Leaving Düsseldorf

Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, and Gregor Jansen, eds., Leben mit Pop
Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, and Gregor Jansen, eds., Leben mit Pop

Isa Genzken: Retrospective. Exhibition organized by Sabine Breitwieser, Laura J. Hoptman, Michael Darling, and Jeffrey D. Grove, with Stephanie Weber. Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 23, 2013–March 10, 2014; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago; April 12–August 3, 2014; and Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, September 14, 2014–January 4, 2015

Sabine Breitwieser, Laura J. Hoptman, Michael Darling, and Jeffrey D. Grove. Isa Genzken: Retrospective. With an essay by Lisa Lee. Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Dallas Museum of Art, 2013. 334 pp., 237 color
ills. $75

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010. Exhibition organized by Kathy Halbreich, with Mark Godfrey and Lanka Tattersall. Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 19–August 3, 2014; Tate Modern, London, October 9, 2014–February 8, 2015; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, March 14–July 5, 2015

Kathy Halbreich, ed., with Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall, and Magnus Schaefer. Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963–2010. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014. 319 pp., 545 ills. $75

Leben mit Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism. Exhibition organized by Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, and Gregor Jansen, with Susanne Rennert, Stefan Kalmár, and Richard Birket. Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, July 20–September 29, 2013; Artists Space, New York, June 8–August 17, 2014 (where it included contributions by the artist Christopher Williams)

Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, and Gregor Jansen, eds. Leben mit Pop. With texts by Darsie Alexander, Eckhart J. Gillen, Mark Godfrey, Walter Grasskamp, Susanne Küper, Susanne Rennert, Dietmar Rübel, Stephan Strsembski, and the editors. In English and German. Cologne: Walther König, dist. Cornerhouse Publications, UK, 2014. 311 pp., 180 ills., many col. $45 paper

At the turn of the millennium, the German art magazine Texte zur Kunst relocated its headquarters from Cologne, where it was founded in 1990, to Berlin. Asked about the move in 2011, Sven Beckstette, then the magazine’s editor-in-chief, responded, “Cologne was the centre for contemporary art in Germany. In the mid-nineties this focus changed in favour of Berlin. For a magazine commenting critically on what is going on in the field of arts today, a Berlin move was a logical step.”1 Thus ended the history of the German art of the second half of the twentieth century, freshly arrived in Berlin from Cologne.

For more than a quarter century, the dominant history of postwar German art has held as its origin story the appointment of Joseph Beuys as professor of monumental sculpture and the enrollment of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, all in 1961, though neither Richter nor Polke was formally Beuys’s student. The precise moment when the most vital current of German art, and with it the economic heart of the German commercial art world, settled in Cologne is less definite. The Kölner Kunstmarkt, often cited as the first art fair in the contemporary sense, was founded by the Cologne dealers Rudolf Zwirner and Hein Stüncke in 1967. The beginning of the 1970s saw the prominent gallerists Heiner Friedrich, Paul Maenz, Rolf Ricke, and Michael Werner all move their bases of operation to Cologne, from Munich, Frankfurt, Kassel, and Berlin, respectively. In 1978, Polke settled in Cologne after a somewhat itinerant decade, during much of which his home base was a commune, to be followed five years later by Richter and his then-wife Isa Genzken, who moved together directly from Düsseldorf. By 1988 Cologne’s position as Germany’s art capital was undeniable, as evidenced by Klaus Honnef’s Made in Cologne exhibition at the DuMont-Kunsthalle, featuring Genzken, Georg Herold, Martin Kippenberger, and Rosemarie Trockel alongside their generational contemporaries in the Mülheimer Freiheit and older, more established artists such as Polke and 1980s Neue Wilden luminaries Markus Lüpertz and A. R. Penck.

