Currently on view on the sixth floor of the Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is the first major retrospective of Isa Genzken’s work in the United States. Genzken is well-known to a New York art audience for her more recent assemblage works, but the exhibition brings the wide-ranging oeuvre of her groundbreaking artistic experimentations to a wide audience. With over 150 pieces, many of them life-size, the tour de force of Genzken’s forty year and on-going career is abundantly clear in this chronological exhibition.
Monumental would be the most apt way to describe the impact of the Genzken works collectively curated at MoMA. Shown together, one can really understand not only the variety of Genzken’s mediums–which include sculpture, painting, photography, film, collage, and drawing–but also the ways in which she brings them together. Most importantly, the viewer can truly see the progression from artistic exploration in the early 1970s to a sharp commentary on complex global issues in recent decades. Two major themes in Genzken’s work emerge from a walk-through of the exhibition: urban architecture and modernity, and how they inform each other.
Isa Genzken was born in Bad Oldesle, a town outside Hamburg, Germany, in 1948, a few years after WWII. She studied at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf,where she first started working on large-scale wooden sculptures. This is where the exhibition begins. The sliding doors open to reveal the work Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos, designed using a customized computer program to calculate the proportions of the mirrored curvatures. The hand-lacquered wooden pieces of Ellipsoids touch the floor at only one center point. The sister work, Hyperbolos, are the reverse–two pieces emerge from one central point.
Reading the description and gazing at the work, you’re truly struck by the beauty that can emerge from a technical source. Indeed, the exhibition describes that during this period, Genzken “became fascinated with the aesthetics of precision engineering–both natural and man-made–and with forms in space.” Genzken was involved in the curation of this exhibition and stipulated that Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos be exhibited with concurrent pieces that delved into the engineering and design of hi-fi stereo equipment–all of which form one conceptual idea.
The exhibition takes you first to Genzken’s only ready-made, an early portable stereo, then to a group of her photographs for stereo systems in magazines from the U.S., France, Germany and Japan. Here, Genzken’s interest is in the parallel attention made between the engineering of the devices and the preciseness of the advertisements’ design. As the exhibition contends, “these photographic appropriations are both a celebration of the increasing perfection of commodity objects and a comment on their fetishization by the popular media.” Connecting the technology to its human counterpart, Genzken also made a photographic series on the ears of women on the streets of New York City in 1980, one of which is on view just next to the radio advertisements.
This room concludes with Weltemfänger, a collection of concrete blocks with chrome antennas, each block named after an international city. With stand-ins for radios constructed of urban material, Genzken alludes to the international network of radio communications.
Weltemfänger is the perfect segue into the next room which is a collection of her free-standing sculptures from 1986 to 1991, where she experimented with materials from the urban built environment. Titled in some instances after the building typologies they represent, the sculptures are on one hand a minimalist, distilled form of a finished architectural product. On the other hand, the hand-made quality is a contradiction of Minimalist theories. Together, they represent the discrepancy between Modernist utopian visions for cities in the 1970s with and their application in the real world.
In one smaller room, a series of paintings and floor sculptures shows Genzken’s experimentation with painting and light from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here, she is interested in the imprint of paint, rather than the direct application of it. She would cover the front of a canvas with oil paint, place it face down and put pressure from the back to create an impression. In 1992 she evolved the concept into another series experimenting with the impression of light, using spray paint, lacquer and perforated stencils. The title of the series is telling about its experimental nature– MLR, or More Light Research.
The final portion of the exhibition features Genzken’s room-sized installations she began in the 1990s. One showpiece here is Ground Zero, a proposal she made in response to the design open call for the former World Trade Center site. Genzken witnessed the attacks on September 11th personally on a visit to New York, and the resulting assemblages reflect her own process of healing, emphasizing celebration, pleasure and recovery over sorrow. She includes in the proposed buildings a disco, clothing shop, a church and a hospital.
Another is Schauspieler, on view when you first arrive at the exhibition. This work is on view for the first time, finished in the last year. The mannequins stand silent, wearing a combination of found clothing and Genzken’s own, in front of oversized collage of magazine and newspaper images. Schauspieler means actors, and it makes you wonder who the actors are–we, the viewers who are real? Or the mannequins?
On your way out, in the lobby of the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, the installation of suitcases and NASA employees now makes sense in the context of the exhibition. From the German pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale, the scene of travel paraphernalia, sans humans, evokes an eery, unsettling feeling. The space explorers float from the ceiling, observing a suddenly abandoned scene. Meant to reference the “zeitgeist of a world in a state of terror,” it forms a fitting bookend to the exhibition, if not Genzken’s career thus far. Whether in a more formal exploration of the boundaries of Modernism or in more direct dialogue to current events, she clearly takes inspiration from the cultural zeitgeist. Even when Genzken’s work becomes more aesthetically more esoteric, her penchant towards reflective materials and mirrors puts you, the viewer, constantly in the milieu. You turn the corner, and suddenly, you see yourself, reflected but also embedded in the global issues being contemplated, remixed and reappropriated in Genzken’s work.
The Isa Genzken: Retrospective will be on exhibit at MoMA until March 10, 2014, after which it will head to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and The Dallas Museum of Art.
All works © 2013 Isa Genzken.