All Things Being Equal
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh
To situate sculpture between two mutually exclusive discursive conventions, or between two equally intolerable governing conditions, has been one of the motivating principles of Isa Genzken’s sculpture from the very beginning. It is hard to trace the prohibitions, geo-political or gendered, that posed the most trenchant barriers Genzken would have to scale when starting to sculpt in the mid-1970s, against all odds. After all, sculpture had not been made in Germany by women (no Hepworth let alone a Hesse to draw upon). And if any influence from prewar sculpture had carried over into postwar practice, it was that of Arp. Worse yet, if prewar Constructivism turned into cold war constructivism, it was the type of sculpture that Joseph Beuys once called, inimitably and untranslateably, the Stahl-und-Eisbein Skulptur (steel-and-pig’s-knuckle sculpture) decorating the new corporate office towers of Frankfurt and Düsseldorf.
So Genzken situated herself (as did Blinky Palermo, whom she encountered at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1973) between Beuys on the one hand and Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly on the other, to confront the massive onslaught of Minimalism. It seems that only artistic dialogue and aesthetic reception are capable of synthesizing profoundly incompatible epistemes, as is evident once again — to cite a more recent example — in the fusion of Beuys and Warhol in Thomas Hirschhorn’s current work, whose idiom of chaos sculpture Genzken would seem to have anticipated in certain ways.
In her almost Herculean ambition to bridge the chasm that separated the absence of sculpture in Germany from the affluence of sculpture in American Minimalism, Genzken emerged as one of the most serious artists after the famed generation of Palermo, Polke, and Richter. Undoubtedly, the strain to be accepted by that generation drove her sculptural projects into considerable dimensions. One of her ambitions was a programmatically anti-masculinist idiom of sculpture. Its extraordinary fusion of stereometrical and biomorphic forms resulted from Genzken’s radical decision in 1975 to deploy computer design to create the extremely elongated curves first of her Ellipsoids (1976–82), and later of her Hyperbolos (1979–83), mathematically exact sinuosities that seemed to suddenly stand the techno-scientific Minimalist boxes on their male blockheads. It is worth mentioning that Genzken produced these complex ellipsoids and mathematically polymorph models of stereometry by computer twenty years before Richard Serra discovered Frank Gehry’s toolkit. Unfortunately, these wooden hulls rarely crossed the Atlantic (her 1992 retrospective at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society Gallery having remained exceptional in every regard).
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