Sculpture November1998 Vol.17 No. 9
Thomas Schutte, Piazza Due, 1986.
Mixed media, installation detail
Contemporary German Sculpture
by Donald Kuspit
Sculpture, like art in general, has become an amorphous concept, ill-defined
and perhaps undefinable—yet another case of art-as-epistemological-problem.
Anything that occupies space, and doesn’t hang on a wall, is “sculpture”
or “sculptural.” The days when, with the English critic Adrian Stokes,
one could make a nice neat distinction between three-dimensional objects
made by carving and those made by modeling are over. Now, any object that
sprawls in space, has physical presence, and manages to hold its own against
architecture is sculpture. And yet the root of sculpture since antiquity
has been the body’s existence in space. To be emotionally credible, what
we call sculpture must evoke or in some way engage the archaic presence
of the body in space. It must suggest the primitive experience of being
a body in space, and convey the vicissitudes of the body in time. It must
suggest what it feels like to live one’s body and how one’s body lives
its own space and the space in which
The painting of a body puts it at a certain remove in a certain imaginary space, but the sculpture of a body puts it in literal space. It becomes a partner to our own body, rather than a remote reference to it. Indeed, it becomes a peculiar obstacle and objection to our own body, for it confronts our occupancy of space with its own, forcing us back on our own visceral givenness, our own insistent right to occur physically in space. In short, the unmistakable sign of sculpture is that it makes us aware of our body as the fundament of our being by reason of its own ability to express fundamental bodiliness. Sculpture is most convincing when it makes us conscious of our innermost feelings about our body.
Georg Baselitz, "Dresdner Frauen-Karla", 1990. Wood with tempera, 62.25 x 26.5 x 22.5 in.
I submit that what makes the German sculpture of the last few decades
uniquely important is that it conveys the primitive sense of the body as
raw spatial and expressive presence. It tells the story of the body that
has survived suffering, both the suffering inherent to life and the suffering
society unavoidably inflicts on the individual. It presents a body that
holds its own in space, sometimes heroically, sometimes inconspicuously—almost
invisibly. Some sculptors—particularly Markus Lüpertz—do this by dealing
with various mythological renderings of the body, others—notably Wolfgang
Laib—do this by implying its presence in a kind of mystical space. Whether
raw and naked, as in the case of Georg Baselitz, or dressed in everyday
clothes, as in the case of Stephan Balkenhol, the body is an indomitable
if wounded presence. It is vulnerable, yet stoically invincible, as Thomas
Schütte’s figures suggest. For postwar German sculptors, the representation
of the body is the alembic of self and social discovery. For them the body
is at once existentially urgent and historically specific, the one place
in life where the truth cannot be hidden, indeed, where it is starkly visible.
The truth always marks our bodies, whether we understand it or not. It
is by looking at our naked bodies that we understand what life has done
to us, in a way no amount
Markus Lüpertz, "Prometheus", 1989. Painted bronze, 82.75 x 20.75 x 17 in.
Markus Lüpertz’s "Prometheus" (1989) makes the point
succinctly. A crumbling figure, his pale wounded liver visible on a blue
ground—the use of paint is a constant of German sculpture—as though it
was a cloud in the sky, raises his arm, in a gesture at once weary and
defiant. For all his pain and uncertain footing—his crooked legs turn inward,
as though he is trying to find a position in which he can support the weight
of his body—he stands upright, unbowed by his suffering at the hands of
the gods. His head turns to the sky they inhabit, perhaps accusing them
of their crime against him. He is clearly an unhappy hero, but—
Thomas Schutte, "Die Fremden", 1992. Ceramic, installation view
Since the Renaissance—since Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald—and especially in 20th-century portraiture—Max Beckmann and Otto Dix are major instances—German artists have been masters of body language, particularly of facial expression and the gesturing hand. Contemporary German sculptors are no exception. But what they add to this repertoire is a concern with posture that has been apparent at least since Lehmbruck’s strangely mournful yet erect and curiously incorruptible figures. The German person, however defeated by life and history, refuses to give up and lie down and die, but rather has sufficient vitality and strength to hold himself upright, suggesting his moral authenticity and authority, whatever his human failings. Somehow his uprightness blames them on others—on life in general, and history in particular: his uprightness signifies his purity, despite it all. Through his uprightness, he dominates the space that has wronged him, the outside world that has forced itself upon him—but not penetrated him, not stripped him of his self-possession, which is represented by his courageous uprightness.
