MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO
APRIL 12 – AUGUST 3, 2014
At first, this retrospective of Isa Genzken’s career seemed to come together as a heterogeneous yet unyielding portrait of the artist. Later, however, I realized that portraiture is a limitation that this work refuses without regret, as piece by piece, I came to the complicated conclusion that Genzken’s works are full-bodied recreations of herself, not mere symbolic representations, and definitely not depictions of anything autobiographical. One early work suggests that she has been a “world receiver” from the very outset: “Weltempfänger (World Receiver)” (1982) may only be a readymade, multiband radio receiver placed on a plinth, but it is also a potent stand-in for the artist, complete with antennae extended attentively to pick up all signals. Two years after the creation of this work—possibly because this appropriated object was too knowable, too easy—Genzken would drip or splatter a few measured amounts of red paint on a lumpy mound of plaster, stick a bent length of metal wire in it, and call the resulting sculpture “Mein Gehirn (My Brain)” (1984). As Genzken expanded her material parameters, it could be argued that these antennae never left her working aesthetic. Even her most recent mannequins, “Schauspieler (Actors)” (2013), while posed in various situations (here they flank the entryway to the exhibition) and often wearing Genzken’s outfits (or has she been wearing theirs?), seem to take in everything.
The exhibition is supported by the overall U-shaped floor plan of the galleries. The chronology of Genzken’s production fits perfectly within this lucky horseshoe layout, an arrangement that reinforces the work’s split down its middle (first 1974 to 1994, then 1995 to 2013). The subsequent mirroring effect of its halves, and the impact of some of her best work, which happens to fit ideally at the bottom of the “U.”
The first half of Genzken’s production demonstrates how fervently she took on the inherited “maleness” of (especially German) sculpture, in order to set up the terms of her ongoing resistance to what she called in a 2005 Artforum conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans, the worst thing in art: “You see it and you know it.” First there are the “Ellipsoid” sculptures from the mid-1970s that recast Constructivist and Minimalist sculpture and painting as some type of weapon that is resolutely hybrid (yet also sufficiently antenna-like) and resistant to our grasp. By the late 1980s, Genzken is challenging several boundaries all at once, with concrete sculptures—for example, “Galerie (Gallery),” (1987), “Bild (Painting) (1989), and “Fenster (Window)” (1990)—that function like architecture even though they are presented on high steel tables like models, and a prescient group of paintings, “Basic Research” (1989 – 91), that look like photography despite being made by scraping painted canvases across her rubble-strewn studio floor. Blurring the lines of ruin and reconstruction while developing substantial amounts of material and conceptual ambidexterity, by the mid-1990s Genzken had successfully obliterated her previously stated “worst thing about art.” She also made it abundantly clear that she would not avoid the weight of history.
In the second half of this exhibition, Genzken doubles down on the gendered legacy of sculpture and (decidedly, I would agree) turns her work first queer, and then something unnamable. I not only say this because of the particular strengths of her “Schwules Baby (Gay Baby)” series from 1997, that are made from manipulated, crushed metal kitchen utensils, spray painted in candy colors, and hung on the wall as small yet loaded moments of sheer performativity. For example, next to the “gay babies” are a series of rectangular columns made from what one might call “Home Depot” materials, named after several of her (male) friends and influences: “Wolfgang” (1998), “Andy” (1999), etc. (This is, by the way, the room that anchors the bottom of the “U” of the exhibition layout.) They are simultaneously straightforward and ambiguous, stationary figures and—thanks to their mirrored sections that also evoke a dance club—motion detectors: yet another type of antennae.
In the end, the cumulative effect of such an invaluable career being laid out so thoughtfully reinforces the notion that the retrospective exhibition still has meaning in a time of art fair dispersion. The critical trajectory of Genzken’s production from the beginning somehow anchors and liberates her most difficult work—the two series that specifically recall September 11, 2001. The combination of laser focus and total abandon in these, her “Empire/Vampire” and “Ground Zero” series, from 2003 to ’04 and 2008 respectively, may well prove to have been unrivaled by other work from its time due to how they fuse architecture, painting, sculpture, photography (and design, with high end furnishings functioning as building blocks in the later series) with ruin, reconstruction, performativity, and personality. Yes, Genzken is the world receiver, but the point of her work is to remind us that so are we.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
Terry R. Myers is a critic and independent curator based in Los Angeles.