This is Isa Genzken

22 November 2017

From the MoMA archive

On the occasion of the exhibition ‘Isa Genzken. Retrospective’ at MoMA, artists, curators and gallerists discuss the work of arguably one of the most important and influential female artists of the past 40 years.

Spanning almost 40 years of Genzken’s inventive, audacious, and deeply influential artwork, ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’ at The Museum of Modern Art brings together more than 150 objects in an astonishing variety of techniques, including assemblage, sculpture, painting, photography, collage, drawing, artist’s books, film, and large-scale installations.

A majority of the works in the exhibition are on view in the U.S. for the first time, including ‘Schauspieler (Actors)’ (2013), a large-scale installation, while others have rarely been publicly exhibited anywhere. Working across a diverse array of mediums, Genzken has been inspired by two grand themes: modernity and urban architecture. Her career has also unfolded in chapters, beginning in the late 1970s, and continuing without cease until today, when a new generation has been inspired by the artist’s radical inventiveness.

Ranging from large-scale sculptures that limn Constructivist and Minimalist aesthetics; to rougher, more overtly architectural concrete works that conjure ruins; to paintings, photographs, and found-object installations that have redefined assemblage for a new era, Genzken’s body of work represents both a rare artistic freedom and a disciplined, almost obsessive sensitivity toward the relationship of individuals to their sculptural surroundings.

Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken’, The Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013 © Isa Genzken / DACS 2020, New York. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Isa Genzken in her studio, 1982

The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning with Genzken’s more Minimalist-inflected sculptures from the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1972 Genzken enrolled at Düsseldorf’s Fine Arts Academy, where she studied under German painter Gerhard Richter. During this period Genzken created drawings, photographs, and, most significantly, a group of monumentally sized wooden floor sculptures called Hyperbolos and Ellipsoids. Genzken’s works from this early period reflect her growing fascination with the precision of both natural and manmade engineering, and with forms in space.

Notable works on view include Genzken’s first Ellipsoid work, ‘Gelbes Ellipsoid (Yellow Ellipsoid)’ (1976), and the 17-foot-long ‘Rot-schwarz-gelbes Ellipsoid ‘S.L. Popova’ (Red-Black-Yellow Ellipsoid ‘S.L. Popova’)’ (1981). In 1980, during one of her frequent trips to New York City, Genzken photographed the ears of female passersby in the streets of Manhattan, and one such work, ‘Ohr (Ear)’ (1980), is on view. Around this time, Genzken also made a group of works by photographing and enlarging advertisements for stereo systems from American, French, German, and Japanese magazines.

Genzken has often installed her photographs of hi-fi stereo equipment, in juxtaposition with her ear photographs and her Hyperbolo and Ellipsoid sculptures, likening the engineering of a state-of-the-art stereo system both to the intricate shape of the human ear and to the precision modeling of her sculptures.

Isa Genzken, Bild (Painting), 1989 © Isa Genzken / DACS 2020, New York. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken’, The Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013 © Isa Genzken / DACS 2020, New York. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The second section focuses on Genzken’s experimentation with rougher, more architectural materials like plaster, concrete, and steel. Between 1986 and 1991 she produced multiple series of free-standing concrete sculptures on high steel pedestals. Ranging in size from humble to monumental, these works resemble architectural maquettes and are titled in some cases after the kinds of buildings they represent.

Although their cubic forms and industrial materials connect them to a Minimalist aesthetic, their handmade quality and their resemblance to bombed-out ruins boldly fly in the face of Minimalism’s formalist rigors. Beautiful in their extreme austerity, they are also grim embodiments of the disillusion with modernist utopian visions that characterized post-modernity of the late 1980s. Pieces on view include the plaster works ‘Müllberg (Pile of Rubbish)’ (1984) and ‘Bank’ (1985) and the concrete-and-steel works ‘Rosa Zimmer (Pink Room)’ (1987), ‘Bild (Painting)’ (1989), and ‘Fenster (Window)’ (1990).  

In the late 1980s, Genzken began to experiment with painting. On view are works from the Basic Research series, which were painted over a four-year period using the technique of frottage. Placing a canvas covered in oil paint face-down on her studio floor, Genzken applied pressure with a large squeegee to create an impression in the painted surface. The results are part painting, part monoprint. In 1992 Genzken produced a series of paintings called MLR, an abbreviation for the phrase More Light Research.

Using spray paint and lacquer and stencils made from a variety of perforated materials, Genzken created an effect reminiscent of photograms—photographic images produced without a camera by placing objects on photosensitive paper and exposing the paper to light.

Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken’, The Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013 © Isa Genzken / DACS 2020, New York. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Isa Genzken, Schauspieler (Actors) [detail], 2013 © Isa Genzken / DACS 2020, New York. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The exhibition culminates with a series of room-sized installations that Genzken began in the late 1990s. In 1995, Genzken moved from Cologne to Berlin, and around the same time she shifted her artistic vocabulary toward collage and sculptural assemblage. As an artist who had experimented with film, Genzken understood the possibilities inherent in the juxtaposition of images and objects. Her keen appreciation of architectural materials and forms also allowed her to take advantage of unconventional materials purchased from hardware and houseware stores and also found in the street.

The urban architecture of Berlin and New York inspired some of her most significant sculptural series and installations beginning in the new millennium. By 2000, Genzken  began to create complex, multi-object installations that tackle subjects like the disposable global culture built around the consumption of cheap goods, and the economic underpinnings of contemporary warfare.

More like environments than series of objects, Genzken’s most recent works are the culmination of a 40-year examination of the intricate relationship between architecture and site, form and space, and sculpture and the gritty, material world that inspired it. Works on view include ‘Schwules Baby (Gay Baby)’ (1997), ‘Spielautomat (Slot Machine)’ (1999–2000), ‘Fuck the Bauhaus, New Buildings for New York’ (2000), ‘New Buildings for Berlin’ (2004), ‘Der Amerikanische Raum (The American Room)’ (2004), and ‘Ground Zero’ (2008).  Arranged in an area outside MoMA’s sixth floor galleries is ‘Schauspieler (Actors)’ (2013), a new, large-scale work that is on view for the first time.

This multipart installation, completed over the past year, features elaborately altered mannequins dressed in an assortment of clothes, collaged elements, and repurposed sculptural materials. Some of the clothes are Genzken’s own, while others were found or purchased. By calling this ensemble Schauspieler (Actors), Genzken suggests that by moving among them we, too, are actors in a theater or on a film set. The exhibition concludes in The Agnes Gund Garden Lobby with ‘Oil XI’ (2007), the centerpiece of a 16-part installation first exhibited in the German pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, which evokes the zeitgeist of a world in a state of terror.

The installation, with its accumulation of rolling suitcases, calls to mind a transit station that has suddenly been abandoned, perhaps due to an unseen threat. Three astronauts, identified as NASA employees by the insignia on their uniforms, float overhead, as if exploring the ruins of a devastated culture.  –  ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’ is the first major U.S. exhibition to encompass the artist’s oeuvre, on view at The Museum of Modern Art from 23 November 2013 – 10 March 2014.  ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’ is co-organized by The Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Dallas Museum of Art. The exhibition is organized by Sabine Breitwieser, Chief Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art (until January 31, 2013), and Laura Hoptman, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA; Michael Darling, the James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Jeffrey Grove, Senior Curator of Special Projects & Research, Dallas Museum of Art; with Stephanie Weber, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art, MoMA.