Reshaping Minimalism

In a major survey at The Serpentine Gallery, London, German conceptual sculptor Reiner Ruthenbeck explores geometric forms often found in everyday materials.

The artist Reiner Ruthenbeck (b. 1937), whose work is currently the subject of a major survey at the Serpentine Gallery, London, once remarked of one of his sculptures that “there must be something random about it, but in order to get there it must be quite composed.” This paradox, which will ring true for any artist who has ever attempted to make something look improvised or thrown together, is one of the fundamental tenets of Ruthenbeck’s aesthetic: a minimalist practice that involves just enough intervention in his everyday materials to reveal something surprising and seemingly “random” in their shapes, composition and spatial relationships. It’s for this reason that the term “readymade” misses the mark when it comes to Ruthenbeck’s work. He

may use objects and materials taken from the outside world, but in subtle ways, he transforms them, making his practice one that has moved towards exploring the “immaterial” even while making use of everyday materials.

Ruthenbeck began his career as a photographer from 1956 to 1962. In 1962 he was accepted by Joseph Beuys onto his renowned course at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf at a time when his contemporaries included the artists Gerhard Richter, Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke. While there, Ruthenbeck very quickly developed an aesthetic style and a set of concerns that, although influenced in part by Beuys and the interest among many of the Kunstakademie in Arte Povera and Minimalism, were also distinct from them in a rigorous commitment to exploring geometric shapes and forms. Ruthenbeck has remarked that his relationship with Beuys was “teacher-student, but not in the sense that I was a student of Beuys and would consciously execute his teachings. I wanted to do my own work.”

The period from 1968 to 1972 saw the creation of Ruthenbeck’s best known series, a sequence of Aschehaufen, or ash heaps. These mounds consist of materials such as ash, slag, and paper, arranged in piles and cone-forms of various sizes. Included in Harald Szeemann’s renowned exhibition When Attitudes Becomes Form at the Kunsthalle Berlin in 1969, we see Ruthenbeck’s desire to create forms that erase or resist the tie of the work of art to the physical material object. In an interview with Ruthenbeck conducted this year and published in the Serpentine Gallery’s booklet, the celebrated curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist remarks that Ruthenbeck “Ultimately wanted to overcome matter at some point, just as Brancusi did, so that the work of art wouldn’t be so bound to matter any more.” The Aschehaufen can be seen to reduce art to pure material, while on another level they in fact resist this impulse because the material they consist of refuses to cohere into one solid object. The piles are made up of thousands of individual parts, arranged in a certain way which is temporary, fragile and malleable. However, in order to create this effect, the ash has to be tipped onto wire structures. Their coherence in a pile or shape is, in essence, an illusion and a paradox.

If these works demonstrate an interest in reducing art to pure material, this is balanced by another impulse, which is towards the conceptual. His piles of ash are loaded with connotative conceptual content, especially in the historical context of mid-20th century Germany. This includes not only the recent history of World War II but also the industrial waste and pollution of the Ruhr area where Ruthenbeck grew up. By attempting to reduce his works to pure material, Ruthenbeck amplifies the intellectual associative content of what he uses because all matter has some meaning, even when he is using blank sheets of paper as in Weißer Papierhaufen (1979).

In works such as Umgekippte Möbel (1971), Ruthenbeck makes sculptures out of seemingly everyday and utilitarian objects such as chairs and tables. By inverting them onto their sides and even corners, Ruthenbeck diverts attention away from their regular functions and instead focuses the viewer’s mind onto them as geometric shapes and formal structures. Often, it is the gaps of air within the structures that become the most interesting places to look, the places where space and line intersect. These works also challenge the impulse of the observer in relation to the objects, by facing the subject with objects presented in a subtly unconventional and confrontational way. The strong impulse of the viewer is to normalise the furniture by turning it over again to be “the right way up”. As Ruthenbeck has remarked, these works were borne of an experiment: “I tipped over a single chair and photographed it. Then the housekeeper came in, saw the chair that was lying on the floor and set it upright straight away. She didn’t ask why it was that way.”

The Serpentine Gallery is displaying some of Ruthenbeck’s photographs alongside their counterpart conceptual and sculptural realisations. In this way, the photographs are almost source or research material for the development of his practice. There are a number of photographs of overturned furniture, which form a counterpoint to the sculptural installations. However, the contrast in the experience of the works as photographs on a flat two dimensional page to a three dimensional sculpture is also something that animates Ruthenbeck’s work. In the case of the Umgekippte Möbel installation, while these are objects in three dimensions, the viewer is not able to walk around them, which lends them a sense of being a stage set. This is also part of the challenge to the viewer, who cannot normalise the sculpture by turning them the correct way up. The photographs of these works are one step further away from the function and normality of the everyday object.

