BY Dominic Eichler in Features | 14 AUG 13
Featured in
Issue 11

This is Hardcore

On the occasion of her forthcoming retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Dominic Eichler unravels Isa Genzken’s work and persona

BY Dominic Eichler in Features | 14 AUG 13

Isa Genzken, X-Ray, 1991, black and white photograph (courtesy for all images: the artist & Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne)

I first encountered Isa Genzken in late-1990s Berlin, in a club that once occupied the bomb- and battle-scarred shell of a pompous Wilhelmian hotel that had been patched up in the GDR era, and which later, in the 2000s, would be meticulously restored for executives. She was perched on a bar stool, straight-backed, alone and lost in thought. I don’t know if she was contemplating architecture but she could have been. Even early on as a feisty art student at the Dusseldorf Academy in the 1970s, Genzken – thinking big and structurally – had gone to professor Joseph Beuys to convince him that they had to do something together about the appalling state of new, postwar West German architecture, and that she had the means to do it. Nothing came of the idea at the time, although later, in 1980, Genzken and her partner Gerhard Richter were commissioned to design the interior of the underground station at König-Heinrich-Platz in Duisburg. Their glossy, enamel wall panels, completed in 1992 after construction delays and then largely forgotten, consist of bands of primary colours – plus green – traversed by lines redolent of the perfect, converging parallels of Genzken’s groundbreaking, computer-designed wooden ellipsoid and hyperbole sculptures of the late 1970s. Cleaned and ‘reopened’ in May 2013, this collaborative public work includes one curve corresponding to the curvature of Mars on a scale of 1:1,000, and another to that of Venus on a scale of 1:40,000.

People may come and go, but the shapes, materials and surfaces of modern architecture have up to this day remained Genzken’s main foil, nemesis, antithetical muse and windmill to tilt against. Architecture is both the shifting foundation and fractured mirrored surface of her inspiration. Among her few canvas paintings is the frottage series Basic Research (1988–91) – works that record the rough texture of her studio floor via one firm, oily scrape across square canvases. For a time, the streets of Manhattan were the artist’s studio and art supplies depot. For the last three years, the façade of the New Museum in New York has been adorned with the c.8.5 metre-high sculpture Rose II (1993/2007) – a gesture of love or condolence? At Documenta 11 (2002) she exhibited a series of sculptural models, New Buildings for Berlin, that were originally shown one year before at the 7th Istanbul Biennale, in the Hagia Sophia, just a few weeks after 9/11. The work proposes impossible translucent skyscrapers (Richard Serra’s leaning planes meet London’s Shard at a disco), which could never be built in a capital city where faux-historical reconstruction is still the aesthetically dull and politically dubious order of the day. Further back, for the 2nd Sculpture Projects Münster in 1987, she mounted a pair of steel rectangular frames on a concrete support (ABC, 1987) next to the façade of a drab international modernist-style university library, as if to say: look further, look deeper, look elsewhere – a work that was afterwards short-sightedly dismounted.

In the early 1990s, ‘everybody needs at least one window’ became her best-known dictum or catch-cry. Then she produced a series of luminous, reinforced resin window frame sculptures, such as Venedig (Venice, 1993) – breathtakingly elegant in their apparent simplicity and negotiation of real and metaphoric spaces. We are always looking through things. Who and what frames whom? People usually think of windows as a place to look out of, but they also frame a view into the interior. But what – mirrored outside or inside – is articulated by a pane-less windowframe in the middle of a space?

In postwar Germany, new architecture was, to state the painfully obvious, necessary everywhere. It was thus in some ways dominated by debates around modernity and emerging notions of Postmodernity. Genzken’s development was arguably formed and charged by this. From the beginning she used art to critically reframe and assert the autonomy of both art and individuals from the built environment, and all it stands for. Haare wachsen wie sie wollen (Hair grows as it wants), declares the title of a work from 2002, first conceived for the art space GalerieMeerrettich (Horseradish) run for a while by artist Josef Strau at Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz; the piece consisted of an untidy nest of bamboo rods sprouting from the roof of the small building, which later sprung out of the Italian Pavilion in Venice, too. Her work shows us that whether inside or outside, sculpture isn’t just placed – it is positioned in relation to all manners of architectural frames (including power and belief structures), and sometimes that relation evolves into a heated argument. Consider this artist statement (Statement 2, 2005) printed in a Phaidon monograph published in 2006: ‘Art and architecture should avoid all Fascistoid tendencies. They should go along merrily and cheerfully, lightheartedly and intelligently.’ Easier said than done, as she well knows.

Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster, 1993, Installation view Lenbachhaus, Munich

Genzken was born in 1948 in Bad Oldesloe, a small spa town in Westphalia. The daughter of a doctor and a lab assistant who wished to be an actor, she grew up in encircled West Berlin and thus crucially came of age in the turbulent politicized late 1960s when many of her generation turned against the stultifying status quo of the ‘economic miracle’, and questioned their parent generation’s involvement in, or silence about, the murderous fascist past. Before art school, she spent a couple of years in Hamburg studying film, but that wasn’t for her – although years later, she produced a few films and videos including Chicago Drive (1992), and has had a long running desire to make a science fiction film about child abuse, the synopsis of which – also printed without explanation in her Phaidon monograph – reads a bit like a scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).

For artists like Genzken, in art’s dissident relation to the cultural-political mainframe, there is something big at stake. It’s up to each respective artist to drive home what that is for him or her. It’s a duel in which only the best survive. Accordingly, these days Genzken – veritably formed and fired by nearly 40 years in art – is both a formidable and heart-breakingly vulnerable person who doesn’t bear fools lightly, even if she sometimes loves to play the fool or a kind of Postmodern Queen Lear herself. Take for example the c.70-minute Die kleine Bushaltestelle (The Little Bus Stop, 2012), an uncompromising, campy, slapstick, multiple-identity no-budget film in which she stars alongside long-time artist friend Kai Althoff. Their adopted roles include guest and waiter, detective and policewoman, doctor and patient, artist and fan, prostitute and pimp, chain-smoker and asthmatic – all of which, by irreverent analogy, bear on the life of an artist.

Now a towering art figure in an art world skyline still only sparsely populated by women, Genzken, like her work, can be both extremely posh/preppy and postpunk/homeboy at turns. She often wears clothes to match. Portraits of recent years that she sometimes integrates into her work show her aping Mona Lisa’s smile, as she firmly believes that the Mona Lisa (c. 1503–6) is actually Da Vinci in drag – a truly high art gender-fuck à la Genzken if there ever was one. In these images, she sports ensembles like a baseball cap and cashmere, or a chunky Rolex and pink leather biker pants, along with bits of real and fake bling. All this hints at the same kind of visceral, disquieting, high-low mismatching which is all over her raucous 3D-collaged sculptural work of the last decade. She can be toughly glamorous – the closest thing the German art world has to a vintage rock star, one of the few still ‘living the life’.

Genzken is about as driven by notions of high art as it gets. Accordingly, art has to be the best, absolute, without compromise, or it is probably worse than nothing. It must be cruel, leaving what most other people do in the shade or – better – in a dustbin labelled ‘ridiculous’, ‘rubbish’. If there are to be comparisons then, please, only to the best of the best, like Richter (the artist, not the former husband), Jasper Johns, Dan Graham, Michael Asher, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Jackson! For her, the only serious, therefore only critic is Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. Other artists out there in the mega-established stratosphere (it’s cold up there) usually shift down creative gears far sooner to cruise along, in order to rearticulate and re-distribute, with the help of a team of assistants, the idea or two that made them. Genzken, on the other hand, prefers, when she can, to work alone in her Berlin studio, with a view of train tracks. (In the last years one trusted restorer, Ekkehard Kneer, has helped her to stabilize her assemblages.) And she is still pushing the art and life envelope out of her own, and anyone else’s, comfort zone. Fuck the Bauhaus, she declared in 2000 – in an exhibition at AC Project Room which put her back on the New York map, knowing that in Germany, educated people rarely swear in public, and that there the utopian and persecuted Bauhaus is sacrosanct.

