Isa Genzken: Retrospective 02.06.14

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Installation view with X, 1992, in the foreground

An exhibition of the German sculptor Isa Genzken's work in New York earlier this year has now come to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. Here is our review of the original retrospective

It's a sad legacy of certain movements in art and design – minimalism, high modernism, abstract expressionism, say – that they have become the perfect partners for big business. The more abstract the enterprise, the more suited it is to geometrical monumental "plaza" sculpture, vast panes of glass and abstract painting. Modern, large and glassy are features that typify The Museum of Modern Art in New York, in its current manifestation designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (and soon to be controversially overhauled by Diller Scofidio + Renfro).

This retrospective of the German artist Isa Genzken is a masterfully executed journey through the artist's work, which often takes the architecture and materials of New York City itself as a point of departure. The skyscrapers of the capital have long been a source of inspiration to the artist, yet the cold authority of buildings is always undermined or teased by Genzken's presentation of the urban, hyper-capitalist experience.

Take a series of propositional architectural models created by Genzken in 2000, and displayed on unpainted wooden plinths at a crucial juncture at the heart of the exhibition. A rainbow slinky toy arches over a tower of red and yellow Perspex, a small scrappy sign on the side reads "PLAYBILL", suggesting that this might be a place for shows and performances, while the area around the building is landscaped by petals, shells and silver discs resembling stacks of CDs.

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Hospital (Ground Zero), 2008

Other materials used in this series are dredged from New York's Canal Street on the border of Chinatown, home to electrical shops, counterfeit goods traders, and wholesale stores stocked with countless tacky wonders. In these works pizza boxes, petals, giant fake flowers, sticky tape, and red and yellow sheets of Perspex are presented on plinths as semi-feasible propositions for buildings. These are proposals that make monuments of trash, glitter, and downtown detritus. Monuments to dancing, bad taste, and mess. To not being quiet and polite. The sculptures are collectively titled Fuck the Bauhaus (2000) and they take the concept of feasibility itself to criticise contemporary architecture's conservatism and its possibility-killing neatness.

As the first rooms in this exhibition reveal, many of the Genzken's early works had beautifully clean lines and graceful shapes. Her Ellipsoid and Hyperbolo works here, from the late 1970s and early 80s are long lacquered wooden sculptures – stretching along the floor at around five metres in length – which are impossible to fully see without walking around. A particularly striking Ellipsoid is painted in the German colours of red, black and gold (Rot-schwarz-gelbes Ellipsoid "S.L. Popova", 1981), resembling discs that have been stretched out as thinly as possible, and which play perspectival tricks from a distance, allowing one to see an elongated canoe-like shape as a circle.

Genzken's career is marked by dramatic, yet authoritative, swerves
in direction. Reasonably quickly a messier aesthetic is established, emerging from an interest in radios, acoustics and listening. She began rephotographing advertisements of Hi-Fis – believing them to be the physical expression of absolute "currentness" and newness, and asking women in the street if she could photograph their ears (although the ear captured in a photograph in this exhibition is her own, taken by her then-husband Gerhard Richter in Ohr, 1980).

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Spielautomat, 1999-2000

Lumps of concrete with messy antennae become radios, and then a metaphor for the brain as a receiver, before Genzken begins to create large concrete sculptures that gesture to architecture, and in particular the proliferation of concrete in the rebuilding of Germany. The large, unfinished sculptures resemble half-rooms, bombed-out corners, architectural waste.

And yet, the artist's messy minimalism of the late 1980s (which looks very current today – one thinks of younger artists such as Matias Faldbakken or Carol Bove), is abandoned in favour of assemblages and sculptural collage, each one freer and more raucous than the last. Mannequins, feather boas, masks, suitcases and trolleys – the bright colours of cheap materials and rubbish left on the street become expressions in the artist's hands of a newly consumerist society.

In this particular city, there's possibly no better example than the artist's proposals for the Ground Zero site. Biting at architecture, but never at the site or the tragedy itself, Genzken's proposals include a green hospital with an enormous bouquet atop it, or a nightclub that hearteningly advertises "Disco Soon".



Laura McLean-Ferris


Isa Genzken: Retrospective
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Until 3 August 2014


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Genzken's career is marked by dramatic, yet authoritative, swerves in direction

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