The slipperiness of the shift from Düsseldorf to Cologne partially results from the ambiguity of how to best define the Kulturkämpfe between the two cities: as synchronic or diachronic. For example, the annual Prospect exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, founded in opposition to Kunstmarkt by Konrad Fischer and Hans Strelow, reveal an ideological gulf between the two Western cities far greater than the forty miles that separate them. This opposition between experimental art and the market is compounded by the generational opposition between the critical afterlife of the Kunstakademie’s “greatest generation,” as now stewarded by the Dia Art Foundation (cofounded by Friedrich in 1973), and Kippenberger’s late statement Spiderman-Atelier (1996). More slippery yet are the competing legacies of Fischer, in his guise as heroic gallerist-as-critic-organizer, and the master dealers Paul Maenz and Rudolf—and perhaps now also David—Zwirner, the historiographic consequences of which fall somewhere between synchronic and diachronic.

Three recent major exhibitions have taken on this terrain, each dealing with the difficult point of periodization in which postwar German art transitions into what we now call the contemporary. Isa Genzken: A Retrospective, organized by Sabine Breitwieser and Laura Hoptman at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2013, implicitly charts the migration of German art from Düsseldorf to Cologne to Berlin, following the migrations of its protagonist. That exhibition was followed six months later at MoMA by Kathy Halbreich’s Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963–2010. A third exhibition, Leben mit Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism, originated at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 2013 under the organization of Elodie Evers, Magdalena Holzhey, and Gregor Jansen and traveled to Artists Space in New York to coincide with MoMA’s Polke retrospective. Leben mit Pop traces the short-lived association of Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg (later to become the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke, and Richter in exhibitions and collaborative quasi-Happenings that they called “demonstrations,” unifying these activities under the name Capitalist Realism. Capitalist Realism was originally coined as one of many satirical genre names used to announce the foursome’s first exhibition, then reused for Lueg and Richter’s famous Leben mit Pop: Ein Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus of 1963. The term was later redeployed by the gallerist René Block to denote a sensibility among his stable of artists and to insinuate a movement comprising them, before eventually being disavowed by each of Block’s artists. Within the larger narrative of the German art of the second half of the twentieth century, Leben mit Pop’s arc is perhaps notable for its foreshadowing: the careers of Polke and Richter—though not the artists themselves—migrated from the environs of the Kunstakademie and Düsseldorf’s Galerie Schmela to exhibit with Block in Berlin under the Capitalist Realist moniker in the mid-1960s, more than a quarter century earlier than even Berlin’s earliest post-1989 emigrés.

Sabine Breitwieser, Laura J. Hoptman, Michael Darling, and Jeffrey D. Grove, Isa Genzken: Retrospective
Sabine Breitwieser, Laura J. Hoptman, Michael Darling, and Jeffrey D. Grove, Isa Genzken: Retrospective

Isa Genzken: A Retrospective pulls its subject in two directions at once. On the one hand, the exhibition establishes Genzken, with her high-profile engagements with the urban topography of New York City immediately before and in the wake of September 11, 2001, as a postnational artist par excellence. While Genzken’s millennial work has perhaps been overidentified with 9/11, much of that work also thematizes air travel in a more casual way: as a metonym for a contemporary art career, thus also positioning her base of operations back in Berlin as both a launch pad and an international hub. However, while the exhibition hurtles forward toward Genzken’s Berlin, art capital of the twenty-first century, it also invests heavily in Düsseldorf and the Kunstakademie as the artist’s point of origin, and in Gerhard Richter as a paternal figure.

Accompanying Genzken’s earliest works in the chronological survey, the marvelous Hyperbolo and Ellipsoid sculptures of the late 1970s and 1980s, is a wall text establishing that Genzken studied under Richter at the Kunstakademie. Curiously, given that it has become well known, Genzken and Richter’s romantic relationship is not alluded to here, despite the fact that one of those early works on display, Red-Yellow-Black Double Ellipsoid “Twin” of 1982, was produced in the same year that the couple married. Under normal circumstances, the decision to keep an artist’s personal life out of a discussion about her work—particularly when the artist is a woman, and especially when she is involved with an older and much more famous man—would be well taken. However, it seemed like an omission to establish Richter’s paternity as Genzken’s teacher without also acknowledging that she and the canonical artist were partners for more than a decade. Buried in a footnote in Breitwieser’s catalogue essay, for instance, is the revelation that Richter’s much feted (and MoMA-owned) 18. Oktober 1977 series emerged from a collaborative project between the two (Isa Genzken, 37, note 49).

