Constructing Sculpture

German artist Isa Genzken’s first major American retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art will engage the senses and the mind in an all-out immersive exhibition.

In a 2006 Frieze magazine article German artist Isa Genzken was posed the question: “What is your favourite building?” Her response? “Empire State Building”: a fitting answer for an artist whose oeuvre displays her interest and fascination with construction, architecture, large-scale sculpture and the New York skyscraper. Genzken (b. 1948) is largely unknown in the USA, although she has a firm, extensive following within Europe. Included in the 2007 Venice Biennale as well as having solo shows at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2009); Malmö Konsthall, Malmö (2008); and Wiener Secession, Vienna (2006), she is the subject of a long-awaited major retrospective at MoMA, New York. Her first retrospective in the USA, the exhibition of Genzken is described by curator Laura Hoptman as the discovery of a new treasure: “It’s like going to Egypt and finding the tomb of a great Pharaoh.” The show begins with Genzken’s crafted minimalist sculptures – structurally engineered and with a very obvious architectural basis – and culminate with her series of assemblages and installations that she is most well known for creating.

Primarily considered a sculptor, her work has evolved quite distinctly from constructed sculpture made of wood and concrete to assemblage sculpture made of plastic, cardboard, mirrored plates, toy soldiers, crockery and what can only be described as cultural detritus. Her early concrete sculptures intrinsically reference architecture, carpentry and architectonics. Dan Graham, Carl Andre and Lawrence Weiner were major influences in these early minimalist works, with Weiner’s “interruptions” into the building’s fabric most familiar to Genzken’s own defragmentation of the object.

Genzken studied alongside Thomas Struth and Thomas Schütte at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf during the 1970s, graduating in 1977, and was exposed to Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke, both working in Düsseldorf during the period. Out of this masculine atmosphere, she became driven by an interest in the physicality of structures and how they interact in space.

Genzken, in an interview with Simon Denny in Mousse Magazine (2010), says: “That was always the thing with minimalism; there was no content allowed of course, but only the thing in the space, that was what Sol LeWitt was always about, and Carl Andre – it was all about avoiding content.” She achieves this visual simplicity early on by using computer modelling to achieve a refined, clean line, but then attacks the minimalist form by removing segments, adding colours – in essence, adding narrative. The addition of paint, a smooth synthetic coating, onto these perfect forms makes them redolent of the Polish / Romanian artist André Cadere’s Barre des bois rond (Round Wooden Bars) (1970-78), long wooden bars consisting of coloured pieces of wood that he would engage with in the public realm, the bars often accompanying him to private views – and the pub.

Cadere’s wooden bars were tools of social engagement and intervention whereas Genzken’s early wooden sculptures were referential: referencing architecture and the changing tools of the profession in its artistic and scientific form through computer modelling. These long wooden floor sculptures were shown, but never as broadly as her concrete sculptures from the 1980s. Lisa Lee, in a 2007 October  article, describes the concrete sculptures as “exploiting the irregularities of the material, further exacerbating its grittiness with raw edges and uneven horizontal breaks.” It is difficult to imagine, after viewing the smooth surfaces of her wooden sculptures, that she was able to shift so quickly in terms of material and her mastery of it, yet Genzken was rigorous in her attack, wanting to find and claim her own medium.

Gerhard Richter, her former husband and ex-professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, was both an influence and a collaborator. One often hesitates to mention her 11-year marriage (which dissolved in the early 1990s) as it automatically denigrates her own status as an artist. Her relationship with Richter was an important element in shaping her career in terms of her persona and her artistic development. The exchange of ideas with Richter manifested itself in their mutual interest in the transformative abilities of the photograph, as it exists as more than a pictorial document reproduced in the newspaper. Though Genzken is first and foremost a sculptor, she has long maintained and explored the medium of photography, and the dissolution of her marriage and her consequent depression led her to investigate the various utilities of the camera. Her series of black and white photographs from 1990 to 1992, in which she colluded with a doctor at the local hospital to use an X-ray machine to “photograph” her skeletal portrait, are eerie but engaging. Included in her 1992 exhibition at The Renaissance Society (University of Chicago), Everybody Needs a Window, these images expose the aggressive nature of the X-ray, literally getting underneath one’s skin, whilst simultaneously emphasising the subtlety of light inherent in the medium. The X-ray only truly comes to life as an assertive form once placed on a light machine, otherwise it exists as a pallid, latent incarnation. The various qualities of light are persistently explored in Genzken’s work, whether through her use of mirrors, light ropes, windows or the photographic image itself.

The window as a framing device is an integral motif for Genzken, not just as a voyeuristic element as with Windscreen 2 (2008) – where a cracked car windscreen protrudes from the gallery wall, lending the audience a fractured view of a framed image of an anonymous nude male and female embracing – but as an architectural framework. This device is most obviously used with New York Skyscrapers, (2005), a work consisting of four aluminium panels mounted with photographs of the mirrored window facades of the city’s skyscrapers but also notably in early works such as Fenster (1992) and Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster (1993).

