Hanne Darboven, Ein Jahrhundert.1b (A Century. 1b) (detail), 1971–74, offset print, typewriter, ink on graph paper, 100 sheets, each 11 3/4 × 8 1/4", in 25 frames.

Hanne Darboven, Ein Jahrhundert.1b (A Century. 1b) (detail), 1971–74, offset print, typewriter, ink on graph paper, 100 sheets, each 11 3/4 × 8 1/4", in 25 frames.

Hanne Darboven and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt

“I want what I want but what I want I cannot do but what I can, I’m not supposed to,” said Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, who produced an enigmatic body of what she calls “typewritings” between 1979 to 1989, while living in what was then East Berlin.

“What else to do / but art/ what more to do / what less to do / what else to be / but to do,” Hanne Darboven (1941–2009) wrote gnomically to Sol LeWitt in 1971 from Hamburg and the relative freedom of West Germany. Although Wolf-Rehfeldt and Darboven never met, were unaware of each other’s work, and lived and made art in radically different circumstances, the two-artist exhibition “Zeichen der Zeit / Zeit der Zeichen” (“Sign of the Times / Times of the Sign”)—with its riddling, aptly chiasmatic title—draws intriguing parallels between the two artists and their creative strategies of inversion, reversal, repetition, permutation, combination, and refusal. 

Darboven is well known for her elaborate, often room-filling installations in which complicated tautological systems of calendrical counting and accounting play out across framed and gridded typewritten and hand-annotated foolscap. Ein Jahrhundert.1b (A Century.1b), 1971–74, stretches across one wall of the gallery with one hundred sheets in twenty-five frames—one page for each year of its titular century. Each sheet presents its numerical equivalent according to the artist’s personal system of cross-sum calculations, with numbers typed out in words as well as drawn in her typical cursive arcs, which ululate silently across the upper quadrants of the pages. This work, like most of the artist’s oeuvre, is a product of her lifetime activity of Schreibzeit, or writing time, a daily process of what she called “writing without describing”—filling pages with numbers, sums, signs, and symbols to reach a kind of pure and infinite writing void of referential meaning.

Like Darboven, Wolf-Rehfeldt reimagined and repurposed the graphic, the typographic, and the numeric to turn ideas of sense and sensibility in on themselves, to create a different order of meaning. A trained typist, she used the anonymity of her machine to make modest but sly subversive typewritings: small typewritten or zincographic prints that slip between concrete poetry, graphic design, Conceptual art, and linguistic studies. In Regenschauer (A regen) (Rain Shower [Raining A]), dating to sometime in the 1970s, the letter A rains diagonally across the page. Jagged streams of the letter point and point but indicate nothing in particular. In a group of works from the late 1980s, all titled Undeterminated Sum, glyphs, dashes, arrows, angle brackets, and other symbols form, on bright-blue paper, orderly lines that subsequently dissolve into wilder shapes and forms, as if the graphics and their attendant logic have been torn, wrenched, undone.

In some ways, Darboven and Wolf-Rehfeldt couldn’t be more different. The former was prolific, widely shown, and celebrated in the contemporary art world; the latter, known only to a small circle, stopped making art when the Berlin Wall fell; her work circulated primarily as mail art—she and her husband, Robert Rehfeldt, were the most prominent practitioners of the form in East Germany—and has only recently been “rediscovered.” But at the core of the work of both is a heartening commitment to illegibility as resistance: a subtle sabotage of the master’s tools (for Darboven, time, “a great invention, fiction”; for Wolf-Rehfeldt, the machinery of the state), an embrace of indecipherability in a world whose systems and structures are neither natural, logical, nor right. And aren’t we all our own systems within systems, in any case? “It’s exhausting. It’s good. It’s idea. It’s idea. It’s good. It’s exhausting,” wrote Darboven, adding, in Beckettian fashion, “Going on is the enormous thing I do.” In spite of it all, I do it on my own terms, the works of these two artists resolutely say.