The exhibition’s catalogue treats the Genzken-Richter marriage quite differently, with Breitwieser and Hoptman cleaving Genzken’s career in two and each curator writing a separate full-length essay on her “half.” The dividing line between the two Genzkens in the catalogue is the end of her marriage in 1994, which doubles as the occasion of her move from Cologne to Berlin, on an extended stay in 1995 and then permanently beginning in 1996. From this perspective, an alternative narration of Genzken’s career emerges. In the period from Genzken’s admission to the Kunstakademie in 1973 to her divorce, already the subject of Genzken’s mid-career retrospective Isa Genzken: Everybody Needs at Least One Window, organized by Susanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in 1992, we encounter an artist solidly working within the orbit of the Kunstakademie graduates weaned on American Minimalist and Postminimalist art who often showed with Friedrich and Fischer. This Genzken could perhaps be the latest in a series of secondary figures from the Kunstakademie milieu to be granted belated attention and cult-figure status in the United States: that is, another Franz Erhard Walther or Blinky Palermo. On the other side of the Richter break, however, emerges a transformed Genzken. The bulk of her considerable contributions to contemporary art and the basis of her canonization over the last decade occur within the twenty-odd years since her divorce—as is also expressed by the disproportionate amount of the exhibition’s floor space devoted to the second half of her career to date. Here Genzken is shown to have matured beyond the formal Postminimalist questions taken on by her horizontal sculptures and the implicit dialogue with Richter and Palermo in her windows, both the Brutalist ones made of concrete that Benjamin Buchloh proposed to take “the fragment as model” and those of the early 1990s made of epoxy resin that simultaneously called to mind Renaissance altarpieces and hinted at the synthetic surfaces to come.2

Richter has a part to play in this turn, but a smaller one than one might imagine after seeing the exhibition. Rather than explicitly pegging the dramatic shift on Genzken’s exit from Richter’s shadow, Hoptman associates the shift more directly with leaving Cologne, then still too close to the aesthetic baggage of her Düsseldorf and Kunstakademie heritage, for the millennial frontier of Berlin several years after the divorce: “The artist’s move from Cologne to Berlin in 1996 seemed to serve as a definitive break from the intellectual context of an earlier generation of German art that had previously informed much of her work, particularly the work of Richter and the legacies of American Minimalism and Conceptualism” (Isa Genzken, 131). The narrative of “Genzken in Berlin,” which Hoptman suggests as an alternative title to her part of the exhibition, continues with Genzken’s befriending of the gallerist Daniel Buchholz and the artists Kai Althoff and Wolfgang Tillmans, the latter respectively eighteen and twenty years her junior, in the years surrounding her final break with Richter. To be precise, these contacts occurred in Cologne, where Galerie Buchholz remained until opening a Berlin location in 2008; however, the shift in Genzken’s aesthetics is persuasively rooted in Berlin. Not only was this shift spurred on by her developing friendships with much younger artists, Hoptman writes, it was also “influenced by [Berlin’s] radically changing physical landscape” (Isa Genzken, 146). The vaunted architectural orientation of Genzken’s work of the last two decades is thus proposed to be the work not of post-terrorist disaster, as in the critical overreach of posing Genzken’s New York works as tragedy monuments (of which the exhibition, though not its catalogue, is more than guilty), but as art during a time of gentrification. And if it is impossible to separate the Ground Zero sculptures of 2008 from their namesake, it is also important to note that these sculptures were proposed, however sarcastically, as models for new architectural structures in a redeveloping neighborhood during a real-estate boom.3 Though one such work was indeed a proposed monument (Memorial Tower), the pieces are more “bids” than they are a suite of monuments—or un-monuments as it were.

