Above: Isa Genzken at Hauser & Wirth, London (Source: Contemporary Art Daily)
Having fallen badly after another drinking binge, probably the most important artist of her generation, the Berlin sculptor Isa Genzken was in a fight with her own dreadfully abused body not to miss the retrospective of her work which went on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on November 1, 2013, which was, coincidentally, her 65th birthday, before going on to Chicago and Montreal.
Genzken has bipolar disorder and goes through manic and depressive phases that are worsened by alcoholism and abuse of narcotics. A great beauty in her youth, with long dark hair and sparkling brown eyes, she often survived by being a model. Using her experiences as a mannequin to document the triviality of the fashion world and her own aging process and decline, she is a true nonconformist in a very staid German art world. Simply more talented and multifaceted than anyone else in the German art world, her brave individualism has led to a collective indifference to her work in critical circles.
In the 1970s, she sculpted wood into geometric shapes. During the 1980s, she changed to concrete. Two master works of this era are the works Pink Room and Small Pavilion. Unfathomable to critics on their subtle steel pedestals, they were like nothing else created anywhere. Genzken describes the architecture of her work to Grafis as “The best part of what will ultimately turn into a ruin.” One series of sculptures, New Buildings featured sheets of glass and plastic leaning against each other. These modern objects are crystalline, yet slovenly, a kind of instantaneous before and after. “Fuck the Bauhaus!!” she called one exhibit.
Fascinated by visits to New York, she spray-painted twisted pieces of sheet metal with bright colors and graffiti, hung them and called them names like Gay Baby. Images of destruction: three-dimensional tableaux that resemble 16mm film stills, garish arrangements of plastic toys, wheelchairs, shattered parasols, and figures imposed on fields of bombed-out ruins. Beauty made from ugly things, and the trivialization of ‘beauty’ as in an assortment of sunglasses on busts of Nefertiti. Genzken created a junkie’s junk world of minimalism and trash, neon and despair. Influences like Hieronymus Bosch, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol tossed into a blender with Mies Van Der Rohe.
Eight years ago, she opened an exhibition in Cologne called Filming Children. The installation features her repeated persona, a lone, forlorn-looking baby doll standing beneath a Coca-Cola umbrella. Two plastic figures at consoles are both filming the doll, ‘controlling’ it remotely. It’s accompanied by a piece called Sketches for a Feature Film, part of a film script about a lonely girl named Hanne-Rose next to a towering sculpture of a single rose.
Genzken grew up in an the upper-class part of Hamburg before moving to Berlin in 1970, where her parents inherited the villa of her grandfather, Karl Genzken, according to Der Spiegel. A Nazi doctor in World War Two, Karl headed the medical office of the so-called ‘Death’s Head’ unit of the SS, which ran the concentration camps, he was later promoted to chief of the medical office of the Waffen-SS which carried out forced sterilizations and typhus experiments at the Dachau concentration camp. Imprisoned after the war until his death, Isa was often taken to visit him.
Thus, years later, obsessed with his memory and the knowledge of his crimes, she created Ellipsoids. Twelve meters (39 feet) long, these works of wooden sculpture painted black, red and yellow are stunning. Her show led her to meet the painter Gerhard Richter, who has also used the crimes of Nazi doctors as a theme. They wed, but Genzken’s vision and talent was far wider than that of her jealous battering husband. Having returned with a vengeance to many bad habits, she split with Richter in 1986 and moved from the Rhineland back to Berlin where she has influenced generations of younger artists. Appreciated by them and an audience in the United States, she may now get the kudos she deserves in her home country. Like her or not, Genzken demonstrates the possibilities of what great art can be – exquisite, brutal, contemptuous, convincing and true. Her visions truly devastate this viewer.