Isa Genzken: Retrospective

Isa Genzken, Disco Soon (Ground Zero), 2008, cardboard, plastic, mirror, spray paint, synthetic polymer, metal, fabric, light ropes, foil, paper, fiberboard, casters, 86 1/2 x 80 3/4 x 65".

THE TITLE OF ISA GENZKEN’S 1992 midcareer survey, “Everybody needs at least one window,” alluded to one of her sculpture series, as well as to the artist’s sustained engagement with architecture and light, and a famous historical discourse on the picture plane. But the exhibition’s title also suggests an ethics of freedom and space not so far removed from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Lisa Lee, writing in her catalogue essay for Isa Genzken: Retrospective, provocatively imagines the artist as herself a kind of window: “The struggle to depict the world, which has preoccupied many visual artists, is rendered moot by Genzken, who simply brackets a bit of reality.”

Among the most celebrated contemporary European artists, Genzken is less known to an American audience. Her relative obscurity will end this fall with the artist’s first US retrospective, which opened in November at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and will travel to co-organizing institutions the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago) and the Dallas Museum of Art. The catalogue is therefore a crucial primer, handily consolidating critical writings covering over four decades of Genzken’s art.

As almost every rigorous essay here is at pains to point out, Genzken’s oeuvre is as diverse as it is directed. How do we understand work spanning such a wide spectrum of material and meaning, work that, as Lee writes, is just as likely to reference Donald Duck as Donald Judd? In these pages we encounter post-Minimalism via giant “knitting needle” sculptures from the 1970s; photographs featuring the ears of strangers encountered on the street; the stunning Weltempfänger (World Receiver), 1987-89, its radio antennas sticking out from mute concrete blocks; and the messier assemblage of the last two decades, such as the scrappy 2000 series “Fuck the Bauhaus,” or the 2008 multisculpture installation Ground Zero, described by Michael Darling in his essay as “heartfelt and absurd offerings to Genzken’s beloved New York.” There are links back to other trailblazing predecessors: Genzken’s elegant “Portrait Columns,” exhibited in familial groupings, evoke Louise Bourgeois’s “Personages” from the 1940s and ’50s.

Although lacking essays by a few prominent critical voices (Benjamin Buchloh is noticeably absent, if everywhere quoted), Isa Genzken: Retrospective provides an exhaustive chronology, exhibition history, and bibliography (by Stephanie Weber). The book outlines key collaborative figures throughout the artist’s career, including Buchloh, Gerhard Richter (to whom Genzken was married for just over a decade), Kai Althoff, and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose photographic portraits of the artist, particularly Isa, dancing, from 1995, are revelatory, and happily pop up in the book (as well as in Genzken’s sculpture). Like the best of its genre, this catalogue makes one impatient to see the exhibition. Everybody needs her own view.