“Unmonumental” is not just an adjective often used to describe Genzken’s work but also the name of the 2007 exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York—coorganized by Hoptman with Richard Flood and Massimiliano Gioni—in which Genzken came to wider view as the key matriarchal figure to vital developments in contemporary object-making. Isa Genzken: A Retrospective represents an assimilation of that exhibition, its legacy, and the practices it stands in the place of, not only in MoMA’s hiring of one of the New Museum’s senior curators, but also in establishing Genzken as Richter’s legatee—Richter, after all, having been declared “Europe’s greatest modern painter” on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on the occasion of MoMA’s 2002 exhibition Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. Rachel Haidu characterized the Richter retrospective, organized by Robert Storr, as “construct[ing] Richter as a necessary and vital link to the future, as a lifeline upon whom the medium of painting (and thus MoMA itself) depends.”4 That future has now come, albeit in a form perhaps unforeseen in 2002 during Storr’s tenure at the museum, though MoMA will have it nonetheless.

Almost as soon as MoMA had crowned Genzken the new master to break ground for the coming, newer masters, Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963–2010 undercut that trailblazer status. The importance of MoMA’s posthumous Polke retrospective, already in planning at the time of the artist’s death in 2010, is the long overdue survey treatment, which exemplifies a staggering breadth and variety in Polke’s work that sometimes escapes notice outside Europe. The American reception of Polke as, for instance, an ambivalent German counterpart to Roy Lichtenstein is completely obliterated when the viewer is confronted with the extremely idiosyncratic surfaces of Polke’s paintings, including the ones composed of raster dots for which he is best known in North America. The heterogeneity of Polke’s oeuvre is likely partially to blame for his lesser reputation on this continent, relative to Richter and Beuys. Another factor, retraced in Magnus Schaefer’s catalogue essay, is the simultaneous plausibility of Polke’s work as a precursor to both appropriation art and Neoexpressionism. However, with Walter Dahn and David Salle now no longer necessary to answer for, those two factors that in the 1980s had hindered a complete understanding of Polke’s career might in fact be the basis of our veneration for him in the era after Kippenberger and Mike Kelley—who are, of course, Genzken’s generational peers.

At the same time, the survey of Polke’s work also reveals unacknowledged threads that run through his career, the most significant of which is his aforementioned and highly inventive concern with surface. After the earliest Capitalist Realist paintings of 1963, which evoke the slightly older Kunstakademie alumnus Konrad Klapheck in their uncanny representation of supposed postwar plenty under actual conditions of lingering austerity, Polke’s paintings take on a peculiarly “thingy” character: not quite haptic, nor quite material. In person, those early raster dot paintings do not read as flatbed picture planes, as those of the “American sign painters” of the early 1960s did. Instead, they seem Matissean: image turned semantic information—anticipating the “gray zone between the image and information” that John Kelsey describes of Polke’s later work with photocopying—transvalued into allover decoration (Alibis, 232). The ensuing paintings on store-bought fabric, which were already patterned allover, offer a panoply of layers of representation and, just as important, a heterogeneity of surfaces that never quite devolve into the “optical noise” that for Leo Steinberg characterized Robert Rauschenberg’s photo-transfer-based works.5 Instead, Polke’s Burroughsian fascination with virality and transmission, accompanied by only haphazard concern for what is being transmitted, resulted in an expanded visuality in his works that pursued an extravisual sensation of psychedelic hallucination—1972’s Alice in Wonderland perhaps being the postwar era’s Interior with Aubergines.

Kathy Halbreich, ed., with Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall, and Magnus Schaefer, Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963–2010
Kathy Halbreich, ed., with Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall, and Magnus Schaefer, Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963–2010

The exhibition’s greatest treat is its bringing together of all seven Watchtower paintings (all 1984, other than a final one from 1987–88), usually dispersed across museums and private collections in the United States and Europe. Together, the paintings present what can only be described as a Polkean “workout,” exemplifying his attitude toward surface. All manners of materials are painted on, from canvas to quilted fabric to patterned fabric to bubble wrap. Materials that Polke painted with include different kinds of paints, dry pigment, resin, and doubtless others I am unable to identify. The watchtower image the paintings have in common is variously painted, printed, stenciled, and exposed photochemically. Other images share the picture plane with the watchtower: a silhouette of prison bars, an outsize hand holding an ID card, hand-painted flowers, lyrically line-painted ducks, and alternating beach umbrellas, deck chairs, and sunglasses on a patterned fabric. In the hands of the artist who would famously go on to paint with uranium, the photochemical “developing” of the image as if from within the picture plane, indeed emerging from chemical agents applied as if coats of paint, produces the illusion that the picture plane is unfixed and could yet develop further. This reveals a volatility—simultaneously the product of hallucinogenic mysticism and apocalyptic dread—characteristic of Polke’s work.

