Exhibitions: Isa Genzken at MoMA NYC

Isa GenzkenNote: All photos taken by the writer.

With a career spanning nearly forty years (and counting) and a body of work notable for both its breadth and variety, Isa Genzken is an artist well worth a look. Her current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a compelling retrospective, covering everything from her early minimalist sculpture and miniature assemblages to her street photography and memorial designs for the World Trade Center. Born and raised in Germany, Genzken has primarily worked in Cologne and Berlin, with some stints in New York. She studied under painter Gerhard Richter at the Dusseldorf Fine Arts Academy, and the two were married for a time after she graduated. Her work is wildly diverse, but characterized by its mix of wacky, irreverent hodgepodge and Minimalist gravitas. The exhibition galleries abound with so many different objects and images, blending advertising slick and experimental painting with large-scale industrial sculpture and colorful found materials. I was delighted with each new room, each new discovery, for I was largely unfamiliar with Genzken’s range and output.

The show opens with a brand new piece, entitled Actors. A number of assemblaged mannequin figures are arranged against a backdrop of magazine covers and headlines. Their eclectic collage elements make for a grouping both funny and confrontational, with the title suggesting a stage set. Walking into the exhibition proper, the galleries are organized chronologically and generally separated by decade. Genzken’s 70s work sees her burgeoning engagement with Minimalism as well as found imagery, with slender canoe-like forms that sweep across the floor, and enlarged prints of advertisements for stereo systems (the artist was fascinated by the aesthetic forms of audio equipment).

Genzken-Actors3Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-Actors2Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-actors1Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Isa Genzken first galleryIsa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Basic Research 1989Isa Genzken: Basic Research, 1989.
Genzken-MLR 1992Isa Genzken: MLR, 1992.
Genzken-gallery view Isa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Little Window 1994 Isa Genzken: Little Window, 1994.
Genzken-Lamp 1996Isa Genzken: Lamp, 1996.

In the 80s and 90s she moved on to concrete and resin sculpture- some fairly monumental in size- and textured paintings. I loved the feel of this gallery, with its sturdy, large-scale works in different industrial materials and geometric forms, a few reaching up towards the skylight. They are reminiscent of ruined buildings and cityscapes, but somewhat whimsical in their tactility and shapes. Along the walls are various experimental canvases, adding some color to the room but generally maintaining the subdued tones of the sculpture. The MLR series of paintings were made with spray paint and stencils, with layered compositions that recall architectural patterns and photogram silhouettes. The Basic Research series was created through frottage (a rubbing-out technique), resulting in a fascinating textured effect that had me doing double takes. A lot of her work had me doing double takes, actually. Genzken does not go for the obvious effect, combining and altering various familiar shapes and objects in unexpected ways.

By 2000, she was making the kitschy assemblage sculpture she is perhaps most known for, as seen in the sardonic series Fuck the Bauhaus. With these frankly silly works, she knowingly goes against the Bauhaus school’s belief in function over form, putting together wonderfully convoluted and useless- but vaguely architectural- combines. Around this time she began using found objects and materials found in hardware stores or street fairs. She continued to create abstract sculpture but in using such objects there is a note of representation and figuration seen in them. Her works also became more suited to site-specific installation, with series of sculptures coming together to form one immersive room, while also allowing her space for political and social commentary. The American Room– a set of assemblages that pokes fun at material culture, capitalism, and nationalism in the United States- and Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death– assemblages paired with a film that act as commentary on the American presence of Iraq- are examples of this.

Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 2 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 2, 2000.
Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 4 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 4, 2000.
imageIsa Genzken: Social Facade, 2002.
Genzken-The American Room 2004 Isa Genzken: The American Room, 2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 2Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 3Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).

The final gallery shows a grouping of Genzken’s Ground Zero project, produced in response to a call for design proposals for the World Trade Center site. Genzken was in New York City during the 9/11 attacks, and these works serve as her response to the event. Together they form a sort of eclectic miniature city, with buildings constructed out of found materials both high- and low-end. The artist stresses celebration and fun over sorrow, transforming the space into a happy memorial to the city itself.

Genzken’s tremendous output is of course only partially represented here, but MoMA has collected together an impressive array of the artist’s works, reflecting her personal and professional development since the early 1970s. With such a diverse oeuvre, I responded differently to certain movements in her work. Her concrete and resin sculpture is fantastic, her miniature assemblages are complex and often delightful, and her abstract paintings are surprisingly intricate. I was less compelled by her earlier minimalist sculpture and mid-90s street photography, however. Ultimately, Isa Genzken: Retrospective is a fun, varied exhibit that has so much to offer: art historical references, urban culture, political commentary, visual wit, and a good dose of wacky humor.

Genzken-Light (Ground Zero) 2008Isa Genzken: Light (Ground Zero), 2008.
Genzken-Ground Zero roomIsa Genzken: Ground Zero, 2008 – gallery view.
Genzken-Untitled 2012 Isa Genzken: Untitled, 2012.
Genzken-friend portraits 1998-2000Isa Genzken: Kai, 2000; Isa, 2000; Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998. Portraits of Genzken’s friends, including artists Dan Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Genzken-Gay Baby series 1997Isa Genzken: Gay Baby series, 1997.
Genzken-Slot Machine 1999-2000Isa Genzken: Slot Machine, 1999-2000.

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