I have been thinking a lot about Berlin lately—more as a binary concept, rather than just a city. Berlin is a place that provides for anyone who wants it, but can just as easily take away what has been given. It’s a place for an artist to thrive, but one that also allows for distance and isolation. Berlin is a source of inspiration and struggle, of solace and strife. One can disappear into the crowd or be the darling of the spotlight. It is a city that acknowledges its past and readily folds its memories into the construction of its future. These postulations reached a pinnacle for me recently at Isa Genzken’s current presentation at Galerie Buchholz.
Here the artist is showing a selection of early works, as the title of the exhibition aptly suggests, produced in the late 70s and early 80s. The centerpiece of the exhibition takes an unassuming form: a prototype of an artist book produced from black and white photographs mounted onto cardboard titled Berlin (1973). Protected under a Plexiglas vitrine, the book is “conceived by Isa Genzken as her first artistic work relevant to her practice.” The two pages on view depict angular renditions of empty streets and non-descript buildings. The graphic tonal qualities of the prints evoke the grayscale shapes of other works on view in the exhibition, such as the collection of gouaches in The form develops out of the fact that each of the five colours touches each of the other colours (1973) and Parrallelogramme (1975). The works highlight Genzken’s burgeoning interest in architecture as a societal construct, a theme that resonates throughout her career.
Isa Genzken, Doppelellipsoid Zwilling, 1982/2013, computer printout on continuous paper, 2 parts, each 37,5 x 606 cm, c-print 15 x 12 cm, wooden table, perspex 75 x 608 x 78 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz.
This exhibition (I hesitate to call it a retrospective) might come as a pleasant surprise to an audience familiar with Genzken’s haphazard sculptures and brightly-hued installations. The work on display is subdued and calculated, even a bit restrained. These adjectives again call to mind the aesthetic feeling of a Berlin that exists just outside the gallery windows. Computer printouts reference mathematical renditions of sculptures to be produced, while grid-like drawings provide an architectural grounding and showcase the artist’s developing interests in form. Other aspects of this showing might seem recognizable under closer scrutiny. Untitled (1974) and Ellipse no. 1 (1976), Genzken’s first sculptural iterations, are showcased alongside the original computer renderings. Oriented differently than their computed blueprints, these sculptural works act as a balance between the past and the present.
Isa Genzken, Untitled, 1974, 2 parts, oil on wood, 250.5 x 4 x 1 cm and 206 x 2 x 2 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz.
The most intriguing aspect of this exhibition comes from the artist’s collaboration with the gallery to produce a show that offers a deft re-contextualization of past works from her career. Genzken’s history is rearranged and brought to light—with many aspects being shown for the first time. Mining an archive can be like producing a fiction: only the truths one wants made visible become so. In some ways, this exhibition could be seen as Genzken’s love letter to Berlin. Her relationship to the city throughout her artistic foundation is laid bare, charted out, and then repositioned for alterative interpretation. For Early Works, Genzken has managed to pull executions from the past and to present them in ways that are as relevant today as they were when she originally made them.
(Image on top: Isa Genzken, "Early Works" Installation view, 2013; Courtesy of the artist & Galerie Daniel Buchholz.)