Ultimately, one gets a sense of Polke as a restless artist. The essays in the catalogue, seventeen in total, are as scattershot in theme and scope as the artist’s career, and before even the curator’s introduction by Halbreich, the proceedings kick off with an exhaustive, forty-two-page chronology by the art historian Kathrin Rottmann detailing just how restless Polke’s life and career were. The exhibition’s themes of travel (hippie and quasi-ethnographic wandering), of Polke’s anything-goes use of materials, and of his promiscuous use of imagery all implicitly establish Polke as a precursor to the Genzken proposed by the earlier MoMA retrospective, which twinned the artist’s biographical migration with her work’s “radical heterogeneity” (Isa Genzken, 274), as well as with the well-worn cliché that she is “just as likely to make reference in her art to Leonardo da Vinci as to Leonardo DiCaprio” (Isa Genzken, 258). “Bad Dad,” a tributary essay by the artist Jutta Koether, is the most explicit on this note, characterizing Polke as “Lost in Space. Lost in the Markets,” and accordingly crediting him as the progenitor of both “German ethnographic Pop” and “bad painting”—the pillars of the 1980s Cologne art world in which Koether’s and Genzken’s careers emerged (Alibis, 191–92).

If Genzken’s legacy is thus doubly assimilated into an evolutionary narrative by the paternity of Richter and the precedence of Polke, Leben mit Pop, an exhibition devoted to Richter’s and Polke’s earliest works, surprises by refraining from reinforcing the pair’s enrollment at the Kunstakademie as the accepted origin of postwar German art. Instead, the exhibition is explicit about establishing a groundwork from which the activities it calls Capitalist Realism emerged. The exhibition was spatially divided between Artists Space’s main Greene Street location and its satellite bookstore–project space, exhibiting in the latter documentation of and ephemera from key artistic events in Düsseldorf, Cologne, and nearby Wuppertal. Included in this prehistory of Capitalist Realism, which for our purposes also doubles as a prehistory of the Düsseldorf art world, are the staging of Yves Klein’s traveling Monochrome Propositions exhibition of 1957 at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, the influential 1958 Dada exhibition that originated at the Kunstverein für Rhineland und Westfalen in Düsseldorf, and the early Fluxus activities at Jean-Pierre Wilhelm’s Galerie 22 in Düsseldorf and the artist Mary Bauermeister’s Cologne studio.

These deviations from the standard Beuys-Kunstakademie narrative are the contributions of Susanne Rennert, who was not one of the exhibition’s three named curators but who organized the exhibition’s first two and last sections: on Düsseldorf before Beuys, Fluxus in the Rhineland, and Kuttner, Lueg, Polke, and Richter’s exhibition as Capitalist Realists at Galerie René Block, where they were joined by K. P. Brehmer, Reiner Ruthenbeck, and others. Rennert, who has written extensively over the last decade about the early years of Fluxus in Germany, often with a sustained focus on the activities of Wilhelm as an organizer, positions the Capitalist Realist exhibitions and especially the artists’ demonstrations as inspired by Fluxus, if also stopping well short of assimilating them into the ever-growing Fluxus legacy. Stephan Strsembski even warns against this averted assimilation: “We should not forget, however, that all the founders of Capitalist Realism continued to adhere to panel painting, and that action art was merely an episode for Polke, Richter, and the others,” continuing that the artists “remained bound to an essentially conservative concept of the artwork” (Leben, 132).