Hoptman cites the period of 1995 to 2000 as the turning point in Genzken’s career: she moved from Cologne to Berlin and started working with collage and assemblage. Fuck the Bauhaus (2000) was the first time her “full-blown assemblage voice” came out, and identified her more specifically with these narrative, large-scale assemblages. Genzken, like the American painter and sculptor Paul Thek (1933-1988), was relatively unknown throughout her early career outside Europe. Thek worked in a similar vein to Genzken, producing large-scale environments and installation and, though famous in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t until his retrospective at the Castello di Rivara (Turin, Italy) in 1992 that America took notice of his work.

Thankfully, Genzken has been recognised in her lifetime in the country that for so long has captured her imagination. Thek, like Genzken, created “narrative sculptures and environments,” each immersive work having the ability to be read vis-à-vis the materials, objects and the placement of various elements within the overall schema. There is something unnerving about these narratives: with Disco ‘Soon’ (Ground Zero)  (2008) the placement of mirrored plates, coloured light ropes (reminiscent of the festivity of Christmas celebrations), cardboard, MDF and plastic has a haphazard quality that is disquieting. Even without the title, which necessarily leads the audience into one frame of mind and reference, there is a slightly harsh element to the work, the aftermath of the disco, rather than the impending party.

It is this dichotomy between text and image that firmly cements Genzken’s position as one of the leading artists of her time. Unlike Mike Kelley or Jason Rhoades, coming out from the West Coast school of installation immersive art, Genzken came out from a firmly masculine tendency within Europe but one that wholeheartedly embraced a new public experience of art. Jan Hoet, in the exhibition catalogue for the 1986 Ghent exhibition Chambres d’Amis, describes this: “The sculpture is no longer at ease on its socle – if it still has one. The sculpture is often not even standing. It is hanging or lying, branching, sprawling in the room, sometimes crumbled to pieces and scattered over the floor. Art seems to be running wild, it has lost its regular place, its centre.” For Hoet, this was not a negative aspect of the changing face of art as he goes on to say: “This phenomenon does not grieve the contemporary artist; on the contrary, it fills him with abundant force and vital stimuli.”

This “abundant force and vital stimuli” which Hoet spoke of is manifest in all aspects of Genzken’s work. With Oil, which will be occupying MoMA’s lobby and was first exhibited in the German Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), we see Genzken at her apogee. The pavilion, which was shrouded in scaffolding and bright mesh, appeared to be under construction – a work in progress. Upon entering the Ernst Heiger-designed pavilion, the viewer encountered a series of three-dimensional environments and assemblages. The work is a labyrinth to be negotiated and read by the viewer and space is a key element of this; it’s important to remember her time at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf alongside Beuys, Richter and Weiner as they each, in their own way, exhibit the same emphasis in their work.

Anny de Decker, co-founder of the infamous Belgian gallery, Wide White Space, of the 1960s and 1970s, described space as “something mysterious, an element which had only recently found its way into people’s consciousness.” Wide White Space was perhaps one of the most eminent and important European galleries during the period, exhibiting Marcel Broodthaers and Beuys, amongst others. It led the way towards a new approach to installing and exhibiting art, famously placing Broodthaers’ Casserole of Mussels  (1964) on the gallery floor: “It was something altogether new to show an object without any kind of presentation – without a pedestal and without any Plexiglass.” Genzken existed within a revolutionary period of artistic production and stimulus, being exposed to new modes of creation and exhibition, where the artist was no longer tied to the conventional, traditional forms of display.

The skyline of New York City is revisited, like many subjects, in Genzken’s work. Her post-9/11 series, Empire / Vampire, Who Kills Death (2002-2003), a set of assemblages placed on top of white plinths, directly references the changed NYC skyline. The symmetry and emptiness of the plinths appears at odds with the shambolic constructions that rest on top: these are hardly chaotic though as each element, whether it’s a wine glass or a toy soldier, is precisely placed within the seeming disorder. Genzken was living in New York at the time of the terrorist attacks and the series was a way of dealing with the unreality of what was occurring – of making sense of the mayhem.

Her (roughly concurrent) series New Buildings for Berlin (2001-2003), exhibited at Documenta 11, consisted of brightly coloured models of glass high-rises. Berlin contains few of these buildings, fanciful in their colouring and visually at odds with the traditional grey stone of historical Berlin, but they display Genzken’s yearning for a utopian, bright, urban geography. This is visually articulated again in her outdoor public sculptures, with Rose II  (2007), a 28-foot-tall painted stainless steel and aluminium rendition of a rose, which was exhibited on the outside of the New Museum, New York City, 2010-2013. Genzken seems to be pointing out the inadequacies and failings of contemporary architects to celebrate the urban environment.

Her self-portrait as a slot-machine, Spielautomat (Slot Machine) (1999-2000), features an image of Genzken (taken by her friend and fellow-artist Wolfgang Tillmans) on top of a slot machine covered in snapshots and found photographs. She is alluding to the elements of chance and danger inherent in gambling as well as in life. For an artist who has been subject to the vagaries of the art world throughout her career, coming to fame mid-career, and only as a result of being displayed alongside younger artists, points to these uncertainties of fate. As an audience, we are lucky that MoMA has taken this chance on a fantastic European artist.

Isa Genzken: Retrospective is on at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 10 March. Please visit for further information.

Niamh Coghlan