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Isa Genzken at her exhibition at Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, 1989. All images © Isa Genzken / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York, Photo: Jan Jedlicka
01 May 2020

The Possibilities of Sculpture: Sabine Breitwieser on Isa Genzken

For our 2020 Isa Genzken exhibition ‘Window’ at Hauser & Wirth London, Sabine Breitwieser sheds light on the German sculptor’s ever-evolving practice and legacy. Breitwieser organized the major 2013 MoMA retrospective of the artist’s work, bringing Genzken’s work to a wider audience and cementing her place as a leading figure in contemporary art history. Through Breitwieser’s extensive research and admiration for the artist, it is clear that Genzken’s work is based on rigorous and continuous experimentation, resisting any singular formal identity. Yet, the window has been a continuous thread throughout the artist’s multi-decade career, either as leitmotif, an investigation into interior/exterior or the reorientation of perspective. Genzken’s oeuvre has an unparalleled influence on a younger generation of artists and has renewed significance in our current times. With her airplanes, Breitwieser explains, ‘Now, she had created a setting with seating, the gallery became an airplane. ‘Where are we taking off to?’—she asks.’

When did you first encounter Isa Genzken’s work?
It must have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s when I first saw her concrete sculptures on metal plinths. I was confused by these hybrid objects of ruins, and as if from archeological excavations, they are incredibly refined objects. Genzken placed them on slim metal constructions with long legs so you would look into them as if they were scale models. Fragments of buildings or windows are visible in the sculptures, and her production is visible in the individual parts cast in concrete. I liked that she didn’t hide the traces of construction and fabrication. The concrete surface was sometimes painted, with spray, or exposed parts from red brick or ceramic. They looked very beautiful and mysterious, unique compared to other sculptures at that time, which appeared clean and perfect.

Oliver Basciano and Sabine Breitwieser discuss the work of Isa Genzken via Zoom, April 2020

Genzken once commented on there being ‘a permanent misunderstanding regarding the materials I use. I am not interested in readymades. The meaning is in the combination of things. […] I want to animate the viewers, hold up a mirror to them…’ What is unique about Genzken’s artistic lexicon?
Isa made only one readymade which was a drawing from Courbet she ‘reproduced’ as photographs. However, even here she was not so much interested in reproducing the image of the work but rather highlighting the scenery of the Courbet drawing, which showed woodmen at work and a non-working figure in the front. The relationship of the figure and the two woodworkers reminded her of her own practice at that time, when Genzken collaborated with mathematicians, computer specialists and carpenters to construct and fabricate her early wooden sculptures. Genzken is highly interested in the construction of things, exemplified in her early stereometric sculptures, in which she has challenged many of the preoccupations of modern sculpture and its techniques. 

‘Genzken doesn’t put the beholder of her objects in a fixed place, but rather makes them move around the works, thus becoming a part of them.’

In the 2000s, Genzken started to work with assemblages using materials and objects from DIY- and design stores. In her ‘Hi-Fi-photographs’ where she reproduced magazine advertisements for stereo systems (objects that have been kind of fetishized by art collectors during that time) from different countries and in different languages, she had already initiated her very particular relationship to the technique. However, the later assemblages and her room-size ensembles relate to the mass-production of objects and consumer goods. 

What’s her special vocabulary or lexicon in art history?—I would say that she critically mirrors the changes and varieties of forms, shapes and production of our society, including in art production. Secondly, her original wish was to study film at the Academy in Berlin, and many of her works have a performative or cinematic character. In other words, Genzken doesn’t put the beholder of her objects in a fixed place, but rather makes them move around the works, thus becoming a part of them.

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Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’, Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

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Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’, Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

What is the significance of urban space and architecture in Genzken’s oeuvre?
Isa has created numerous projects for public space or ‘works as architecture’. As an artist, Genzken was formed by post-war Germany. She grew up in cities like Hamburg, which was heavily destroyed during the war and rebuilt according to a vision of the new modern city. It had highways dividing the center and concrete buildings replacing nineteenth-century architecture. As a student in Berlin she studied modern housing projects like the Märkisches Viertel and stores in Turkish neighborhoods; both of which she photographed. 