However, while the incompatibility between Fluxus events and Capitalist Realist demonstrations is quite clear—the demonstrations, which can be argued to have been stunt-ish pretexts to exhibit paintings, are more in line with Nouveau Réalisme—the more forceful suggestion of Rennert’s contributions to the beginning and end of the exhibition is to conceive the history of postwar art as constituted by networks, perhaps even as an art history without protagonists. The exhibition begins with a confluence of international organizers: Wilhelm, Bauermeister, Rolf Järling of Galerie Parnass, Nam June Paik and Benjamin Patterson (both then based in Cologne), George Maciunas, Wolf Vostell and his Cologne art magazine Dé-coll/age, and Beuys in his guise as an international networker rather than as a professor or spiritual healer. Significantly, the Zero Group, whose members were among the most prominent Düsseldorf artists of the period, is barely represented at all in this prehistory, despite the at times close friendship of Günther Uecker and Richter. Interspersed among the documentation and ephemera at the satellite exhibition are photographs of combinations of Kuttner, Lueg, Polke, and Richter as onlookers at several of these events, including 1964’s legendary Festival der Neuen Kunst in nearby Aachen, in which a series of actions by Beuys was halted by rioting students. The exhibition ends with René Block, twenty-two years old when he opened his gallery in 1964, and the last works shown are from the final Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus portfolio published by Block in 1971. Unstated by the exhibition is Block’s participation in the interim in an international network of Conceptual art, with Lueg—who adopted the surname Fischer and opened Ausstellungen bei Konrad Fischer (Exhibitions by Konrad Fischer), a Düsseldorf gallery that in its early years intentionally refrained from calling itself a gallery—also becoming a key player in that milieu.6

The exhibition does however invoke the dissemination-as-public-sphere spirit of late 1960s Conceptualism by dispensing with the now priceless paintings by Richter and Polke, and the increasingly revered but still extremely underrated ones by Kuttner and Lueg, and going with cardboard reproductions of them. This controversial strategy seems to rely on a questionable belief that the paintings had only been props in the first place, which they may have been in the original Leben mit Pop demonstration and in the Kaffee und Kuchen and Volker Bradke demonstrations that were Galerie Schmela’s send-off in 1966, but probably nowhere else in the history of Capitalist Realism. This line of thinking, however, also submits that the presence of the actual paintings would only detract from what is truly at stake, namely Capitalist Realism’s organization, networking, and PR spectacle, from which emerged the Fischer and Block of later Konzeption/Conception, Documenta 5, and I Like America and America Likes Me fame.

Despite the unstated turn from Polke and Richter to Block and Fischer, Leben mit Pop does not allow for an exhibition model that merely replaces artists (or groups) with a kind of organizer-hero-agent, a treatment extended to Fischer by Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2010, and which MoMA has recently devoted to Ileana Sonnabend and Seth Siegelaub. In this sense, Leben mit Pop establishes itself as a new kind of historical exhibition that is seemingly a world apart from the two monographic retrospectives. Fluxus has a privileged place in these new, mostly European, histories, with Maciunas’s “Expanded Arts” diagram replacing Alfred Barr’s evolutionary “Cubism and Abstract Art” chart and serving as a visual model for what the late Piotr Piotrowski has called a horizontal art history. (Lest this come off as a jeremiad against MoMA, I will point out that in the last decade Leah Dickerman has organized three resoundingly horizontal exhibitions at the museum, each of vital importance to reenvisioning the history of early twentieth-century European art.)

Darsie Alexander’s contribution to Leben mit Pop’s catalogue ends: “By seizing upon the lessons of Fluxus . . . the Capitalist Realists formed their own ‘brand’ of art within an international network,” going on to note the irony that “two decades later this network would catapult their independent practices to new heights, funneling their artworks through a world-wide marketplace” (Leben, 259). This also might be Genzken’s most relevant lesson to us in the present. Beyond Genzken’s current position as David Zwirner’s living Kippenberger (or Mike Kelley), and beyond both Genzken and Kippenberger as evolutionary, postnational, kitsch-monteur Polkes, what Genzken most forcefully offers to a history of the German half century that is now fifteen years passed is the precise meaning of her surfaces relative to those of her Kunstakademie predecessors and the distance between her aesthetics and those of their “golden age.”