Dopelleiter (1967) is a sculpture that consists of two intertwined ladders linked together so that they stand up, balancing by the pull of each ladder on the other. This work explores the physical force that keeps the ladders upright but also renders them functionally useless as ladders. The artist explores the spaces within and between the rungs of the ladders in which one ladder joins and overlaps the other, creating geometric shapes and voids. Other works also make use of instantly recognisable everyday objects which are subtly transformed. Koffer (1968), for example, is a suitcase with holes cut into it displayed with a soundtrack by the Danish Fluxus artist Henning Christiansen in which he repeats a phrase which means “you have chosen this”. Both of these works, while utilising everyday objects, also explore objects with significant art historical resonance. In particular, they connect Ruthenbeck’s work to one of his most formative influences: his encounter with Surrealism when he lived in Paris in the 1950s. Ruthenbeck’s exploration of objects from surrealist art, such as ladders and suitcases, involves a similar transformation of these objects into imaginary space.

Ruthenbeck has also donated the work Taschenspiegel (1970) to the gallery for the exhibition. This piece consists of a blacked-out mirror, again confronting the viewer with an everyday object in which its function has been subtly erased in order to focus the attention on its shape and form. However, this piece also encourages the viewer to engage in such a way that they do see a reflection of themselves, whether that is a shadow from the gallery lights or an optical illusion caused by staring at something black for a period of time. This minimal piece encapsulates many of Ruthenbeck’s most recurrent themes: the gentle unsettling of expectations in relation to found, everyday objects and an exploration of contrast in relation to light and dark materials.

Another major work to be included in the exhibition is Zwielicht / Entre Chien et Loup (1971-1992). The title comes from an expression in French for “twilight,” which translates as “between a dog and a wolf.” As Obrist remarks, the work is “a big room with no objects” illuminated by “a very weak lightbulb.” Serpentine Gallery curator Amira Gad has described how this (Zwielicht / Entre Chien et Loup) is a “centre piece” within the exhibition, occupying a kind of empty void around which the rest of the object-based exhibits are arranged. There is therefore in the composition of the exhibition itself an interest in the “hard edges or corners of the space” as well as the less distinct edges of the dim light of “zwielicht” translated from the German as twilight. Ruthenbeck’s interest is in “duality and opposition”, in this case between light and dark, where twilight is the meeting point between the two oppositions. He notes, “a sense of darkness must be generated in which one may, however, perceive just a little.” Again one’s attention is drawn to the intersection of light and dark, empty space, and the limits of the space.

Ruthenbeck’s interest in light, dark and contrast might also be influenced by his early practice as a photographer. The light level in the installation Zwielicht / Entre chien et Loup (1971) is rather like a photographic dark room or a darkened cinema auditorium, as if Ruthenbeck is creating an environment in which the viewer is the image to be exposed. The contrast between light and dark in conjunction with space and edges is also evident in Eckenraute 200 (1985) and Kleines schräges Quadrat auf Aluminiumstreifen (1991). These feature black squares painted onto a white wooden panel or white sticks. Understated and minimal, they might perhaps at first be missed by the viewer who might only gradually realise that they are there as artworks in the exhibition. They are, in a sense, sculpture as drawings made onto the walls of the exhibition to reveal aspects of the space. Ruthenbeck focuses attention onto the space surrounding and in between the objects rather than the specific shapes of the objects themselves. His interest in the polarity between black and white is an interest in the point at which they meet.

Another work that embodies and explores duality and contrast is the outdoor sculpture Encounter Between a Black and White Horse (1997). Ruthenbeck is adamant that this is a kinetic public sculpture rather than a performance piece. A white horse and a black horse ride towards each other in a circle and meet again and again. The opposing colours of the horses is one striking dynamic, as is the continuous emergence and disappearance of the circle. The horses continuously ride towards one another but the circle is not mapped out on the floor by anything tangible. The circle is both there and not there; it appears and disappears in the horses’ movements. It also subtly changes and fluctuates each time. The piece explores shape as a constant presence or energy in our minds even when not physically manifest.

There is also a meditative or spiritual element to many of these works, present in conjunction with some of the political and philosophical content. Ruthenbeck has at points in his life been very interested in Vedic philosophy, that is to say, the polarity between an undivided pure self and a self
that is aware of itself. The dynamic of something fluctuating between being there and not there at the same time, such as in Encounter Between a Black and White Horse and also Zwielicht / Entre Chien et Loup is similar to the experience of meditating and approaching a kind of revelation or liminal, transitional experience which is by its nature elusive and immaterial.

The writer Victor Hugo once wrote that “the need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.” His point is a paradox of the sort Ruthenbeck draws when he describes his work as being “random” on the one hand and “composed” on the other. Similarly, it’s the same contradiction when his work can be said to explore “the immaterial” even as it embodies familiar and everyday materials. It is perhaps in the paradox of pushing the materiality of objects to their limits,
to the pole at which they meet their opposite, that something immaterial can be approached, which as soon as it is named as such in the context of an artwork or art object, disappears as quickly and as fleetingly as it appears.

Ultimately, like the circle that the black and white horses trace out
through their movements, the immaterial is both there and not there, both achievable and not achievable. As Ruthenbeck himself wrote in 2006: “We are moving towards immaterial art, yet we only approach it in small steps”.

Reiner Ruthenbeck is at The Serpentine Gallery until 15 February. For further information, visit

Colin Herd