The Body Vulnerable & Invulnerable: Contemporary German Sculpture

Thomas Schutte, Piazza Due, 1986. Mixed media, installation detail.

Sculpture, like art in general, has become an amorphous concept, ill-defined and perhaps undefinable–yet another case of art-as-epistemological-problem. Anything that occupies space, and doesn’t hang on a wall, is “sculpture” or “sculptural.” The days when, with the English critic Adrian Stokes, one could make a nice neat distinction between three-dimensional objects made by carving and those made by modeling are over. Now, any object that sprawls in space, has physical presence, and manages to hold its own against architecture is sculpture. And yet the root of sculpture since antiquity has been the body’s existence in space. To be emotionally credible, what we call sculpture must evoke or in some way engage the archaic presence of the body in space. It must suggest the primitive experience of being a body in space, and convey the vicissitudes of the body in time. It must suggest what it feels like to live one’s body and how one’s body lives its own space and the space in which it moves.

The painting of a body puts it at a certain remove in a certain imaginary space, but the sculpture of a body puts it in literal space. It becomes a partner to our own body, rather than a remote reference to it. Indeed, it becomes a peculiar obstacle and objection to our own body, for it confronts our occupancy of space with its own, forcing us back on our own visceral givenness, our own insistent right to occur physically in space. In short, the unmistakable sign of sculpture is that it makes us aware of our body as the fundament of our being by reason of its own ability to express fundamental bodiliness. Sculpture is most convincing when it makes us conscious of our innermost feelings about our body.

I submit that what makes the German sculpture of the last few decades uniquely important is that it conveys the primitive sense of the body as raw spatial and expressive presence. It tells the story of the body that has survived suffering, both the suffering inherent to life and the suffering society unavoidably inflicts on the individual. It presents a body that holds its own in space, sometimes heroically, sometimes inconspicuously–almost invisibly. Some sculptors– particularly Markus Lüpertz–do this by dealing with various mythological renderings of the body, others–notably Wolfgang Laib–do this by implying its presence in a kind of mystical space. Whether raw and naked, as in the case of Georg Baselitz, or dressed in everyday clothes, as in the case of Stephan Balkenhol, the body is an indomitable if wounded presence. It is vulnerable, yet stoically invincible, as Thomas Schütteís figures suggest. For postwar German sculptors, the representation of the body is the alembic of self and social discovery. For them the body is at once existentially urgent and historically specific, the one place in life where the truth cannot be hidden, indeed, where it is starkly visible. The truth always marks our bodies, whether we understand it or not. It is by looking at our naked bodies that we understand what life has done to us, in a way no amount
of analysis can reveal.

Georg Baselitz, Dresdner Frauen-Karla, 1990. Wood with tempera, 62.25 x 26.5 x 22.5 in.

Markus Lüpertzís “Prometheus” (1989) makes the point succinctly. A crumbling figure, his pale wounded liver visible on a blue ground–the use of paint is a constant of German sculpture–as though it was a cloud in the sky, raises his arm, in a gesture at once weary and defiant. For all his pain and uncertain footing–his crooked legs turn inward, as though he is trying to find a position in which he can support the weight of his body–he stands upright, unbowed by his suffering at the hands of the gods. His head turns to the sky they inhabit, perhaps accusing them of their crime against him. He is clearly an unhappy hero, but– to reiterate the important point–he remains upright, as do virtually all the figures of the German sculptors. His uprightness suggests the integrity he retains, in defiance of the gods and his own suffering. Schütte’s “Die Fremden” (The Strangers) (1992)–alien and alienated refugees from the former DDR–have the same posture, suggesting heroic endurance, however much they look downward in depression. Similarly, the series of crude wooden naked figures that Baselitz carved–sometimes with the help of a chain saw, and sometimes dabbed with painterly gestures that accent those of the gestural cuts–in the early ’80s are vigorously upright and sturdy, however abused their bodies seem. One raises its arm in a kind of military salute, further emphasizing its erect posture, and another crosses an arm over its chest, the rigidity of the arm repeating the rigid straightness with which the figure stands. Balkenhol’s “Untitled (Three Large Men)” and “Untitled (Three Small Men)” (both 1997) also stand tall, holding their own in space, indeed, all but striding through it like conquerors. In fact all the figures mentioned, however static– Schütte’s are like chess pieces, and Baselitz’s are rooted in tree trunks–seem to be part of an ancient triumphal pageant, some as prisoners, others as victors, all warriors in the battle of life.

Thomas Schutte, Die Fremden, 1992. Ceramic, installation view

Since the Renaissance–since Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald–and especially in 20th-century portraiture– Max Beckmann and Otto Dix are major instances– German artists have been masters of body language, particularly of facial expression and the gesturing hand. Contemporary German sculptors are no exception. But what they add to this repertoire is a concern with posture that has been apparent at least since Lehmbruck’s strangely mournful yet erect and curiously incorruptible figures. The German person, however defeated by life and history, refuses to give up and lie down and die, but rather has sufficient vitality and strength to hold himself upright, suggesting his moral authenticity and authority, whatever his human failings. Somehow his uprightness blames them on others–on life in general, and history in particular: his uprightness signifies his purity, despite it all. Through his uprightness, he dominates the space that has wronged him, the outside world that has forced itself upon him–but not penetrated him, not stripped him of his self-possession, which is represented by his courageous uprightness.

