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Around the galleries

‘Isa Genzken’ – a one-woman group show

— January 2014

Associated media

Isa Genzken, Schauspieler (Actors) (detail). 2013. Mannequins, clothes, shoes, fabric, and paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin. © Isa Genzken. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.

Stephen Bury reports on ‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’, currently at MoMA, New York, before travelling to Chicago and Dallas later in the year

This could almost be a group show. There are many media and styles – lacquered wooden geometrical floor sculptures, gelatin silver print photographs of HiFi equipment and an ear, X-rays, found objects, concrete blocks with radio antennas, plaster sculptures, Minimalist concrete sculptures on steel legs, abstract oil paintings, epoxy resin architectural details and models, paintings hovering between abstraction and figuration, artist’s books, installations, public sculpture, film, found objects, assemblage, collage and drawings. The exhibition silently poses the question: Who is the better artist? One who develops over time and can be identified despite changes, or one who takes different directions  successively?

There are some common themes. There is an interest in architecture whether it is epoxy resin, steel and concrete Fenster (1992), the glass and silicone New Buildings for Berlin (2004) or the sad but funny Ground Zero Car Park, Church or Disco Soon (2008). While Genzken was married (1982–93) to Gerhard Richter the leaders of the Red Army Faction – Genzken had moved in the far left circles in Berlin from which the RAF had splintered – were found dead in their prison cells. Genzken and Richter had planned a cycle of architectural works and paintings – tsome of her architectural drawings survive (it would have been good to see these) which together with Richter’s 15-part painting October 18, 1977 (1988) are the other half of this project.

A second common denominator is the interest in the ‘found’. Weltempfänger (1982) is large multiband radio receiver, given to Genzken by her mother as a present. To describe it as a ‘readymade’ is probably inaccurate – it was not bought by the artist and is not in an edition – more ‘lost’ than ‘found’. The ‘frottage’ paintings of the 1980s, the ‘Basic Research’ series, involved placing a canvas painted with oil paint face down on the floor of her studio and applied pressure with a large squeegee, creating monoprints that include the debris and configuration of the studio floor. Genzken started to employ materials purchased from hardware and other stores – plastic flowers and baskets, toys, ceramic figurines, rubber gloves, shells, pizza boxes, fabric, clothes, light fixtures and electric fans. In the Agnes Gund Garden lobby Genzken has installed part of her 2007 Venice Biennale exhibition, Oil XI  with three NASA astronauts hovering as if presiding deities over abandoned rolling suitcases, perhaps after some terrorist evacuation at an airport. The title suggests that its theme is the USA = Oil = War, or Terrorism = War on USA + Oil. This might have worked as part of a bigger installation in Venice, but here it is ambiguous (is it about tourism?), vacuous even.

The third commonality is Genzken’s interest in New York. She visited the city many times from the 1960s onwards: she took photographs of the facades of buildings, the ears of women in the Manhattan streets for Ohr (Ear) (1980) and for the three artist’s books, ‘I love New York, Crazy City’ (1995–6).  She was also familiar with many American artists – Benjamin Buchloh had invited such artists as Michael Asher, Dan Graham, Yvonne Rainer and Lawrence Weiner to give guest lectures at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, where Genzken studied from 1972. She also frequented the Galerie Konrad Fischer, where many American artists, such as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin,   Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman and Fred Sandback,  were invited to make site-specific works. She kept up with these artistic friendships when she visited New York. It is thus hard to believe that, as Sabine Breitwieser claims in the exhibition catalogue, Genzken was ‘unaware’ of the appropriation art of Sherrie Levine and others in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

The exhibition, which is a more comprehensive version of the 5 April – 21 June 2009 show, ‘Isa Genzken: Open, Sesame!’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, is laid out chronologically, which serves only to emphasize the abrupt discontinuities in her artistic practice over 40 years. Sabine Breitwieser states that Genzken is ‘one of the most important artists of our time’, whilst the website claims, slightly more modestly, that she is ‘arguably one of the most important and influential female artists of the past 30 years’. Either statement needs further proof than is advanced in this exhibition.


Stephen Bury
Frick Art Reference Library, New York
Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian

Editor's notes

‘Isa Genzken: Retrospective’ is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. in the Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, Sixth Floor and the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, First Floor until 10 March 2014

It is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, from 12 April to 3 August 2014.

It is at the Dallas Museum of Art from 14 September 2014 to 4 January 2015

The catalogue Isa Genzken: Retrospective by Sabine Breitwieser et al.  is published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013 (distributed outside the USA and Canada by Thames & Hudson), 334 pp., 237 colour illus., $75.00, £50.00 ISBN 9780870708862 (hbk)

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