Basel

View of “Isa Genzken: Works from 1973 to 1983,” 2020–21. From left: Gelbes Ellipsoid (Yellow Ellipsoid), 1976; Grau-grünes Hyperbolo “Jülich” (Gray-Green Hyperbolo “Jülich”), 1979. Photo: Gina Folly.

View of “Isa Genzken: Works from 1973 to 1983,” 2020–21. From left: Gelbes Ellipsoid (Yellow Ellipsoid), 1976; Grau-grünes Hyperbolo “Jülich” (Gray-Green Hyperbolo “Jülich”), 1979. Photo: Gina Folly.

Isa Genzken

Kunstmuseum Basel

“My sculptures will be bought by the world’s most significant museums. Biographers will be writing about my work over and over, and in the end I will be amongst the greatest artists of the century”—so wrote Isa Genzken, tongue in cheek (or not), some thirty years ago. Museums got and remain on board: “Isa Genzken: Works from 1973 to 1983” will travel up the Rhine this May from Basel to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, the city where Genzken gained her art education and entry to a formative postwar German scene. Curated by Søren Grammel, the exhibition expands on the persuasive lionizing of Genzken as an indomitable, one-of-a-kind female sculptor, one of the few to emerge in a belatedly modern West Germany after 1968. The two series of elaborately worked wooden sculptures Genzken began in the 1970s (the suavely colored vertical and horizontal “Ellipsoids” and “Hyperbolos,” both 1976–85) were her ticket into the international circuit and were exhibited at Documenta 7 in 1982. Over two floors of Kunstmuseum Basel’s satellite venue for contemporary art, more than a dozen of these bodies took the lead, subjoined by oblong computer prints, drawings, collages, photographs, films, and sound works. Fittingly, Genzken’s “modernist” coming-of-age survey either began or ended in the institution’s neo-Brutalist new building, where further works of hers were juxtaposed with those of some of her professed American influences: a sleek 1967 floor piece by Carl Andre and a rough contemporaneous wall work by Bruce Nauman. Further highlighting this big-fish subtext was a 1982 photograph of Genzken in her studio that doubled as key PR, showing the artist handling one of her supersize yet information-age lithe “Hyperbolos” like a trophy catch.

Genzken’s “Ellipsoids” in particular have lost little of their alien crispness. Their archetype, the impenetrably black Ellipse Nr. 1, 1976, its edges flashing citrus yellow, pulls off the trick. Appearing as a dislocated Oceanic fetish from a space landing with just the right dose of desublimating surfyness, it dislodges the formal concerns of pivotal antecedent avant-gardes. Genzken’s aim of thinking beyond prevailing ideas of how to reenchant volume, color, and space in an environment informed by conspicuous consumption and television led her to drop both midcentury modernist autonomy and “literalist” objecthood via a sly inversion. It’s as if she had reached into one of Lucio Fontana’s signature slits to extricate an airy solid from this pathological and sexualized postwar void. The fresh biomorphism of the “Ellipsoids” and the totemism of the “Hyperbolos” are products less of surreal dreaming than of data crunching, embracing flawlessness made possible through computerized modeling, topped with a flair for the look and touch of the must-have. Despite the anachronistic artisanry that went into their fabrication, these early works already transmit why Genzken’s process and aesthetic reverberate with recent practices that take online environments and their mutable sociality as subject matter.

Going off script from this progressive backdrop was the curatorial accent conferred on a key curio, the reputedly never-before-shown figurative drawing Untitled, ca. 1973, picturing a dorky man playing the game of diabolo, fiddling not with the prop of that name but with some vermicular phallic object. That motif was placed in context with a slightly later drawing (Untitled, 1974) of rhythmically cascading and escalating sticks, which a wall text identified as the onanistic gesture’s abstraction, in turn adumbrating the primary structure of Genzken’s hyperboloids to come. The subplot of a jerk-off joke doubling as the seed for a decade’s worth of work didn’t quite sync, however, with Griselda Pollock’s sweeping catalogue essay, a feminist framing of Genzken’s early sculpture as the fruits of hard labor won by a German “artist-woman” par excellence. Taken together, such exegeses risked forcing a stellar and at times grueling artistic journey into gendered and nationalized molds that Genzken, as the exhibition itself suggested, rather undermined. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Genzken’s schematic yet infectiously ambitious sketches to guide the computer scientist she’d recruited to help get those works to look like the desirables they are.

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View of “Isa Genzken: Works from 1973 to 1983,” 2020–21. From left: Gelbes Ellipsoid (Yellow Ellipsoid), 1976; Grau-grünes Hyperbolo “Jülich” (Gray-Green Hyperbolo “Jülich”), 1979. Photo: Gina Folly.