A career retrospective that looks like a massive, unwieldy group show. Work made over the past thirty plus years, much of which looks like it was made yesterday, some of which looks like it was made tomorrow.
Isa Genzken is one of those rare artists who seems to have begun her career fully formed. Even the earliest work on view in her retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has the presence and bearing that usually comes with the sureness of age. She’s the kind of artist, like Picasso or Bruce Nauman, who is so overflowing with good ideas that a lesser artist could steal just one of them and fashion an entire career out of it.
There are many recurrent themes that circulate throughout the show, but spatial relationships between objects and beings dominate. Architecture is the perfect vehicle for Genzken to mine, and it allows her to thoroughly interrogate interiority and exteriority, as well as bend, stretch, and goof on the viewer’s perceptual expectations and experiential interactions with the works.
The catalogue, the MCA’s Chief Curator Michael Darling, and even some critics—including Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker—allude to the hardships, pain, and trauma of Genzken’s biography, and speculate on how it has impacted her art. Growing up in post-World War II Germany, facing gender prejudice as an artist and a woman, and battling alcoholism—which at one point led to hospitalization—it’s hard not to be stirred by the facts of her life. The essential take away seems to be the funny and forlorn obsession with subjectivity and objectivity that saturates much of her work. Maybe Genzken is hounded by the past, but her doggedness puts it in perspective.
Isa Genzken, X-Ray, 1991; © Isa Genzken / Courtesy Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Genzken’s image is present throughout the exhibition, and the presence of her physical body is palpably felt. There are photographic portraits of her ear and face, x-rays of her head, videos of her nude or semi-nude body from youth to the present day. And yet, she remains mercurial. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button, Genzken seems to be aging in reverse in the sense that, the older she gets, the more radical, outlandish and loose her work becomes. Try this: Enter her MCA show backwards by making a left instead of a right. You’ll find posed and primped mannequins outfitted in Genzken’s own clothes (Schauspieler [Actors], (2003)), the tragicomic bombardment of to-scale dioramas of playgrounds made out of dollar store junk and high design furnishings (Kinder Filmen [Children Filming], (2005)), and collaged luggage in airport security line formation topped with dangling astronauts (Oil, (2007)). These couldn’t be more antithetical to the complex, finely crafted, severe but aesthetically arresting objects, photographs, and videos that await you at the exhibition’s start.
Nearer to this true entrance, a small bump-out room houses the aforementioned x-rays alongside a sculptural work inspired by the Hancock building’s unique x-shaped cross bracing. Called the Chicago room, it unfortunately suffers the fate of many a Chicago room before it—by segregating the works in such a fashion, they become separate but not equal to the rest of the show. This tendency to geographically structure one part of an exhibition begs a larger question: If this is the Chicago room, what is the rest of the show? Also very much about place are the throbbing, frenetic I Love New York, Crazy City scrap books (1995-6), taped and pasted together from photos and ephemera; the exquisite Basic Research paintings (1989), made by lying un-stretched canvas across her studio floor and pulling paint across it to create a sort of “rubbing”; and of course, Der Amerikanische Raum (The American Room), an executive’s desk adorned with a gesticulating, spray-paint de-faced Scrooge McDuck. Although specific cities have made a big impact on her, is it productive to isolate and de-contextualize them? Especially for an artist like Genzken, who has been so influential in—and so influenced by—urban centers across Europe and America, this very well intentioned micro-exhibition provincializes work it intends to elevate and pay special tribute to.
The exhibition itself can effectively be divided into two sections, before and after the 1990s. Some have attributed the radical shift in Genzken’s work around this time to momentous events that took place in her personal life, including a final separation from her husband, renowned German painter Gerhard Richter, and a move from Cologne to Berlin (with the resulting immersion into the younger artistic and social scenes of that city). It manifests itself in a general shift towards the creation of collages and then assemblages, which dominate her practice from then on out.
Outliers of this period, which are stand-out pieces nonetheless, include Haube I (Fraue)/ Haube II (Mann) (Bonnet 1 [Woman]/ Bonnet II [Man]) (1994), which features two gloopy, mottled, resin and epoxy head-less head coverings, rotating almost imperceptibly via motors. The work is right at home amongst the city’s art historical heritage, which James Yood has identified as rooted in the obsession of the depiction of “figures under duress.”
From there, the infamous Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings for New York) is revealed in all its grimy, grizzled glory. Replete with oyster shells, pizza boxes, and a burnt out hula dancing doll—apparently she was still gyrating at MoMA—the pieces in this room really set your teeth on edge and rattle your eyeballs in their sockets. I can’t imagine what it must’ve felt like to see this for the first time when it opened in an off-the-beaten-path New York gallery in 2000. What an especially fitting note to have ended the century on.
Her other massive series of scale models, Empire/Vampire (2003) extends her long-term focus on urbanity and modernity, but strikes an emotional tenor that’s the complete opposite of the free-wheeling exuberance of Fuck the Bauhaus. As a reflection on the events of September 11th, which Genzken coincidentally witnessed first hand on a trip to New York, they depict mock carnage made from dissected athletic shoes and plastic army figurines drenched in slasher film-esque splatters of red paint. Despite the indecency of most of the scenes, I can’t think of many other artists, American or otherwise, who have had the courage and tenacity to really re-image that intensely significant world event and try and contend with its psychic trauma in such an honest and plain fashion. For me, the most successful example of this is Da Vinci (also 2003). It’s a grouping of four airplane window frames, with their cookie-cutter modeled plastic bays, oval window panes, and thin plastic pull-down shades that have been spray painted, and in one instance, splattered in rainbow colored paint. Their presence eerily suggests the interior of an airplane, seen from the vantage point of its passengers. They also quietly and simply transform the entire gallery space into the hull of a plane. Their chilling presence makes a profound impact.
Isa Genzken, Kinder Filmen III, VI, VIII, XI, and XII (Children Filming III, VI, VIII, XI, and XII), 2005, Museum Ludwig, Cologne; © Isa Genzken / Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin
As scale models give way to installations, installations in turn give way to immersive environments, hinted at above. By the time you reach the exit, you realize that Isa Genzken has gone from making sculptural objects to re-making the world around you.
This is an amazing show. It is bursting with virile energy, new ideas, and a forceful wit. If you don’t know Genzken’s work already, you absolutely have to go. And if you do know Genzken’s work, you have to see it all laid out in retrospective like this.
There’s a great anecdote repeated over and over in reviews and catalogue essays about her. It tells the story of her entrance examination to the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg. When handed a piece of paper, scissors, and other drafting tools to impress the instructors with, she crumpled it up and threw it on the floor instead. The stunt worked and she got in. Fast-forward to 2007, and that scene seems to anticipate her comment to Nicolaus Schafhausen in an interview when she states: “I’m no longer interested in the art of others.” Luckily, you won’t have to look much further either, because this show has it all.
[Image on top: Isa Genzken, Schauspieler (Actors) (detail), 2013; © Isa Genzken; Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin / Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin]