Anna Oppermann, Antidesign, 1970–72, mixed media. Installation view.

Anna Oppermann, Antidesign, 1970–72, mixed media. Installation view.

Anna Oppermann

Galerie Barbara Thumm

Anna Oppermann (1940–1993) is best known for her “ensembles”—expansive and complex assemblages of drawings, photographs, notes, and found objects that she developed, often over the course of years, in idiosyncratic creative processes. The fruits of an approach that was both intensely visual and tenaciously reflective, her ensembles are explicitly open works. Oppermann had earlier constructed still lifes but later said that she often found the preparatory work more compelling than the final paintings. At some point, she began simply to leave the constructions up, in part because in many instances she preferred the object with which she had begun—“usually a piece of nature.” Oppermann continually broadened the idea of the object anchoring the still life, arguing that “one might also use a human being or an incident of any kind rather than a thing as the point of departure”; this view allowed her to “extend her exercises in cognition or perception, as I call them, to more challenging objects.”

This expansive conception was evident in the three ensembles on view in the artist’s recent exhibition “The Picture Stands on the Window Sill.” Hausfrau Sein (Being a Housewife), 1968/1973; Frauen wie Ängel (Women like Angels), 1968/1973; and Antidesign, 1970–72, unfurl complex textures of visuals and words, often laced with wit and irony, in which Oppermann scrutinized ideas about women and femininity that were prevalent (at least in West Germany) around 1970. In addition to these ensembles, the show featured more than thirty stand-alone early works that had rarely or never been exhibited in public.

Oppermann’s early drawings, executed in colored pencil, are loudly colorful and recognizably inspired by Pop art. Many are striking thanks to unconventional viewpoints: In several Untitled works made between 1965 and 1968, Oppermann drew navel-gazing figures, inviting the viewer to see through their eyes as they look down at their laps, thighs, feet. This vantage point and the resulting foreshortening of the body’s anatomy push it toward abstraction. She also surveyed variations of the view of her own lap, legs, and knees in drawings, translating their contours into an organic abstract M shape.

These drawings foreshadow the more radical ways Oppermann would later ask viewers, as she put it, to “imagine themselves implanted, one might say, into the picture.” In Rote Figur mit Gardine (Red Figure with Curtain), 1969, for instance, realism, Surrealism, and abstraction were still fairly balanced overall. In the ensemble Antidesign, by contrast, a shape suggestive of the abdomen has undergone a remarkable mutation: A large drawing on Masonite included within the assemblage converts the form into an ashtray penetrated, as it were, by several cigarettes. A text across the pelvic bulges at its base reads SUR / RO / GAT . . . , with the syllable RO inscribed above the filter of the lit cigarette resting in the indentation/orifice, representing only one of the infinitely many unexpected and illuminating poetic conjunctions of image and text that Oppermann’s ensembles generate. Also in Antidesign, the lap-legs-knee shape mutates yet again, into the idea of Antisitzhose (anti-sitting pants), executed as a sewing pattern and small sculpture and multiplied and elaborated in photographs and sketches. In this and similar elements, Opperman’s oeuvre reveals itself to be not only irrepressibly playful but also unwaveringly critical. That critical impulse manifests itself in her work’s form as well: Oppermann took a practice of observation rooted in painting and opened it up to a graphic and associative mode of thinking that transformed it into a subtly ramifying discursive web. 

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.