The artist holding one of her Hyperbolos in her studio in Düsseldorf, 1982

‘How are you?’ A friend asked Genzken recently. ‘I’m just getting more and more famous’, she replied in Warholian fashion, with a laugh and mock disbelief. In art as in life, if rules of decorum or aesthetics are implied, she bucks them, but if a situation lacks form or significance, she can be haughty and precise as can be. She is just as exacting, sometimes vicious, and uncompromising with her work: drip some more glossy paint like splatter-movie Pop-blood on that damned, ubiquitous, business-like edition of a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair! And wouldn’t a broken doll, back from some horrific tour of duty, be just the right figure to sit on it? Ha! More creepy dolls and maniac manikins, like killer progeny from psychological thrillers, including those she had squat a churchyard at Sculpture Projects Münster (Untitled, 2007). What does the junk-burden globalized world need more of now? Disassembled gay babies and spaced-out astronauts that might have just left a rave, of course! And crippled men-children in walking frames. And soiled wheelie luggage. CNN and BBC World on acid. Ensembles of rearticulated ready-mades – being unmade, stuck together and coming unstuck. Nothing and no one is stable, nothing is sacred, no one is safe.

But why get personal now about Genzken’s character? In the past when writing on her, I’ve avoided mentioning Richter off the bat, thinking, for instance: why should such an artist distinguished in her own right need to be validated by association? Isn’t to assume so simply sexist? This I felt keenly in the late 1990s when her position was far from being as secure as it increasingly is today. Very shortly she will be honoured with something of a triumphal occasion in New York – a retrospective of her work, not too early, not too late, at MoMA, opening in November and then travelling to MCA Chicago and the Dallas Museum of Art. This is a big moment, even for Genzken, despite recent major survey shows at the Ludwig Museum, Cologne and the Whitechapel, London: a kind of coronation or old school initiation to the art pantheon where she has always wished to belong. Once you are there, you are beyond having your work reduced to a biography, beyond the danger of being ‘the former wife of …’ Your art simply is, and your person becomes a valid part of its contextualization and greater whole. If outside of Germany (where she has long been well-known) she remains something of an insider tip, that looks set to change. But unlike artists such as Martin Kippenberger, this will thankfully take place during her lifetime. Another part of why I think it’s appropriate now to speak of Genzken’s character is because of how consciously she has groomed her artistic persona as an extension of her work. Consider again, for example, the number of carefully posed portraits, some by her friend Wolfgang Tillmans, with whom she has also collabo­rated, which she uses repeatedly in print – as if to say: here is MY work, I am its centre. The author hasn’t died, but of her own will she has become a hyper-fiction. It is this creation I am addressing rather than the person ‘behind’ it. It is unclear if it will happen, but one of the things Genzken wants to do during her retrospective is to erect a massive poster on Times Square – a collage with herself sitting in the middle of it, like a post-Pop Empress.

Going back 20 years, before we met, all I knew about Genzken was that since the mid-1970s, she had made successive groups of remarkably distinctive sculpture. At times seemingly out of sync with her contempor­aries, from today’s perspective – with the slightly smug benefit of hindsight – they were prescient and influential in myriad ways. In other words, I knew that she could be described as one of the ‘best living sculptors’ around – here I omit the ‘female’ that over the years has been used as a qualifier. I also knew that she had first been Richter’s student, and then his wife for 11 years, and that in the wake of their separation, and her struggle with depression in early 1990s Manhattan, she had made herself less than welcome, even notorious, in New York’s unforgiving, fuss-intolerant, business-minded art scene. For an intense window into this time, see her 460-page artist book I Love New York, Crazy City (2006): snap-shots, print clippings and crisscross-coloured tape riotousness based on a scrapbook she kept around 1995/6. Young artists take note: there is no downtime, whatever you are going through. Art is punishment and discipline through and through. Already much earlier, when personal trouble had set in, Genzken made works using her own brain scans, x-rays and photographs in a hospital bed. The implications of these – with respect to the dissolution of the usual middle class decorum of separating art and life, and artist from personhood – are extremely confrontational.

