View of “Charlotte Posenenske,” 2019.

View of “Charlotte Posenenske,” 2019.

Charlotte Posenenske

Commanding one of the yawning depots of Dia:Beacon—a Nabisco box-printing factory turned postindustrial culture palace—the hollow sheet-metal and cardboard polyhedrons of Charlotte Posenenske’s Vierkantrohre Serie D (Square Tubes Series D) and Vierkantrohre Serie DW (Square Tubes Series DW) appeared to be fossils of use value. Designed in 1967 as the German artist was beginning to receive international recognition alongside proponents of American Minimalism, these groupings of unwieldy modular units were made to be manipulated and recombined by collaborating viewer participants. Produced in unsigned, unlimited editions and priced at cost, Serie D and Serie DW deliberately courted the utilitarian aesthetics of industry and infrastructure. The latter work’s corrugated cardboard surfaces evoke the debris of American consumerism, ever more ubiquitous in the Amazon age, while the galvanized-steel conduits of the former piece are virtually indistinguishable from HVAC ducts. This resemblance is often played up in photographs and installations of Serie D. At Dia, for example, two of these silver tubes were innocently installed on its brick facade.

Posenenske (1930–1985) imagined these works as “prototypes for mass production.” Redoubling their association with the rationalized spaces of transportation and logistics, she posed them for photographs against the allover grayness of the Frankfurt airport tarmac and within the gothic void of a Lufthansa hangar. “The artist of the future should have to work with a team of specialists in a development laboratory,” she wrote in the Conceptual-art organ Art International, echoing the clarion call of the Russian avant-garde some forty years earlier.

But the artist’s quixotic productivism was shot through with doubt and negation virtually from the outset. The same text, published in the febrile month of May 1968, concludes on a note of agonized surrender: “Though art’s formal development has progressed at an increasing tempo, its social function has withered. . . . It is difficult for me to accept the fact that art cannot contribute to the solution of pressing social problems.” Early on, Posenenske recognized that the professedly radical strategies of 1960s art—delegated fabrication and serial production, aleatory composition and activated spectatorship—were hardly guarantors of meaningful reform (to say nothing of revolution) beyond the enclosure of art. Seven months after penning those lines, the artist left artmaking behind and began studying the scientific methods of labor management at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. The romance of this exit clings to her sculptures’ obdurate surfaces, paradoxically reinvesting their anti-aesthetic severity with the auratic value she had abjured. Even “labor”—as Posenenske would almost certainly have acknowledged—can easily become a fetish and a commodity in the marketplace of critical and curatorial ideas.

Posenenske was no stranger to the abstraction of labor. Nearly a decade after the close of her art career, she submitted her thesis, coauthored with her partner, Burkhard Brunn. Vorgabezeit und Arbeitswert (Time Allocation and the Value of Labor), as the first part of its title reads, critiqued the supposedly objective methods of measuring and standardizing factory labor as instruments of class rule and advocated instead for Mitbestimmung—workplace democracy through workers’ participation in corporate management. A version of this concept had been implemented under Germany’s Codetermination Act of 1976, and it is now being advanced, in different forms, by two Democratic presidential candidates (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) in the US. Some of the most cogent writers on Posenenske’s work have already recognized the relevance of this principle to a reading of her ’60s sculptures, with their delicate balance of alienated toil and ludic alterability.

And yet, tempting as it may be to read them as such, these pieces are not transparent containers for Posenenske’s later political and economic theories; they retain their density and autonomy as artworks even as they seem to glide toward art’s limits. This threshold condition is epitomized by a 2018 fabrication of a work from Drehflügel Serie E (Revolving Vanes Series E), 1967–68. One of just two sculptures on view that permitted viewer interaction, this simple gray partition rotated 360 degrees around a fixed point on the gallery floor, apportioning the surrounding space in theoretically infinite variations. Its aesthetic charge was located precisely in the indeterminacy of its form—at once referencing the aloof sophistication of Minimal sculpture, the guided fun of a teeter-totter, and the repetitive limbo of the factory.