For Isa, architecture and urban space definitely involves people and how they engage with public space. Picture her huge outdoor sculptures, for example, like ‘Camera’ (1992) on a Gallery terrace in Brussels but visible from the street, or ‘Mirror’ in Bielefeld, in front of the city hall. The mirror or the window (also a form of mirror or viewing device) are used by her to reflect social conditions, and even her own as an artist, when she created a design for the facade of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’, Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

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Isa Genzken, Camera on a balcony in Brussels, 1990

Isa Genzken’s ‘Untitled’ installation in her London exhibition ‘Window’ comprises airplane windows and seats. How does this work fit into the artist’s ongoing formal and conceptual inquiries into perception and public spaces?
If you look into her artist book from 1992, you can see—among the many photographs of windows in all kinds of forms—a double spread of airplane windows that she published right before her index of works. Already as a student, when she was making money as a fashion model, Isa was a frequent flyer relative to the times. In one of her most elaborated stereometric sculptures, a thirty-foot-long, hollow, slotted hyperboloid entitled ‘Grau-schwarzes Hyperbolo ‘MBB’ (Grey-Back Hyperbolo ‘MBB’)’ from 1981, she collaborated with the aviation and armament manufacturer Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm to fabricate the work. The technicians didn’t manage to stabilize the shape of her work and it was Isa’s idea to simply put a carpet inside the epoxy form. 

I remember encountering these airplane windows in her studio a while before she actually started to work with them. She told me, for security reasons, it was very hard to get these airplane components. Isa used these airplane components like a canvas for a painting, her view to the outside of a nomadic society or what we became (before facing the climate crises I should ad). Now, she had created a setting with seating, the gallery became an airplane. ‘Where are we taking off to?’—she asks—in our technology driven society and in particular the art market, heading from one art fair or biennial to the next.

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Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken. Window’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2020. Photo: Alex Delfanne

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Installation view, ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’, Museum of Modern Art, New York NY, 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

‘Genzken is certainly not afraid of approaching completely new and unknown territory in her work… One could devote an entire exhibition to her influence alone.’

For 50 years, Isa Genzken’s work has challenged conventions, subverted norms and invented new possibilities. How would you define Isa Genzken’s contribution to contemporary art and her artistic influence?
Isa Genzken is an exceptional artist and is, in many ways, an artist’s artist. Once she feels she is done with a group or series of works, or a certain idea, or employing a special technique, she soon gets bored and starts something new. Often Genzken’s followers are disappointed or even shocked with her new bodies of work and this slowed the time it took for Genzken’s practice to be recognized by major museums and a larger audience. 

I believe this is exactly the strength of Genzken’s work: to always reinvent and to not be blocked by a set vocabulary. She has an amazing feeling for form, shape and color, also space, to put it simply, and Genzken is certainly not afraid of approaching completely new and unknown territory in her work. I admire her for her courageous choice of often really unusual titles and title images that soon become popular. Who would consider exhibition titles such as ‘Everyone Needs at Least One Window’ or ‘Met Life’, or images on invitations showing the artist’s nude back? I do see the strong influence in the generation succeeding Genzken, in particular her work since 2000. One could devote an entire exhibition to her influence alone. At the same time, artists coming from Constructivism, Minimalism and Conceptual Art also inspired Genzken. Maybe that’s something I should work on in the future?

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Installation view, Isa Genzken, ‘Everyone Needs at Least One Window’, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium, 1993

What can today’s viewers learn from Genzken’s diverse use of media and wide-ranging sculptural output?
Isa Genzken’s work—from the early years until today—can be read as an exciting journey through modern art and, in particular, modern sculpture. She really covers most of the main issues raised by artists and has challenged the boundaries of what sculpture is, what it can be, and how it relates to us. It’s always exciting to see what she is working on and how she continues to surprise us.

Sabine Breitwieser is an international curator and museum director, and co-curated the 2013 exhibition ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’ at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

Isa Genzken’s solo exhibition ‘Window’ opened on 7 February 2020 at Hauser & Wirth London.

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