from “the death of the author” performed by poststructuralist theorists and postmodernist artists, even as it is akin to the dismantling of the self sometimes staged by her contemporaries Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley.

By the time of her “Fuck the Bauhaus” models, in which commodity junkspace overwhelms all design schemes, Genzken has come to rely on the readymade, so Duchamp appears to be a primary resource; yet, especially in her work of the last decade, the commodity and the readymade are ruined too. (As in the work of Rachel Harrison, with whom Genzken is sometimes associated, this assault seems to take on the product lines of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and other corporate studios as well.) The Merz collages of Schwitters come next to mind, and with its associations of commerce, Schmerz (pain), and merde, the neologism Merz suits the later Genzken well; postwar bricoleurs of trash, both American and German, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Kienholz, Joseph Beuys, and Dieter Roth, are also recalled. In the end, however, the artistic lineage that Genzken truly enlivens is that of Berlin and Zurich Dada, for she, too, practices a mimetic exacerbation of the emergency conditions around her: If those Dadaists exaggerated the subjective effects of both military collapse and political crisis, both mechanization and commodification, Genzken pushes the distracted-compulsive behavior of the contemporary city dweller of consumerist empire to the edge of breakdown. “The Dadaist . . . suffers . . . from the dissonances [of the age] to the point of self-disintegration,” Ball wrote in his diary, and Genzken embraces this sacrificial kind of artistic passion, too. In this way, as the MoMA survey demonstrates, her work stands as an effective diagnosis of our times, the beer belly of post-1989 Germany and post-9/11 America cut and probed with her distinctive kitchen knife.

* Some visitors have remarked that the second half of the show feels cluttered, but clutter is a primary modality of Genzken’s work after 2000. Although the artist would presumably have been afforded more space had this retrospective been mounted at MoMA PS1, she would also have been somewhat sidelined there. The Mike Kelley retrospective is more fitting in that former public school, and the concurrence of the two exhibitions allows us the chance to compare these contemporaries.

“Isa Genkzen: Retrospective,” organized by Sabine Breitwieser, Laura Hoptman, Michael Darling, and Jeffrey Grove, is on view at the Musuem of Modern Art in New York through Mar. 10; travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Apr. 12–Aug. 3; Dallas Museum of Art, Sept. 14, 2014–Jan. 4, 2015.

Hal Foster codirects the program in media and modernity at Princeton University.