File Note 12: Isa Genzken - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh



All Things Being Equal Images References Quote Biography Credits

All Things Being Equal

To situate sculpture between two mutually exclusive discursive conventions, or between two equally intolerable governing conditions, has been one of the motivating principles of Isa Genzken’s sculpture from the very beginning. It is hard to trace the prohibitions, geopolitical or gendered, that posed the most obdurate barriers Genzken would have to scale when starting to sculpt in the mid-’70s, against all odds. After all, sculpture had not been made in Germany by women (no Hepworth, let alone a Hesse, to draw upon). And if any influence from prewar sculpture had carried over into postwar practice, it was that of Arp. Worse yet, if prewar Constructivism turned into cold-war constructivism, it was the kind of sculpture that decorated the new corporate office towers of Frankfurt and Düsseldorf — what Joseph Beuys once called, inimitably and untranslatably, “Stahl-und-Eisbein Skulptur” (steel-and-pig’s-knuckle sculpture).

So Genzken situated herself (as did Blinky Palermo, whom she encountered at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1973) between Beuys on the one hand and Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly on the other, to confront the massive onslaught of Minimalism. It seems that only artistic dialogue and aesthetic reception are capable of synthesizing profoundly incompatible epistemes, as is evident once again — to cite a more recent example — in the fusion of Beuys and Warhol in Thomas Hirschhorn’s current work, whose idiom of chaos sculpture Genzken would seem to have anticipated in certain ways.

In her almost herculean ambition to bridge the chasm that separated the absence of sculpture in Germany from the affluence of sculpture in American Minimalism, Genzken emerged as one of the most serious artists after the famed generation of Palermo, Polke, and Richter. Undoubtedly, the strain to be accepted by that generation drove her sculptural projects into considerable dimensions. One of her ambitions was a programmatically antimasculinist idiom of sculpture. Its extraordinary fusion of stereometrical and biomorphic forms resulted from Genzken’s radical decision in 1975 to deploy computer design to create the extremely elongated curves first of her Ellipsoids (1976 – 82) and later of her Hyperbolos (1979 – 83), mathematically exact sinuosities that seemed to suddenly stand the techno-scientistic Minimalist boxes on their male blockheads. Genzken produced these complex ellipsoids and mathematically polymorph models of stereometry by computer twenty years before Richard Serra discovered Frank Gehry’s tool kit. Unfortunately, these wooden hulls rarely crossed the Atlantic (her 1992 retrospective at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society having remained exceptional in every regard).

It must have taken no less of a herculean hysteria to actually assemble and enunciate a vocabulary of feminist sculpture in the land of the Masters — a task that Genzken performed with a dogged and eventually triumphant obstinacy that associates her with her admired fellow Hanseatic elder Hanne Darboven. Yet, typically, just when Genzken had fully formed that vocabulary in her wooden hybrids —ranging from paeans to the utopian promises of luminously colored biomorphic abstraction and proto-utilitarian mechanomorphic devices for submarine and extraterrestrial locomotion — she abruptly canceled all continuity and abandoned the holistic splendor of her immaculate conceptions in favor of an aesthetic of rupture, rubble, and architectural fragments (at the very moment her work — included in 1982’s Documenta 7 — had finally become widely visible).

This sudden inversion signaled yet another schism, or a double reversal, in Genzken’s sculpture. First of all, her new work now negated the Constructivists’ confidence in an alliance of sculptural and techno-scientistic rationality that American Minimalism had proudly presented as salvaged. In acts of almost programmatic disidentification, Genzken now severed all ties with American-type abstraction, its colors and its morphologies. Negating her sculpture’s perfectly executed stereometrical forms, she opted in favor of an aesthetic of dispersal and dissemination (of monochrome gray matter such as cement and concrete) and of architectural fractures. These were the very principles and materials she now rediscovered as having governed atopian objects and spaces from Kurt Schwitters to Beuys.

Genzken’s return to the local idioms was prompted furthermore by the fact that her once-utopian models had reached the size and scale of public space and the condition of simultaneous collective perception that all serious sculpture in the twentieth century had aimed for. Probing the credibility of her commitment to such utopian aspirations under the conditions of postwar Germany, Genzken now reverted to the melancholy of ruined interiors and fractured bunker shards. Not only negating any notion of an innate sculptural dynamic toward architecture and collective public experience in the present, her ruinous refusals assaulted the governing codes and prevailing conditions of German reconstruction architecture in all its misery.