I had also seen her works installed at the Hoffmann collection in Berlin, which opened in 1997: a close-up photograph of the pierced ear of an anonymous women approached in the street (Ohr, Ear 1981) metaphorically listening to rough cast concrete on metal legs such as Atelier (Studio, 1990). These forms variously recall the salvaged relics of buildings in miniature, shells, broken cells, crumbling foundations and facades. Anti-monuments, the likes of which she first showed at the seminal Galerie Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf in 1986: contemporary ruins suggesting nothing less than the rotting, long-toothedness of modernity.

Empire/Vampire III, 11, 2004, Mixed media

It seems right to pick up the Genzken story in the late 1990s, when she needed to regroup and reinvent. Not because that’s when our paths first crossed, but rather because shortly thereafter, a few solo shows would announce anew the importance of her work. Since around 2000, not so much a rediscovery but a re-emergence occurred, underpinned ostensibly by a handful of loyal collectors, curators (like Nicolaus Schafhausen), and gallerists (in particular Daniel Buchholz, who has represented her for 25 years). The life of an artist may be radically lonely, but one is not necessarily alone. And one should remember that ‘mid-career’ can after all describe a treacherous abyss for many artists – an abyss arguably even more devastating for women artists, who also face the entrenched structural sexism of contemporary art. Amongst these exhibitions, all around the turn of the millennium, were shows at Berlin’s temporary INIT Kunsthalle (1998), at Kunstverein Braunschweig (2000), and Frankfurter Kunstverein (2000). In these crucial exhibitions, amongst other things, Genzken showed: her Der Spiegel I (1989–91) series of re-photographed press images on a horizon line in an emptied out and repurposed GDR supermarket, her personalized freestanding columns or towers (including Kai, Dan, Wolfgang and Christiane made between 1998 and 2000); makeshift models for sexy Postmodern beach houses (Strandhäuser zum Umziehen, Beach Houses for Undressing, 2000); and a lo-fi video about her grandparents’ house in winter in the Bavarian forest (Meine Großeltern im Bayrischen Wald, 1992). These and the Fuck the Bauhaus exhibition across the Atlantic – the must-see show of summer 2000 – would also help to set the stage for a shocking leap, a tour de force, a powerful and disturbing creative unleashing that arrived in the form of the 2003 Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death series first shown at Kunsthalle Zürich, a shift that has propelled her work ever since.

The sculptural group Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death was conceived in the wake of 9/11 when Genzken, like many others, was stranded in Manhattan and freaking out. Burkhard Riemschneider of gallery neugerriemschneider recently recounted hearing that during this time the artist was struggling with a sense of reality when faced with this unthinkable act. Only Empire Vampire III 13 (2004) refers directly to those horrific events, with images of the Twin Towers and a scene of mayhem on a platter before them. All these masterly assemblages oscillate between a 99-cent shop aesthetic and that of an exclusive department store. Toy soldiers and fantasy creatures next to fake silk flowers and designer crockery arranged on white boards brought up to eye level by white plinths – although these supports are part of the sculpture, not just display devices. The goings-on atop them are rendered even more psychologically weighty, even more of a balancing act because of the plain manner in which they elevate her assemblages. The works give a sense of rubbish or trash perhaps only because of the culturally toxic smorgasbord; the collisions and pile-ups they grotesquely articulate. Imagine the neutral figures of architectural models returning as zombies to the site of a cataclysm. Sculptural assaults entailing nightmarish shifts in scale, the works function a bit like a German expressionist deranging Marcel Broodthaers’s Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968–72). All of these works explore the impossible, biting relation of things and materials, symbols, representations and images, all from the globalized, violent and unjust world of now. To my mind, they are better and more effective than hours of hardcore documentary footage. Looking longer at these works’ intricacies, one feels the time and contemplation the artist has put into them – there is a deadly cold, analytic precision about their configuration. They are, perhaps paradoxically, not the result of a wild frenzy but, rather, a state more strangely akin to a couturier with an exacting eye bunching fabrics on models.

