Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Cages on the Run, ca. 1980s, zincographic print, 8 1/4 × 6".

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Cages on the Run, ca. 1980s, zincographic print, 8 1/4 × 6".

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt


Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Cages on the Run, ca. 1980s, zincographic print, 8 1/4 × 6".

When a political system collapses, many an artistic practice goes down with it. This is obviously the case for those who were affiliated with the ruling power and its ideology, but the same is often true for the underground artist working in resistance to them. Such artists face the threat of a twofold damnatio memoriae: Forced to work in hiding, excluded from access to a state-regulated art infrastructure, they are usually known to a small circle only—either at home or abroad. Come the revolution, however, external interest in this oppositional art also often dwindles. This was, for instance, the fate of much of the Soviet Union’s unofficial art scene. Things don’t look much brighter for subversive artists from the former GDR. Many are still overlooked today—denied their place in a German, let alone international, art history. So one was grateful for “SIGNS FICTION,” an exhibition of typewriter works (and one video) by Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, an artist who has been living in what was formerly East Berlin since 1950 and who, like her husband, Robert Rehfeldt, was primarily a practitioner of mail art.

Now in her eighties, Wolf-Rehfeldt began her practice in the late 1960s and soon joined her husband in swapping and exchanging original or multiple artworks within an international network. Her artistic correspondence mostly, but by no means exclusively, addressed artists in the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe and the dictatorships of South America. (The Wolf-Rehfeldt show was mounted simultaneously with an exhibition, curated by Zanna Gilbert and David Horvitz, of mail works by the Brazilian artist Paulo Bruscky, all found in Robert Rehfeldt’s archive.) As a member of the Verband Bildender Künstler (State Association of Artists), Wolf-Rehfeldt was allowed to print editions of small-scale concrete-poetry-style works that she then used as postcards, which flew under the radar of state censorship. This show presented some striking examples of this subversive communicative practice: Cages on the Run, ca. 1980s, features plus signs, apostrophes, and O’s arranged to form a circle and grid-like overlapping squares that together assume the geometrical, almost Op-art-like shape of a running figure, which invites a number of political and/or psychological readings. Wucherungen (Growths), ca. 1970s, owes its treelike shape to a visual and repetitive arrangement of the words STAMM (stem) and WUCHERUNG (growth). Many of these multiples carry discreet environmental or social messages; others are deadpan word-image games—for instance, Concrete Shoe, ca. 1970s, the typewritten image of, well, a shoe. The postcard works, displayed on tables, were accompanied by larger-scale one-off screen prints such as Undeterminated Sum, 1986, an abstract downpour of Greek letters and mathematical symbols, and a selection of index cards on which are meticulously listed the addresses of the artist’s international colleagues and the dates of her correspondence with them.

As Wolf-Rehfeldt’s oeuvre was concerned with overcoming the factual, ideological, and censorial borders of the East German state, she took the consequential and radical step of abandoning her practice with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along with the already inherently elusive character of her work, this withdrawal was hardly calculated to win any broader recognition of her wonderfully intimate and rigorous “typewritings,” as she calls them. It was only on the occasion of her eightieth birthday, in 2012, that the Weserburg Museum für Moderne Kunst in Bremen, Germany, gave her the honor of her first major museum exhibition, in the context of its artist-book collection. Luckily, Wolf-Rehfeldt is now being discovered by a younger, international generation of curators and gallerists.

Astrid Mania