BY Barbara Preisig in Profiles | 09 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 3

Travelling Evidence

On postcards and an encounter with a Basel pioneer of Conceptual art

BY Barbara Preisig in Profiles | 09 NOV 11

Daniel Buren, photo souvenir, „Chez Georges“ in situ, Restaurateur Chez Georges, Paris, 1974 (back)

At the central art library in Berlin, I recently found my name on the back of a postcard which had been written in 1977: ‘Rolf and Barbara Preisig, Wettsteinallee 6, CH-4058 Basel.’ The postcard is part of the renowned Egidio Marzona collection, though at first glance, it looks like any normal postcard. Admittedly, the front is less than ideal as a photographic souvenir. The unspectacular view of the Chez Georges restaurant is almost entirely hidden behind awnings and a passing car. The key to the card is in the small print on the back, which reads: ‘On the awnings surrounding the restaurant at the corner of rue Débarcadère and boulevard Péreire, the 5th stripe from the right and the 5th stripe from the left have been covered on both of the awnings with white acrylic paint by Daniel Buren. Installed 22 September 1974.’ The actual sender of this card, then, was not Georges, but Buren, and the image documents one of his in situ works from 1974, where he employed his characteristic stripes. This postcard is a small work of art and a wonderful contemporary witness, having covered considerable distances on its circuitous journey from Paris to Berlin via Basel.

The recipient – my unknown namesake – and her connection to Buren aroused my particular interest. Browsing through the boxes and files of the collection, I came across Barbara less often, whilst there were multiple occurrences of the name Rolf Preisig, her husband at the time, who then also began to appear in the role of sender. The cards sent from Preisig’s gallery in the 1970s are invitations to Basel for exhibitions by Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, Bernd and Hilla Becher, On Kawara and also Buren. Thus Preisig was working right in the middle of this illustrious circle, a ‘who’s who’ of early Conceptual art that was gradually revealed through the names of the senders, artists and recipients in the archive.

Invitation cards were (and still are) a good networking tool and an indication of art-world status. Kawara consciously made use of the social implications of such postcards. Between 1968 and 1979, he sent an estimated 8,000 cards to his friends for the ‘I GOT UP AT…’ series. And they certainly counted their cards carefully. For those who were not already sure of their place in the conceptual art scene, receiving one of these postal gifts must have come as a sort of knighthood. Addressees included Kasper König, Konrad Fischer and Harald Szeemann. And again, Preisig.

After numerous similar encounters, I decided to look for Preisig – and went in the opposite direction of the postcards, so to speak: from the archive to the recipient to the sender, and back to the origins of their histories. The search was easy enough, for the name is well known; Preisig has been living in Zurich for a while. He has a beautiful flat with a view of the lake, owns countless books and a selection of art works that testify to his pioneering work as a gallerist, though he genuinely believes that no one is interested in them any more. He was one of the first to exhibit the founding fathers of Conceptual art in Switzerland, albeit with little success. He had to close his gallery for financial reasons as early as 1979. The fact that the Swiss art world still had little appreciation for Conceptual art by the end of the 1970s is certainly thought-provoking.

When I first visited Preisig, he told me about the 45 postcards Kawara had sent him from New York and Berlin in 1977. The amount on the stamps was often too little, so he had to pay a postage fee at the post office in order to take possession of the cards. As proof of payment, the clerk would adorn the card with an additional Swiss stamp, thereby completing the work of art. According to Preisig, the post office did its stamping and sticking incredibly assiduously back then. He loved those postcards dearly and now regrets having sold them to a gallerist friend in times of financial need. He does not know where they are now. But he finds it rather disconcerting to think that cards that were once addressed to him are now hanging in someone else’s flat. Nor would he have thought that his invitations might some day end up in the Berlin state museums, as part of the Marzona collection no less. When Marzona paid his former acquaintance an unexpected visit a few years ago, Preisig had willingly handed over a pile of invitations for a nominal sum. But he is gratified and happy to know that his work is now of public interest.

The postcards seem to continue their journey of their own accord. And actually that’s not a bad thing. They carry their own history of Conceptual art along with them. And when they are discovered, they always trace a sure path back to Preisig.
Translated by Jonathan Blower

Barbara Preisig is an art historian who lives and works in Zurich and Berlin. Her dissertation project investigates ephemeral forms of Conceptual art from the 1960s and ’70s.