Perhaps the most striking aspect of Isa Genzken: Retrospective—an expansive four-decade survey of the German artist’s work at MCA Chicago featuring sculpture, film, installation, painting, and photography—is the fact that it was all made by the same person. Over the course of her career, Genzken has successfully assimilated a wide array of styles without losing sight of a handful of core concerns: architectural structure, the decay woven into the fabric of empires, the melancholy in the absurd and the absurd in the melancholy, and the creative power of destruction. Throughout the exhibition, the heart of a Dadaist is revealed as the steady bassline underneath the artist’s improvisational approach to form, both of which have grown more bombastic over the years.
Chicago is the second stop for this show (it was in New York over the winter), which was organized in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. Maybe audiences were slightly befuddled the first time around? The museum has a little fun with the idea that the Berlin-based artist may not have “man-on-the-street” name recognition in America. In a short video near the entrance to the show, an interviewer asks a string of puzzled faces, “Do you know who Isa Genzken is?” Seems a bit graceless in the context of a multi-decade career retrospective, particularly given that the MCA press release declares—in the first sentence—“Isa Genzken is one of the most important and influential sculptors of our time.” Of course, the last time a major Chicago-based institution featured Genzken’s work—in 1992—the gallery had the word “renaissance,” not “contemporary,” in its title.
Organizers of the show assert that the retrospective is meant to atone for the omission of Genzken’s presence in American contemporary museums, simultaneously celebrating and introducing the artist’s work. The strength of the show will certainly evoke questions as to why the artist has not received more attention in America. September 11 has been a focus of Genzken’s work since the 2001 terror attacks, which occurred while she was visiting New York. Shortly before that time, the artist began to create sculptural assemblages combining neon-colored plastics, toys, metal lampshades, mirrors, cheap décor, and other shiny detritus supported by crude, tower-like pedestals in a series called Fuck the Bauhaus. Stacked like miniature skyscrapers, the lightly differentiated objects appear used up, dead as disco zombies, but so urgent in their immediacy—so contemporary—that they sever all connection to form and taste pre-Rauschenberg. Like Walter Gropius, Genzken makes an aggressive claim to the new, but in a way that is hostile to the progressive intentions of Bauhaus modernism.
After 2001, Genzken’s neon-overload approach to form took on a vastly more political dimension. The works produced for the series Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death? again mine the excesses of mass production, but with more specific symbolic intention. Evoking 9/11, Da Vinci (2003) consists of a panel of four windows from a commercial airplane. The window shades have been spray-painted with progressively drippier paint. A Lilliputian city (or cemetery?) of roller-board luggage is prominently featured in Oil XI (2007), an installation produced for the German pavilion at the Venice Binnale. Here, the suitcases stand upright, some embellished with stuffed owls and images of dogs and cats. Floating overhead are three NASA space suits. An installation titled American Room (2004) features a silver-painted Scrooge McDuck on a CEO-sized desk flanked by a series of sculptures that include kitschy stuffed eagles—a symbol of both German and American nationalism. Connections to empire, capitalism, history, internet kitsch, and global political conflict underpin Genzken’s ever-mutable exploration of found-object assemblage throughout these series.
Earlier work, particularly the concrete, plaster, and steel sculptures she created during the ’80s and ’90s, also suggest ruin and conflict, albeit in a far more subtle fashion. Minimal in their form, many of the pieces from this time period take the shape of cracked concrete rectangles Genzken calls fensters (windows). Their brutal severity is evocative of Fascist aesthetics, yet the materials, the historical context, and the notion of windows as transitional portals are not disconnected to the Berlin Wall. The sculptures are open-ended enough that they could be completely apolitical. However, little breadcrumbs throughout the show lead back to Germany’s postwar history, like the use of red, yellow, and black in some of her earliest work, or the fact that a series of advertisements for hi-fi equipment, rephotographed in the style of Richard Prince, are from German, American, French, and Japanese media sources, all of which were major players in World War II. Perhaps the most optimistic series in the show, the images unify the countries through a common advertising language. It is also within this series that the seeds for a lifelong exploration of found materials and appropriated sources began. Seeing so much of Genzken’s work in a single exhibition is a great way to visualize that path.
Isa Genzken: Retrospective is on view at MCA Chicago until August 3, 2014.