Friedrich Teepe, 1980-10, 1980, cotton, foam, 87 × 87 × 9".

Friedrich Teepe, 1980-10, 1980, cotton, foam, 87 × 87 × 9".

Friedrich Teepe

Arratia Beer

Friedrich Teepe, 1980-10, 1980, cotton, foam, 87 × 87 × 9".

There was a lot of ancestor worship at Gallery Weekend Berlin this year. Showing the likes of Gordon Matta-Clark (at Galerie Thomas Schulte), Philip Guston (Aurel Scheibler), or Lynn Chadwick (Blain | Southern), it seems, not only promises economic success but assures something like conceptual solidity, while at the same time offering the appeal of DIY materiality and an art-historical frame of reference. The late Friedrich Teepe (1929–2012), with his monochrome canvases and soft sculptures—he called them padded objects—was another of these elders, but something of an exception to the rule. Not that his work doesn’t sit perfectly well with an aesthetic of the 1960s and ’70s, somewhere between Group Zero and Gotthard Graubner–style cushioned painting. But in contrast to some of the big names on view, he was a bit of a discovery, new to the scene in Berlin.

The fact that Teepe was and remains one of the more obscure practitioners of his era is mostly due to his decision to live the stable life of an art teacher in Osnabrück, not far from Cologne and Düsseldorf. He was, however, by no means an art-world dropout; he exhibited regularly, mostly in regional commercial galleries but also in international group shows, among them “K18 Stoffwechsel” in Kassel in 1982, which showcased visual artists working with textiles—the title would ordinarily be translated as “metabolism” but was also a play on words, interpretable as something like “change of fabric.” And Teepe’s works from the early ’70s have indeed very little, if anything, in common with the notions of the artisanal with which that medium is typically associated. Take the serene B 73, 1973, and B 74, 1974, each of which consists of two perfectly square stretchers holding two layers of raw canvas. The uppermost layer was discreetly incised and folded out to form a kind of relief structure—almost imperceptible, elegant triangular shapes among the otherwise bare canvas. One might think of Lucio Fontana’s cuttings, but Teepe never penetrates the surface: Where Fontana is aggressive, Teepe is contemplative.

Still, he was strongly influenced by vernacular uses of textiles as architectural elements, which he and his wife, Ursula, discovered during their journeys around Asia Minor. These travels led him, with Ursula’s collaboration—her role was acknowledged readily by her husband, and in this show—to produce softer sculptures. 1981-10, 1981, for instance, is a freestanding canvas wall-structure in which one canvas has been firmly stretched around the underlying armature at the bottom and a second one loosely folded around the top. The two canvases are separated by a kind of vertical slit that allows the viewer to look through the object, and linked by buckles that can be done or undone. But that’s as far as interactivity goes in Teepe’s oeuvre. Many pieces—especially the giant, kangaroo-pouch-like linen bags 86-5 and 86-4, both 1986—recall the work of Franz Erhard Walther, who came to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1962, the year Teepe finished studying there. But in contrast to Walther’s manipulable sculptures, Teepe’s say, Look but don’t touch.

Indeed, the appeal of this work lies in its visual and material qualities, in both a sophisticated stringency and a vibrant playfulness. Teepe’s later work, which was not on view, is surprisingly and exuberantly colorful; the show made him out to be more ascetic than he really was. In its seriousness, the exhibition looked more like a small and sound museum project, with vitrines containing preparatory drawings, historical catalogues, and other documentary material. Apparently, the show marked the beginning of an ongoing process of research into Teepe’s work and archive being undertaken by Arratia Beer. In the midst of Gallery Weekend Berlin, it was a good reminder that there’s more to art than craze and bling on the one hand and sure things on the other.

Astrid Mania