In short, the secret of the German body is that its suffering is caused by external forces located in abstract space, rather than by forces that arise from inside it. Its uprightness shrugs off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune just as St. Sebastian shrugged off the arrows that made him a martyr for a higher cause. A similar bad fortune appears in the form of Anselm Kiefer’s bruised bomber sculptures, Olaf Nicolai’s so-called “biological sculptures”—raw rocks with a bit of growth clinging to them—and Carsten Nicolai’s homonculus figure, anonymous to the point of being without identity. In short, the German body is the quintessential unwilling victim and martyr—to the cause of the self, more particularly, the idea of being oneself—even if there is not much self to be—whatever the circumstances.
A.R. Penck, "Aztonek", 1987. Bronze, 14 x 5 x 5 in.
Clearly, recent German sculpture is an allegory of the self agitated by annihilative anxiety, as the remarkable series of carved heads Baselitz executed in the ‘80s indicates. These striking heads, which belong to the great tradition of German wood carving that dates back to medieval times, modernized by the incorporation of the primitivist methods and ideology of Expressionist wood carving and the African wood carving that inspired it in part, are major images of the German self tormented by circumstances beyond its control—tormented by space itself, which has clearly made inroads into its face, all but gouging it out. The pile of heads that form A. R. Penck’s totemic "Aztonek" (1987) show a similar anxiety and disturbed self-awareness and have a similar nightmarish quality as well as primitivism. Felix Drose’s "Re-Encounter with a Long Lost Mariner" (1983) while altogether different in method—it is junk art, an assemblage of discarded industrial objects—is also the image of a victim, indeed, a completely destroyed figure, implicitly heroic, as the large circular plane of rusted metal that forms its head and the heavy mock classical bust of waste industrial metal on which it is mounted, suggest. This ironic “wasted” figure is also a martyr to the German cause of futile selfhood—integrity even when the odds are completely against one. Penck’s primitivist "Monument to a Divided Germany" (1986) makes the point clearly: the German self has been distorted beyond recognition by history, but however strange it remains as upright as a totem, enduring as a symbol, the way the biblical pillar of salt is the symbol of a self that could not help but look back at the place that it came from, a self that paid the price for the history it meant to leave behind but clearly could not. Even Rebecca Horn’s crazy constructions—accumulations of everyday objects such as "Tower of the Beds" (1994)—have the aura of victimhood. There is a perverse pathos in Horn’s "Concert for Anarchy" (1994), an upside down piano suspended in air, its keys angling helplessly and purposelessly. Clearly, it can no longer be played—the great tradition of German music is at an end, turned upside down by history, betrayed by German politics.
Rebecca Horn, "Bees Planetary Map", 1998. Straw baskets, wire, motors, mirror disks, shattered mirror, sound, lights, and wall text, dimensions variable
Even in this work the body is present by reason of its tragic absence,
just as it is in Laib’s golden honeycomb passages and Martin Kippenberger’s
Metro Net Sculpture "Transportable Subway Entrance" (1997), and
for that matter, in Reinhard Mucha’s installations, which deal with such
sites as railroad stations and concentration camps. All these works deal
with uninhabited space, space with something missing but implied, a space
of human presence which seems to fit no particular human being, and as
such a space that is more haunting than any human being—any body that might
move through it. Whatever the sculptural strategy—traditional, as in the
case of such older generation sculptors as Baselitz, Kiefer, Lüpertz,
and Penck, who are essentially primitivist and expressionist, in however
mannerist a way; or more conspicuously avant-garde, as in the case of Balkenhol,
Drose, Horn, Kippenberg, Mucha, and Schütte, who tend toward mixed
media installation—the body
Clearly, there is a reference back to Joseph Beuys, the father figure
of the contemporary generation of body artists and social—one should say
psychosocial—sculptors, and to his famous notion of social sculpture. There
is also an attempt to transcend him. It succeeds only in its means, but
the underlying motive of the post-Beuysian sculptors remains the same
Donald Kuspit has written numerous articles and books on art, including "The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist".
Reinhard Mucha, Untitled, 1993. Mixed media, left 78.75 x 93 x 7 in., right: 51 x 43.75 x 19.5 in.