BY Phoebe Philo AND Marko Gluhaich in Opinion | 12 SEP 23
Featured in
Issue 237

Isa Genzken’s Enduring Sartorial Influence

For Phoebe Philo, the legendary artist is a benchmark of style

BY Phoebe Philo AND Marko Gluhaich in Opinion | 12 SEP 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 237, 'Threads'

I don’t recall my first encounter with Isa Genzken’s work – there wasn’t a specific show or even a memorable moment. My initial experience of her practice was more of a subconscious attraction to several different works that built up until I finally noticed it all was coming from one person. Since the early 2000s, I’ve looked to Genzken time and time again: her unique aesthetic and her commitment to her practice are impressive to witness. There is risk and range in her work, which encompasses sculpture, installation, photography and collage. While Genzken has and does discuss her practice beautifully, she doesn’t seem to want to define it. There is a fluidity across her career in her not being definite, not stopping, not explaining – in moving on. There is a conceptual depth to Genzken in her exploration of consumerism, globalization, architecture and identity, and her engagement with socio-political responses.

Isa Genzken, Ohr, 1981, chromogenic colour print, 70 × 47 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Her work provokes emotionally and intellectually, encouraging us to reflect on our society and its complexities – or, perhaps, just on how we are feeling that day. After visiting her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2013, I felt energized and excited but, above all, moved.

Some of Genzken’s works – including her collaborative installation with Wolfgang Tillmans, Science Fiction/hier und jetzt zufrieden sein (2001) – I have seen only in photos. Nevertheless, that work is something I go back to for the scale, the forms, the lines, the piecing together, the reflections. There is an architectural aspect to Genzken’s practice: her artistic language and unconventional approach all look so right to me. Genzken says that ‘putting yourself in the viewer’s shoes’ is important to her. You see it in the ‘Ohr (Ear)’ series (1980) – beautiful, organic, large-scale photos of anonymous women’s ears – and in installations like her ‘Schauspieler (Actors)’ series (2013–16) of clothed mannequins, whose compositions, arrangements, colours and materials are brilliant. Her sense of fashion and style is great. I love where her eye takes her and what she includes – the shoes, masks, sunglasses, hats, scarves, jackets and so forth. Genzken notices and acknowledges what speaks to her by translating it into her work. 

Isa Genzken, Schauspieler II, 6, 2014, mannequin and mixed media, 180 × 65 × 50 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

There is so much to the varied aesthetic that Genzken has built up. Pieces like her ‘Ellipsoids’ (1976–82) look industrially manufactured but were, in fact, carefully made with her own hands; others that might, at a glance, look scattered, like Spielautomat (Slot Machine) (1999–2000), are in fact rigorous, clear and focused in both concept and execution. The intensity and, perhaps, obsession behind Genzken’s work commands your attention. 

I return to Genzken as a kind of benchmark when I’m getting bored or restless in my own practice. Looking at her art stimulates me and reminds me of her fearless searching that’s always rooted in reality. Genzken makes complexity acceptable: she doesn’t shy away from it and makes that clear in her language and output. She doesn’t allow herself to be tied down; she desires to move things forwards; she views modernity in terms of progress; and she doesn’t get stuck in a particular movement or group. All these qualities make her kind of untouchable to me, her viewer.

Isa Genzken, Spielautomat, 1999-2000, slot machine, paper, chromogenic colour prints, tape, plastic foil, 160 × 65 × 50 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Genzken takes herself seriously. Her practice is intense, challenging and powerful. But, as she so brilliantly says in ‘Statement 2’ (2005): ‘Art and architecture should avoid all Fascistoid tendencies. They should go along merrily and cheerfully, light-heartedly and intelligently.’ I love that. 

As told to Marko Gluhaich

This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘Untouchable’

Main image: Isa Genzken, Untitled, 2018, installation, five mannequins, garments, ladder, plastic tube, glasses, adhesive tape, printed paper, plastic foil, foam material, spray can, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Phoebe Philo is founder and creative director of her eponymous fashion house.

Marko Gluhaich is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.