MoMA Retrospective: The Strange Brilliance of Isa Genzken

By Ulrike Knöfel

Photo Gallery: The Work of German Sculptor Isa Genzken Photos
Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Köln

One of the most important artists of her generation, sculptor Isa Genzken's works of cryptic, haunting beauty sprang from a life fraught with addiction, mental illness and a grisly family history. Now, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is paying tribute to the Berlin artist with a retrospective.

Perhaps this visit isn't a good idea, after all. Isa Genzken fell a few months ago, suffering a head injury. She wasn't in the best of health before the accident, and her recovery has been slow. She walks gingerly through her studio, a bright and inviting space consisting of several large rooms in a former factory. It takes her a long time to get to the sofa in the back. When she sits down, a cigarette in her hand, she looks around the room. Her voice sounds halting, but her words are clear and forceful.

She is surrounded by her work. A piece of interior trim from an aircraft, complete with windows, is hanging in the back room. She often uses windows in her work. Photos taped to a board in another part of her Berlin studio depict the disheveled back of her head.

There is an unfinished work next to a window. It consists of a frame with spray-painted toy cars inside, as if they were in a cave. An obituary for Mike Kelley, which she cut out of a newspaper, is stuck to the back. Kelley was a California artist whose work often centered on the darkness of childhood. He committed suicide last year.

Seeing this art in the place where it is created, before it becomes public, seeing it where Genzken works and lives, and where she will only spend a few hours on this day before a nurse takes her back to the hospital -- it feels like an illegitimate invasion of someone's private space.

There used to be more to see. Until recently the studio was jammed with art, says Genzken from her sofa. Now most of it is in New York.

Genzken loves New York. She was a teenager the first time she visited the city, she says, when the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world. Looking at it still makes her happy today.

The world's most important museum for contemporary art isn't far away. Starting in November, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is hosting a retrospective of Genzken's work, both to mark her 65th birthday and because, as the organizers write, she "is arguably one of the most important and influential female artists of the past 30 years." A contemporary artist could hardly achieve greater recognition. Despite how physically weak she appears to be at the moment, she plans to attend the opening no matter what. And, of course, she also intends to visit the Empire State Building once again.

The MoMA show, which will later travel to Chicago and Dallas, is a triumph for Genzken, albeit a distant one. She isn't nearly as famous in her native Germany, even though she has exhibited at the Documenta contemporary art exhibition three times, represented Germany at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and received many important awards.

'It Wasn't Always Easy'

Also with us in her studio on this day in Berlin is gallery owner Daniel Buchholz, who has been showing her work for the last 25 years. He flew to Berlin this morning from Cologne, where he lives. The story of Isa Genzken is also his story. Today she is his most important artist. But Buchholz always believed in her, even back when she wasn't doing well -- which was often the case.

Genzken has bipolar disorder and goes through manic and depressive phases, and she is also an alcoholic. She is constantly in treatment and fighting the disease. But anyone who knew her in the 1980s would have hardly believed she would still be alive today. There were times when Buchholz had to pull her off the streets, where she regularly ended up, her desolate condition on full display. "It wasn't always easy," he says.

When she began her studies, Genzken earned money as a model. She was a beauty, with long dark hair and sparkling brown eyes. Later, she documented her aging process and her own decline. She is a nonconformist in the German art world, perhaps more surprising and multifaceted than anyone else. "Yes, that might be true," she says with a smile.

In the 1970s, she began working with wood, an old-fashioned material that she carved into unusual geometric shapes. Since the 1980s, she has made sculptures out of concrete, which seem raw and unfinished and yet are as impressive as if they were made of marble. Two of these works are called "Pink Room" and "Small Pavilion." They are not very big, and yet they feel like monstrous bunkers on their delicate-looking steel pedestals.

Neon and Despair

Architecture is one of her subjects. As modern as the word architecture sounds, Genzken sees every structure as the ruin it could turn into. For her series of sculptures called "New Buildings," she leaned sheets of glass and plastic against each other. The objects are reminiscent of models of skyscrapers for a new modern age -- crystalline, highly aesthetic and yet somehow makeshift. She titled one of her shows "Fuck the Bauhaus," because so many architects invoked the Bauhaus after 1945 and yet did not adhere to its rules.

She repeatedly creates metaphors for vulnerability. She spray-paints twisted pieces of sheet metal with bright colors, hangs them on the wall and calls it "Gay Baby." Many of her images depict destruction. She builds tableaus that feel like three-dimensional film stills, brutal arrangements with plastic toys and small plastic figures on replicas of fields of ruins. She creates beauty from ugly things, even wheelchairs and shabby umbrellas. Humor is also a recurring theme in her work. For one installation, she placed an assortment of sunglasses onto busts of Nefertiti.

This is Genzken's world: minimalism and trash, neon and despair. Hieronymus Bosch, Marcel Duchamp, American concept art -- it all flows into her work, as does the mood in the clubs she visits and the mood in her own head.

Genzken has become more productive over time. This is surprising because, from a distance, her life seemed excessive and self-destructive, full of parties and escaping into intoxication. She has used these experiences to create self-deprecating, alienating images, like the work "X-Rays," which consists of actual X-rays of her head. One image shows a wine glass being hoisted to her mouth. Another depicts the bottle. As to how she got access to the X-Ray machine, Genzken is quoted in the MoMA catalog saying she "had a very nice doctor" and he "was drinking, like me."

'Filming Children'

Genzken constantly seeks eye contact with Buchholz. "He understands me," she says, sounding almost cheery. "What have you been doing lately?" she asks him. Buchholz believes that it's good for her to talk about herself and her art. But Genzken doesn't like being asked about the relationship between her works and her life. Suddenly everything she says sounds not like an answer but like a rebuff. She is sitting on a workbench now, swinging her legs and smoking.

There is something cryptic about Genzken's art, something mysterious that is unfathomable and yet perceptible. Her art is very private and sometimes irritating, almost as if she were using it as a coping mechanism.

Eight years ago, she opened an exhibition in Cologne called "Filming Children." At the center of the installation, a lone, forlorn-looking baby doll (which she often uses in her work) was standing beneath a Coca-Cola umbrella. Two plastic figures at consoles are both filming the doll and controlling it remotely.

In 1993, she authored a piece of writing called "Sketches for a Feature Film" for an exhibition catalog. In short bursts of text, as in a film script, she writes about bored and simultaneously overwhelmed parents, who party a lot and love Maria Callas. They give their daughter the second name Hanne-Rose. Genzken later created a towering sculpture of a single rose.

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1. Genzken
chuchu3151 10/26/2013
I have been to her exhibitions out of curiosity to see what all the huffing was all about. What a load of rubbish! That insanity, alcoholism and mental instability has to be glorified, is totally beyond me. There are brilliant artists around that struggle to make ends meet so it is hard to understand this rubbish being glorified.
2. crock
spon-facebook-1136996725 11/17/2013
I've known isa for 15 years. That house you refer to is no villa. Her father was a known drunk. Isa told me she hadn't spoken to her father in decades. She was raised by her mother. Her history is important to her. The ellipsoid pieces were all about computer rendered pieces recreated in wood. I could go on and on...
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