Around the same time Genzken also produced a series of Airbus window seat panels bespattered with paint and hung on hinges so that they might ever so slightly swing in the white cube breeze. In Genzken’s mind these works are also an homage to her artist hero Da Vinci’s flying machines – the Renaissance genius being preeminent for Genzken because he was an artist who wanted to do everything. Oil (2007), her contribution to the German Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, continued the themes of travel and flight – extending into outer space, and launching from the crazed, late-capitalist, profoundly mixed up world – a world which we inevitably internalize and take with us wherever we go. There, Genzken rendered the outside of the pavilion a building site with scaffolding and orange safety mesh, and the inside a partial hall of mirrors in which some of her sculptural figures lay on the floor or hung, seemingly defying gravity, zoned out, or lost in space.

There is no doubt that during her upcoming retrospective in New York, juries of all kinds will confer and pronounce on Genzken’s work to date. The planned exhibition will chronologically include examples from her entire oeuvre and thus invite over-arching interpretations and narratives. Moving between her paintings, photographs, collages, artist’s books, films and sculptures, one can assume that her genre-defying output will be brought to the fore.

Harfe, 2010/1, Mixed media

Through the lens of post-medium practice, Genzken’s work is less heterogeneous than commonly understood, more than just a progression of materials, aesthetic phases and new beginnings. In fact I now find myself thinking she has been incredibly consistent in a way that might now be more readily comprehensible. Perhaps the most self-evident, if complex, trajectory is that of Genzken’s post-Minimalism. ‘I was trying to get this balance between minimalism and something else beyond that – in dialogue with minimalism, but with content,’ she noted in a 2010 conversation with artist Simon Denny. She probably still does so. Minimalism’s dictums allowed a dialogue with space and architecture, materiality and the viewer that produced situations and constellations – these results are key to Genzken, even while she has continually sought ways to expand the already-expanded field they proposed.

Almost in direct confrontation with the formality and discipline of Minimalism, one can also think of her work – extrapolating from the title of a 1980s series of concrete radios entitled Weltempfänger (World Receiver, 1982/4–ongoing) – as channelling and transmitting news from the dark side of modernity. This provides an entirely different art historical lineage – one that might begin in the early 20th century with Dada and Surrealism, the drawings and paintings of Otto Dix, the collages of John Heartfield, or – in sculpture – with Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau (1923–43), albeit minus the entombing bau. This entails our subjectivities being at war with, and in critical disgust with, the world, but remaining undefeated.

To my mind, one of her greatest achievements of the last decade or so has been to then make the leap from this approach to the post-Warholian staging of the self, the fascination and horror with popular culture and glamorous hedonism. The contaminating, ruinous process of infection by, and then reflection of, the mainframe capitalist world. Hers is the anti-heroic struggle of the alienated subject for autonomy, however fantastical or artificial. Hence the allowance of camp, and deference to and identification with gay subcultures, the bar and the club as a place of refuge and as an aesthetically productive site – which all inflect her recent sculptures.

But should everything always be explained away? Why deconstruct an enigma so carefully constructed? With that in mind, let me take you back again to our first encounter in that noisy venue where everyone smoked, at a time when club and techno culture was already fading, just as the new Berlin contemporary art scene was about to expand exponentially. Not without trepidation, I went up to her – feeling like a rowboat bobbing up to a legendary, cliff-faced island with no mooring in sight. Friendly enough to a stranger, ‘you know what’, she said, ‘I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before …’ I was transfixed, as if before the Sphinx answering her own riddle. ‘Well …’ she said, leaning into my ear to murmur her secret. At that very moment the bass kicked in and her revelation was lost in the rhythmic digital din. Unburdened, she drew away and stared at me with a ‘so-there’ look and gleaming eyes. Daunted, I didn’t dare ask her to repeat herself. It just didn’t seem right. Whether it was profound or banal, perhaps ever since I’ve been looking for, imagining, and trying to piece together what she might have said.

Isa Genzken lives and works in Berlin. Her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, opens 23 November 2013 and runs until 10 March 2014. The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.