To honor Isa Genzken on the occasion of her 75th birthday, Klaus Biesenbach, director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, granted the artist’s wish—to display 75 of her sculptures in the open, light-drenched ground-floor glass pavilion of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic building. “75/75” (on view through November 27, 2023) marks a monumental homecoming for the city’s beloved sculptor, who made Berlin her base in the mid-1990s and has since become one of Germany’s most famous living artists.
Given the exhibition’s chronological arrangement, it inevitably comes across as a retrospective, despite not labeling itself as such. The show departs from Genzken’s earliest “Ellipsoids” series, made while she was still a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the late 1970s. These rather simple and quite long wooden structures, varnished in lacquer, form elongated versions of the titular shape lying limp on the floor. Clearly ensconced in the language of Minimalism, they give little sign of the artist Genzken was later to become, save for the fluorescent colors she continues to prefer.
From wood, she moved on to concrete and plaster—indeed, it seems that much of the young sculptor’s career was preoccupied by experimentation with different materials. Here, Genzken began to hit her stride, in particular with the tableau format that she would later exploit so successfully, wherein various elements, set on elevated plinths, often resemble models for theatrical sets. Works like Weltempfänger (World Receivers, 1988–89) demonstrate that she had yet to completely free herself from the Minimalist vernacular. Blocks with jutting antennae suggest radios (the forms are modeled on and named after short-wave radios from the time), yet they are ironically sculpted from gray concrete, that most unmoving and soundless of materials. (Genzken’s operational studio Weltempfänger, from 1982, is also on display.) The ensuing “Fenster” (“Windows”) series more explicitly dialogues with the production and ideals of Modernist architecture.
Next, she began to experiment with epoxy resin—whose cheap-looking plasticity is a world away from sculpture’s traditional monumentality—producing a series of standing works, supported by steel, reminiscent of cut-rate decor. A playful embrace of trash and detritus rises to the fore, as seen in the tableau works Fuck the Bauhaus #1 and #2 (both 2000), in which she combines an interrogation of materiality with a drive toward narrative in anarchic assemblages, including a pizza box, a shopping bag, colored tape, toy cars, seashells.
This gives rise to the great operatic bricolage tendency in her works from the 2000s onwards—so outrageous in their limitless free associations, so wild and fun. Much like the late John Ashbery, whose poems late in his career became increasingly bold in their experimentation (the polar opposite of the stereotype so many harbor of the elderly, who are supposed to become more conservative and closed off to the world year by year), Genzken only grows wilder and more fearless as she ages.
One sees this, for example, in Ohne Titel (Flugzeugfenster) (2005), in which she has salvaged a pair of airplane windows, splattered them with paint, and hung them from the ceiling, as well as in her most recent return to the human figure in the “Schauspieler” series, where she enlivens department store mannequins with found garments and décor that take avant-garde fashion to absurdist heights. Looking at the trajectory of this survey, almost overwhelming in its inspired multi-directionality, one can only imagine what Genzken, who still possesses the relentless inventiveness of a prodigy at 75, might bring to fruition in the coming decade.