I reached that point last week where I desperately needed to stop writing about art and just go look at some. This overwhelming hunger to consume actual things, physical objects and images, led me to do a little binge-viewing this past weekend here in Chicago. The Art Institute offered a reinstallation of their modern collection and two very “smart” exhibitions by men named Christopher, Christopher Wool and Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness, which I found, respectively, underwhelming, too cool, and overwhelmingly impenetrable. It was all too flat and simply not my cup of tea. The Isa Genzken: Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary art, however, was like a sudden, intense sugar rush caused by eating multiple, delicious candy colored cupcakes…but without the usual wave of regret that follows.
Having only been casually aware of Genzken’s work, mostly through her participation in the New Museum’s landmark 2007 exhibition and the effusive press coverage over the past six months of the exhibition while installed at MoMA, I entered into the MCA with few expectations beyond my desire to look at some sculpture—a luxurious and rare experience for anyone who spends the majority of their time thinking and writing about art. My first impression wasn’t great. Guarding the entrance like deranged sentinels is Genzken’s 2013 work Schauspieler (Actors), a collection of mannequins, adorned with various scraps of brightly colored clothing, and bric-a-brac interspersed amongst the figures. As an art historian I know this work is “directional” and carefully, consciously constructed with detritus of the contemporary urban environment, textured with materials that speak to transparency, consumerism, and the quotidian costumes we all wear in some capacity. As a hangry art viewer, however, all I could help but think was how unbearably ugly it all looked. Now, I am aware that such, highly unfashionable, admissions are rarely made in public and I am far from a Matisse-disciple who only wants beauty and harmony and a soft, soothing armchair from their art. I say it regardless, however, because these Actors ended up functioning as a perfect amuse-bouche for the rest of the exhibition.
Organized by Sabine Breitwieser and Laura Hoptman (MoMA), Michael Darling (MCA), and Jeffrey Grove (Dallas Museum of Art), Isa Genzken: Retrospective moves chronologically through the artist’s forty-year career. The first gallery begins with work done while still a student at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Photographs of stereo equipment advertisements adorn the walls and Weltempfänger (World Receiver) (1982), a multiband radio receiver and Genzken’s “only true readymade” sits on a pedestal. Dominating the space, however, is a selection of her “ellipsoids” and “hyberbolos.” Genzken worked with a physicist and carpenter to construct these precise, long sculptures that either touch the ground only in the center or at the two ends. Though made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they appear, at first glance, to be in dialogue with Minimalism. Yet they are handcrafted, not industrially fabricated, and reward a type of close looking not usually needed for minimalist objects. Examining her Rot-schwarz-gelbes, almost floating atop the large, low white platform, one becomes conscious of its layers, its considered deployment of color, its complexity, and its ability to trick your visual and spatial awareness.
This attention to detail, to the little, seemingly insignificant moments, things, and materials, runs throughout her entire body of work, and once aware of its presence, became one of my favorite aspects of it. These details, the inclusion of painted tile on the inside of one of her concrete constructions, the visible metal armature in her resin sculptures, the splatters of paint and strips of tape in her later installations, make the whole work seem considered and specific, keeping them from being one-liners or lumps of autonomous, inert matter. One of my favorite pieces in the exhibition was not even a sculpture but a lamp, ghettoized in the “Chicago Room,” in a lounge space where one of the few films Genzken made, of the urban landscape of Chicago, played. Large, with two long narrow fluorescent bulbs, the exterior of the “shade” resembled her other architectural/sculptural constructions in the adjacent galleries giving off a textured, amber light, while the interior bubbled and oscillated.
The exhibition collectively presents an artist unafraid to change course, and while color and material experimentation are consistent aspects of her practice, there is no “signature style” on view. Connecting, conceptually if not formally, this heterogeneous body of work is an engagement with the city and urban life; whether suggested by investigations into architectural scale, structure, and materials, the assemblage of kitschy everyday consumer objects, or the reference to specific cities including Chicago, Berlin, New York—the latter of which notably dominates the second half of the exhibition as Genzken turned her attentions to the post-9/11 world.
The last two galleries are dedicated to Genzken’s recent work, which is more installation-oriented and overtly political. These works, at time, veer into the terrain of outright spectacle and the type of installation art that, in its heterogeneity, has become homogenous with the contemporary art world. At its weakest moments, Genzken’s recent installations and sculptural accumulations falter under the weight of too much: too much color, too much stuff, too much pointed cleverness. What saves installations like Oil XI (2007; originally shown as a sixteen part installation at the Venice Biennale) is her strong, focused construction and the aforementioned attention to detail. Amongst the barrage of references, the cacophony of color and vulgarity, is, for example, the silver paint splattered film strip mimicking the smoking architectural elements of the World Trade Center in the encased photograph of Memorial Tower (Ground Zero) (2008) or theminiscule astronaut affixed to the larger banner, replicating the life-size astronaut suits suspended above. As the title of a recent New York Times profile of Genzken (which like so much of the recent coverage of this exhibition focuses on her rich if complicated biography) suggests, “No, it isn’t suppose to be easy,” nor does it have to be pretty. Which brings us back to the visually off-putting mannequins, which upon exiting the exhibition perhaps look a little more intriguing, or at least offer a little food for thought.
Isa Genzken: Retrospective runs through 3 August at the MCA. It will then travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, where it will be on view from 14 September 2014 – 4 January 2015.