The collection of Helga & Walther Lauffs presents a uniquely coherent ensemble of art from the ’60s and ’70s, the period in which the parameters of painting and sculpture were flung open and radically re-imagined. Comprising of superlative examples of Pop Art, Arte Povera, New Realism, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism and Conceptual Art, the collection grants a complex dialogue between the major American and European art movements of the period, inflected by the Lauffs’s distinctive personal outlook. Hauser & Wirth Zürich will display over 40 works by Joseph Beuys, Mel Bochner, Lee Bontecou, Christo, Joseph Cornell, Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, Lucio Fontana, Eva Hesse, On Kawara, Yves Klein, Joseph Kosuth, Jannis Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Piero Manzoni, John McCracken, Mario Merz, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Giulio Paolini, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Dieter Roth, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, Richard Tuttle, Cy Twombly, Günther Uecker, Tom Wesselmann and Douglas Wheeler.
In the late ’60s, Bad Honnef-based industrialist Walther Lauffs and his wife Helga became interested in putting together an extensive collection of contemporary art. For guidance, they approached Paul Wember, who was known for the visionary programme of contemporary art that he developed as the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld from 1947 to 1976 and was described by Die Zeit as ‘an absolute eye’. Among the important exhibitions that Wember organised at the museum and its affiliated exhibition spaces at Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Lange and Haus Esters were those that presented works by Yves Klein (1961), Robert Rauschenberg (1964), Marcel Duchamp (1965), Fred Sandback and Sol LeWitt (both 1969). When they met in 1968, Walther Lauffs proposed to Wember that, in exchange for his invaluable advice and guidance with the acquisition of art works for their collection, these pieces would be made available on long-term loan to his museum so that new artistic perspectives and currents could be presented to the public. Thus Wember and the Lauffs set forth in a collaboration and friendship that would continue through the 1970s, together building a singularly focused collection of art that represents the nexus of European and American artistic sensibilities of the post-war era.
The Lauffs’s engagement with the art of their time was engendered within the context of a burgeoning German art scene that was marked by an interest in progressive art. There was a growing body of contemporary work coming out of Germany in the post-war years with artists, ranging from Joseph Beuys to those who formed Group Zero, who were interested in radically new modes of expression. There was, moreover, an influx of international art that would greatly influence artists and the public alike, with large-scale exhibitions such as Documenta in Kassel (the first of which was presented in 1955), and Harald Szeemann’s seminal 1969 show at the Kunsthalle Bern, Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, which travelled to Krefeld, opening Wember’s newly renovated Haus Lange museum. To build their collection, Wember led the Lauffs to major public exhibitions (from which they were often able to acquire work), to the Art Cologne art fair (founded by Hein Stünke and Rudolf Zwirner in 1967), to artists’ studios, and to the growing number of pioneering gallerists that came to prominence in Germany (such as Alfred Schmela, Rolfe Ricke and Konrad Fischer). The Lauffs also purchased work from influential gallerists outside Germany, including Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, whose visionary sensibility for contemporary art matched theirs in its embrace of American and European avant-garde work.
At the heart of the collection are artworks by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, a triumvirate of European artists whose paintings contributed to the most radical rethinking of the canvas in art history. Their works pre-date most of the Lauffs’s acquisitions and their historical context, which initiated a new chapter in contemporary art, sets the tone of the collection. In their pieces, innovation was accompanied by abrasive sensibility and raw sexual politics. Klein, who had long been championed by Wember, had abandoned the traditional tools of painting in favour of the graphic imprints of women’s bodies pressed against his canvases. Three important Klein works from the collection are on display at Hauser & Wirth Zürich: Anthropométrie (ANT 110) (1960), a classic example of the artist’s signature series of body-print paintings; Cosmogonie (COS 26) (1961) painted in his trademarked ‘International Klein Blue’; and Feuerbild (F 92) (1961), literally burn-marks, which here become the destructive instruments of beauty.
Violence inflicted on the canvas and on womankind is even more pronounced in Fontana’s iconic ‘Tagli’ paintings, a word meaning both cut and, in slang, vagina in Italian. Slashing thickly painted monochromes with a razor-sharp knife, the artist then splayed the hole he had made with his fingers forming injuries to the canvas and to the tradition of painting as a whole in a seminal, nihilistic action which opened painting up to the world. In Concetto Spaziale (1962), featuring a repeatedly stabbed red form, the simplicity of his cuts has been further debased by their multiplication.
Achrome (1959), literally ‘without colour’, is an early work in a series that made Manzoni’s reputation and which he continued until his death at the age of 30. This series of all-white works progressively mounted an assault on the assumed purity of the canvas. Beginning simply as folded sheets of cotton coated in kaolin (a fine clay used in porcelain), Manzoni introduced more and more artificial white elements culminating in blond curls of fibreglass, a caustic refutal of the high-minded ambition of the monochrome tradition.
Folded white material in lieu of stretched canvas is developed very differently in Christo’s wrapped forms, which transform what is hidden into a site of spectacle. The artist was commissioned to create a special project for the Haus Lange museum in 1971, and the drawings he made for this form part of the collection. Two important earlier works by Christo, rectangular white packages composed from fabric, plastic foil, tulle sack and string, are also on display at Hauser & Wirth Zürich. Both entitled Empaquetage (1961 and 1963), their taut concept contains the germ for the artist’s later site-specific projects. Dwelling on surface nuances without the distraction of bold colour, Cy Twombly created The Castle, a magnificent painting dating from 1958. His lines, executed in lead pencil on top of oil paint, slide and scumble across his canvas, furrowing a cryptic palimpsest upon its surface.
If these works defy the traditional distinction between the canvas and what lies outside it through radically indexical mark-making, other works in the collection implicate the world directly through their materials. The blueprint described for a new kind of art by Allan Kaprow in 1958 that ‘Objects of every sort are material for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists’ is verified by the sheer heterogeneity of the works in the collection. Indeed, the catalogue ‘Sammlung Helga und Walther Lauffs im Kaiser Wilhelm Museum Krefeld’ (1983), echoed Kaprow’s statement, explaining: ‘These artists do not have to travel to the South Seas like Gauguin or visit the ethnographic collections in museums like the Cubists anymore to experience a different reality at first hand; a walk to the New York harbour, where Richard Serra discovers a huge depot full of rubber pieces – and the spark flies.’ Serra’s White Neon Belt Piece (1967), made out of vulcanized rubber, neon tubes, cable, iron clips and a transformer suspended from the wall, uses the properties of his materials and their capitulation to gravity to create a composition of great lyrical beauty. Confirming his direction as a process-based sculptor with a remarkable responsiveness to materials, it proved a breakthrough piece for him. Another rare piece by Serra, the oilstick on canvas work Black Orchid from 1974, will also be on display at Hauser & Wirth Zürich.
The close interests and dialogue between Serra’s sculptures and what was to be called Arte Povera, in part due to the year Serra spent in Italy in 1966, can be clearly perceived in solitario solidale (solitary solidarity), a sculpture made by Mario Merz in 1968. Here an aluminium casserole dish, beeswax, neon writing and an electrical component are invested with metaphysical significance in order to comment upon the socio-political context of the late ’60s. Other Arte Povera works in the collection include Ragazza in minigonna (1967) by Michelangelo Pistoletto and a series of twelve watercolours by Jannis Kounellis (1974).
The Lauffs’s interest in materials is evident also in canvas-based and collage works that they acquired by American artists. Tom Wesselmann’s Nude No. 42 (1962), one of several purchases of important single works by Pop artists, takes the anti-illusionist step of incorporating fabric in its design; Claes Oldenburg’s stunning Studies for Store Objects – Petticoat, Flag, Gun (1961); and Lee Bontecou’s exemplary Composition (1965), a polyester, steel and canvas wall-construction which straddles painting and sculpture through the insistence and power of its physicality.
The collection also contains prime examples of Minimalist art. A 1965 work by Richard Tuttle, Yellow Curves, two tentatively arched painted forms made from plywood, alters the traditional distinction between image and support, of work and surrounding space. It is in dialogue with Think Pink (1967), a highly-polished rectangular plank by John McCracken, which similarly complicates the Minimalist pursuit of purity and rigour through its provocative colour and casual placement against a wall. Two works by Fred Sandback, Untitled (Vertical two-part corner piece) (1968) and Untitled (1969), together with an early piece by Sol LeWitt, Modular Structure (1966), further provoke the dissolution between art and its environment, the tangible and the imaginary. Sandback’s elastic cord construction describes the outlines of non-existent forms, working, as he put it, ‘at the point at which all ideas fall apart’, while LeWitt’s structure consists of three square frames in the corner of a room as though to negate both sculpture and painting by literally emptying them out. In Doug Wheeler’s neon Untitled (1969), however, the outline of a square suggests transcendent possibilities, enveloping the viewer in a seductive, ethereal environment of light.
From the ’70s onwards, influenced by the example of Szeemann’s Live in Your Head and Documenta V (1972), the collection expanded to include works by the Conceptual artists Joseph Kosuth (represented by two early pieces in the development of Conceptual art, Lamp (one and five) (1965) and Statement (Art as Idea as Idea) (1966), On Kawara, Jan Dibbets and Hanne Darboven. Meanwhile the sculptural emphasis of the collection was consolidated by the acquisition of a number of key works. These include Joseph Cornell’s Polaris (1969), an important boxed assemblage featuring printed papers, compass and needle, and Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (1965), the first of his ‘hard-edged’ fibreglass works to be wall-mounted. This piece was cast as a single unit using a wood-and-corrugated-cardboard model and relates closely to the casts of negative spaces that Nauman began making in the same year. Its outer ring is of a mottled-grey green and yellowish tones within clear to milky translucent resin; its inner ring has pink, brown, grey and white pigmented inflections. With its subtle colouration and emphasis upon framing, this sculpture shares concerns with a work Eva Hesse made near the end of her life, a gouache from her ‘Window Series’ (1969), in which the tremulous accumulation of semi-transparent washes and fine pencil marks allude to the layering process she had recently undertaken in her latex sculptures.
In the latter period of their collecting, the Lauffs also acquired a work by Dieter Roth, an artist who stood out as a vital, maverick figure in the ’60s art world. In some ways Vom Rhein (From the Rhine) (1970), a miniature landscape spread across three iron sheets, is one of the most influential works in the collection. Its smattering of broken toys wantonly upended in a messy scenery of cake-icing is an instance of Roth’s anarchic embrace of decay and destruction which paved the way for some of the most innovative installation and performance artists of the next generation.
The exhibition follows two related presentations at Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner in May.