In Blinky Palermo’s Blaue Scheibe und Stab (1968), two sculptural objects covered in blue electrical tape, and his Wandmalerei mit Bleimennige installation at Documenta 5 (1972), in which he painted the majority of a landing wall in a staircase with an orange-colored rust preventative undercoating meant for cars, material surface and color were dissolved into a single layer appropriated from consumer byproducts of the German economic miracle. The same can be said of Palermo’s cloth pictures. Polke’s own paintings, some of them also using readymade cloth from department stores, conceive surface as a zero-sum game that collapses figure and ground, and additive and grounding materials and processes, into a dreamworld of hallucinatory, apocalyptic messianism. But they too are creatures of the economic miracle; Polke after all found himself painting on bubble wrap, as well as on petit-bourgeois patterns. Genzken’s surfaces perform their own collapsing: in the most spectacular case, the intended functions of the orange barrier fences and brightly colored electrical and masking tapes of her Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings for New York) sculptures of 2000—to catch the eye, in order to mark hazards on construction sites—are identical to their aesthetic function as sculptural surface. But instead of appropriating the aesthetics of the economic reconstruction—inseparable in Palermo from the Federal Republic’s physical postwar reconstruction—Genzken’s surfaces are those of construction, period.

This borrowing from the aesthetics of everyday looking—the same can be said of her other materials, whether the reflective mosaic foil that made her Social Facades stars of the art-selfie age, or the translucent plexiglass ones that the eye looks neither totally at nor through—marks Genzken’s sculptures not as models for new constructions but as models for new construction projects, perpetual construction being, it seems, a condition of twenty-first-century neoliberalism. Furthermore, in the cases of both the Soho Postminimalism with which her early work conversed and the mirror-tiled warehouse discos she frequented that also made new use of postindustrial city space, the industrial chic so resonant of Genzken’s generation has itself become a period style, now recycled by new development projects. If reengaging with Polke’s career has given us a clearer aesthetic understanding of the stylistic trajectory of Düsseldorf to Cologne to Berlin over the second half of the twentieth century, Genzken’s art shows us the afterlife of Fischer’s and Block’s networking: now wholly assimilated by neoliberalism’s own, all-pervasive network. That is, Genzken’s work performs German art’s millennial migration from Cologne to Berlin, and when Berlin is over, from Berlin to the next cultural hub.


Godfre Leung is assistant professor of art history at St. Cloud State University. His writing has recently been featured in Afterimage, C Magazine, post: Notes on Modern & Contemporary Art Across the Globe, and the catalogue for the Walker Art Center exhibition International Pop, on which he also served as a curatorial consultant. His current book project is tentatively titled “Playback: Medium, Media, and Digital Audio in Marclay, Tone, and Eno.”

  1. Ana Finel Honigman, “Talking Art with Texte zur Kunst’s Sven Beckstette,” in Berlin Art Journal, April 28, 2011, at www.berlinartjournal.com/issue/talking-art-texte-zur-kunsts-sven-beckstette, as of February 2015.
  2. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Isa Genzken: The Fragment as Model,” in Isa Genzken: Everybody Needs at Least One Window, exh. cat. (Cologne: Walther König, 1992), 131–41.
  3. At a MoMA symposium entitled “New York—The Creative Catalyst” on July 12, 2007, most likely just as Genzken was conceiving or creating her Ground Zero sculptures, the art historian Douglas Crimp observed that the neighborhood surrounding the former World Trade Center site had recently become no longer “considered unworthy of development.” An audio recording of the symposium is archived at www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/82, as of February 2015.
  4. Rachel Haidu, “On ‘Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting,’” in Documents 22 (Fall 2002): 27.
  5. Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism” (1972), rep. Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 29.
  6. See Sophie Richard, Unconcealed: The International Network of Conceptual Artists, 1967–77: Dealers, Exhibitions and Public Collections, ed. Lynda Morris (London: Ridinghouse, 2009).