Her early forays into photography were equally astonishing and even less recognized. Having been engaged at the academy in dialogues with the soon-to-be-prominent members of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s class — in particular, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth — Genzken produced “Hi-Fi” (1979), an extraordinary series of photographs that presaged her future deployment of endless accumulations of mass-cultural imagery in collage books as an integral complement to her sculptural disarticulation of the terror of the daily object world. In this series Genzken traced the most seductive — i.e., rigorous — designs of what was then contemporary Japanese stereo equipment (in manifest opposition to the Becher school’s fixation on architecture) as a visual regime in which all avant-garde aspirations for the transformation of everyday life now lay entombed. 

In a second series (from 1980), strangely complementary to the first in its focus on aurality, Genzken photographed the ears of friends in large-scale color close-ups. These metonymies of the ear, strangely echoing and displacing both Constructivist metonymies of the hand and Surrealist metonymies of the foot, not only demarcated Genzken’s departure from her preoccupation with sinuous organic forms in her sculpture but also responded to the increasingly reactionary resuscitation of photographic portraiture by her peers. Shifting the portrait genre to the physiognomic (and criminological) bodily detail of utter singularity, Genzken’s photographs pointed simultaneously to the infinite differentiation of subjectivity and to the determinism inherent in the mythical claim that subjectivity could in fact still be recorded in a photographic portrait.

In her most recent work, Genzken confronts one of the prime calamities of sculpture in the present: a terror that emerges from both the universal equivalence and exchangeability of all objects and materials and the simultaneous impossibility of imbuing any transgressive definition of sculpture with priorities or criteria of selection, of choice, let alone judgment (be it artisanal skills, choice of objects or materials, or the analytical intelligence to identify the specific structure of a contextualized readymade). To have the self succumb to the totalitarian order of objects brings the sculptor to the brink of psychosis, and Genzken’s new work seems to inhabit that position. However, since total submission to the terror of consumption is indeed the governing stratum of collective object-relations, that psychotic state may well become the only position and practice the sculptor of the future can articulate.


Isa Genzken’s Favourite Gay Bars:

The Tools, New York

Chains, New York

Blue Boy Bar, Berlin

’And it will once again look completely different from everything before. That is an automatic process. That is what I meant when I talked about artists who work according to a principle. How something has to be. I don’t really have that all. And I like it that way, actually ...Keep mixing things up ’ Isa Genzken (in conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans), Artforum, November 2005


Isa Genzken (b.1948, Bad Oldesloe, Germany, lives in Berlin) is renowned for her paintings, photographs and sculptures concerned with the urban environment, advertising and the media. Her paintings ‘MLR’ (‘More Light Research’ 1992) suggest a cerebral play on the theme of sport. Images of hoops appear like photograms and recall gymnastics apparatus caught mid-swing, accentuating the feeling of a recently departed presence. ‘Markisen’ (2000) are a series of orange blinds introducing an architectural intervention into the space. ‘Beach  huts’ (‘Strandhäuser zum Umziehen’ 2000), a series of ten sculptures constructed from collaged photography and painting, are playful representations of what these idiosyncratic structures might mean in terms of leisure and sport, their outside surfaces suggestive of what might be going on inside. 

Isa Genzken has exhibited widely throughout Europe and the US. A selection of her recent solo exhibitions include The Photographers Gallery, London and Daniel Buchholz Gallery, Cologne (both 2005); Hauser and Wirth London (2004); Kunsthalle Zürich (2003); Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Magnani, London and Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach (all 2002); Kunstverein Braunschweig and AC Project Room, New York (both 2000) and The Renaissance Society, Chicago (1992). The many group exhibitions in which she has participated include Istanbul – Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, Eindoven (2005); the 54th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2004); 40th, 45th and 50th Venice Biennials (1982, 1993 and 2003 respectively); Documenta 9 (1992) and Documenta 11 (2002), Kassel; Münster Sculpture Projects (1987 and 1997). She also has upcoming solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle  Kiel and Secession, Vienna (both 2006) and is also selected for  Münster Sculpture Projects (2007).


Benjamin H.D. Buchloh is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University.