Sitability Undermined: The Nail Works of Günther Uecker
Günther Uecker, The Early Years at L & M Arts
March 9 – April 16, 2011
45 East 78th Street
New York City, (212) 861-0020
Günther Uecker is a significant and complex artist who has built a career out of interweaving nails and light in ways that often require the active participation of the viewer. His art is not, in terms of Matisse’s famous aphorism, “art for a tired businessman”. Indeed, one of the major targets of Uecker’s aesthetic mission is not to allow our hypothetical tired businessman even a chair to sit on. Instead, we are presented with a chair (Chair II, 1963) that has its sitability undermined by an infestation of nails. This chair represents Uecker’s attempt to create an art that “invades the everyday world in which we live” (to quote the exhibition catalogue) in order to subvert the slick consumerism of his day. In this work and others, nails appear to function simultaneously as a source of protection and as an icon of suffering.
Indeed, Uecker’s moral complexity undermines the very movement that he was initially associated with—the Zero Group—as its third founding member with Otto Piene and Heinz Mack. While Uecker shares with this group an interest in kinetic art and the use of machines to play with light and shadow, he is not merely reacting against the subjectivity of the dominant aesthetic legacy of his time, Abstract Expressionism. Aspects of Uecker’s work are a reaction against the “zero hour” in Post-war Germany that allowed people to begin anew without coming to terms with their complicit role in the Holocaust. Like other children of the perpetrator generation, including Anselm Kiefer, he acknowledges the past but seeks to do better—to transcend “the silence of the elders” as Uecker indicated in the sensitive catalogue interview with Hans Obrist.
What has emerged is an art in which time plays a significant role. This dynamic strategy is well illustrated in Sand Mill (1970), a ten-foot round “earthwork” taken indoors that celebrates the work of the farmer laboring with a plow. Installed by the artist, using an electric motor, wood and a cord to drag stones around a low mound of rocky earth, Sand Mill cyclically creates and erases concentric furrows, powerfully depicting destruction and renewal. The circular format of this work is anticipated by a wall work like Spiral, 1958, in which Uecker used a nail to laboriously create a target-like structure.
Another major kinetic work is Five Light Disks, Cosmic Vision, 1961-1981, a configuration of five disks with nailed surfaces that expose us to Uecker’s rough beauty. Like Sand Mill, there is a concern with time, but here time slows down, producing a new reality for these nailed surfaces, which both reflect light and partition it. They are Uecker’s Impressionist paintings of the cosmos. Varying the colors of the five disks and their rates of movement serve to counteract the aggressive aura that some of his nail structures create. Further, they require the observer to participate in completing the work by moving up to and across the disks that span more than 23 feet. In so doing, one can notice that two of the disks move almost imperceptibly, one has a red floor pedal that requires the observer to power the pulley, and one does not move all but appears to do so because it is the only one in which the black nails are of different diameters and lengths. This work demonstrates that what we see affects what we do and what we do affects what we see – a basic tenet of J.J. Gibson’s model of perception.
Other works border on the figural but ultimately focus less on the object and more on our encounter with it. Perhaps the most powerful example is New York Dancer I, 1965, which is a human-scaled vertical cloth structure covered with nails that stands on the floor and rotates feverishly and noisily when you press a foot pedal. While it was in motion, we backed away, afraid that a nail might escape. This piece has the visual impact of many African fetish figures that are invested with powers ranging from protection to revenge. But Uecker is an artist of many moods. There is a more lyrical five-foot square wall piece that is composed of white nails and uses multiple shadows to create the sensation that a spectral bird-like figure is levitating off the canvas (White Bird, 1964).
Taken together, this exhibition is like Benjamin’s “angel of history” where we are driven simultaneously to look backward and forward. The blend of geometry and expressionism is Post-Minimal at a time when Minimalism itself was largely nascent. Moreover, it appears that Uecker’s generativity has opened up options for several artists over the past forty-five years, as seen in Eva Hesse’s breast-like wall pieces and cubes with black rubber protuberances, Tara Donovan’s recent pin ensembles at PACE last month that created fields of movement, and Mona Hatoum’s, Plus and Minus sand installation at MOMA in 2007 that created cycles of creation and destruction.
Kudos to L & M Arts for mounting this show with loans from museums and private collections. Whereas Uecker’s work has been well known and appreciated in Europe for more than five decades, it has received little attention in New York. This eye- and mind-stretching exhibition of his early paintings, sculptures, and installations should have gone some way toward rectifying this omission.