Isa Genzken

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

Isa Genzken could easily be seen as a strange, marginal eccentric German sculptor whose body of work, while containing moments of purity and something close to mysterious beauty, has been too restless, uncertain and uneven for her to match her contemporaries or merit huge attention.
If she had gone on taking photographs of women’s ears, which she did in 1980 – she asked them casually in the streets of New York if they would mind if she photographed their ears, telling them they had ‘nice ears’ – then we would know what to do with her. She would be the woman who does ears. We could love her, or grow tired of her, or someone could pay a record price for a piece of her work, her ‘Ear’.
If she had gone on making enormously long and skinny shapes in wood and fiberglass, which she did in the early 1970s and early 1980s, having their shape worked out for her on a computer in a factory which makes armaments, and running them across the gallery floor like bits of tubing cut open, or elongated boats, then we would also have her figured out. She would be a strange German minimalist whose work I could do without.
If she had merely taken the wonderful black and white photographs of skyscrapers in New York, which she did in the late 1990s, filled, on the one hand, with texture and suggestion and, on the other, with a deep love for brave angles and monuments and large scale in architecture, then I would long to own one of her prints. I would even want some of the colour prints which are also brilliant.
If she had gone on taking photographs of the x-rays of her own skull, as she did in 1989, for example, or if she had made more roses in stainless steel, aluminium and lacquer which were to be placed in front of public buildings, as she did in the 1990s, or if she had only made airplane windows, as she did from the 1990s, then she would be as famous as Christo, and on her way to becoming as famous as Gerard Richter, to whom she was married for ten years.
If she had just made her great totem poles or columns, using wood, paper, tape, lacquer, glass, foil, aluminium, making some tall, others small, filled with colour and textures and images and symbols.
Or if she merely had made jokey sculpture using bits of domestic furniture like sofas or standard lamps.
Or merely created pieces of sculpture made of windows.
Or if she had just made her marvelous ‘Pile of Rubbish’ (1984), using plaster, paper and metal.
Or just made the bits of concrete she made, like something left over, rotting, hitting some with a hammer.
Or invented a whole lot of versions of her ‘World Receiver’ from 1992 in which two aerials stick up uselessly from a concrete block.
If she had done one of these things or even two, we could get the measure of her.
Instead, she will not be pinned down. The interviews she has done cast no light on the origins of her inspiration; instead they made clear how intelligent she is, and subtle and uncompromising. She was born in 1948, studied in Hamburg, Berlin and Dusseldorf. She lives now in Berlin.
She is as fascinated by beauty as she is by destruction, by the single and inspired human creation as by mass production, by purity of line as by vast clutter, by austerity as by plenty of noise and fuss. Some of her models for new buildings in Berlin from recent years are stunning pieces of work, filled with a strange idealism and purity. Her models for beach huts, on the other hand, are jokes. It is as though she wakes up every morning, or every month or so, and decides who she will become.
And the work she has been doing over the last few years either must add to her reputation or, once more, go against the grain of who she might become. She has been making sculpture, using glass and mass produced figures and elaborate arrangements, like still, or surreal, lives from a deeply disturbed dream, and these are either meaningful or they are twee. At times, they seems to be both. In any case, this new work, like Genzken’s entire oeuvre, seems destined to start many arguments and settle none.