Markus Lüpertz, Prometheus, 1989. Painted bronze, 82.75 x 20.75 x 17 in.

In short, the secret of the German body is that its suffering is caused by external forces located in abstract space, rather than by forces that arise from inside it. Its uprightness shrugs off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune just as St. Sebastian shrugged off the arrows that made him a martyr for a higher cause. A similar bad fortune appears in the form of Anselm Kiefer’s bruised bomber sculptures, Olaf Nicolaiís so-called “biological sculptures”–raw rocks with a bit of growth clinging to them–and Carsten Nicolai’s homonculus figure, anonymous to the point of being without identity. In short, the German body is the quintessential unwilling victim and martyr–to the cause of the self, more particularly, the idea of being oneself–even if there is not much self to be–whatever the circumstances.

A.R. Penck, Aztonek, 1987. Bronze, 14 x 5 x 5 in.

Clearly, recent German sculpture is an allegory of the self agitated by annihilative anxiety, as the remarkable series of carved heads Baselitz executed in the ’80s indicates. These striking heads, which belong to the great tradition of German wood carving that dates back to medieval times, modernized by the incorporation of the primitivist methods and ideology of Expressionist wood carving and the African wood carving that inspired it in part, are major images of the German self tormented by circumstances beyond its control–tormented by space itself, which has clearly made inroads into its face, all but gouging it out. The pile of heads that form A. R. Penck’s totemic “Aztonek” (1987) show a similar anxiety and disturbed self-awareness and have a similar nightmarish quality as well as primitivism. Felix Drose’s “Re-Encounter with a Long Lost Mariner” (1983) while altogether different in method–it is junk art, an assemblage of discarded industrial objects–is also the image of a victim, indeed, a completely destroyed figure, implicitly heroic, as the large circular plane of rusted metal that forms its head and the heavy mock classical bust of waste industrial metal on which it is mounted, suggest. This ironic “wasted” figure is also a martyr to the German cause of futile selfhood–integrity even when the odds are completely against one. Penck’s primitivist “Monument to a Divided Germany” (1986) makes the point clearly: the German self has been distorted beyond recognition by history, but however strange it remains as upright as a totem, enduring as a symbol, the way the biblical pillar of salt is the symbol of a self that could not help but look back at the place that it came from, a self that paid the price for the history it meant to leave behind but clearly could not. Even Rebecca Horn’s crazy constructions–accumulations of everyday objects such as “Tower of the Beds” (1994)–have the aura of victimhood. There is a perverse pathos in Horn’s “Concert for Anarchy” (1994), an upside down piano suspended in air, its keys angling helplessly and purposelessly. Clearly, it can no longer be played–the great tradition of German music is at an end, turned upside down by history, betrayed by German politics.

Rebecca Horn, Bees Planetary Map, 1998. Straw baskets, wire, motors, mirror disks, shattered mirror, sound, lights, and wall text, dimensions variable.

Even in this work the body is present by reason of its tragic absence, just as it is in Laib’s golden honeycomb passages and Martin Kippenberger’s Metro Net Sculpture “Transportable Subway Entrance” (1997), and for that matter, in Reinhard Mucha’s installations, which deal with such sites as railroad stations and concentration camps. All these works deal with uninhabited space, space with something missing but implied, a space of human presence which seems to fit no particular human being, and as such a space that is more haunting than any human being–any body that might move through it. Whatever the sculptural strategy–traditional, as in the case of such older generation sculptors as Baselitz, Kiefer, Lüpertz, and Penck, who are essentially primitivist and expressionist, in however mannerist a way; or more conspicuously avant-garde, as in the case of Balkenhol, Drose, Horn, Kippenberg, Mucha, and Schütte, who tend toward mixed media installation–the body is the basic resource and theme of German sculpture.

Reinhard Mucha, Untitled, 1993. Mixed media, left 78.75 x 93 x 7 in., right: 51 x 43.75 x 19.5 in.

Clearly, there is a reference back to Joseph Beuys, the father figure of the contemporary generation of body artists and social–one should say psychosocial–sculptors, and to his famous notion of social sculpture. There is also an attempt to transcend him. It succeeds only in its means, but the underlying motive of the post-Beuysian sculptors remains the same as his. His objects today make only historical sense without the living presence of his body, known through so many performances. And his performances were always about the trauma and terror–the difficulty and untenability–of being German, in view of German history and suffering, which also must empathically include the suffering Germany caused so many people and countries. Beuys’s desperate performances were about maintaining a sense of self despite being German. His lost presence haunts the production of the generations of sculptors that followed him, both by reason of his versatility–like him, Baselitz, Kiefer, Kippenberger, and Lüpertz are masters of many mediums–and his theatricality. Indeed, it is the body as theater–as performance in space, punctuating it with anguish and threatening to disintegrate under its pressure–that we see in all these sculptors, that is, the body as a pyrotechnical alternative to a secure sense of self. They do not have Beuys’s empathy for others–they are more narcissistically involuted–but they do have his flair for dramatizing himself and his body. In short, like Beuys these German artists cope with the trauma of being German by consuming and digesting their bodies in a masochistic act of Sisyphean self-love. They show the body’s emptiness–think of Kiefer’s endless empty graveyard spaces, which suggest that it is missing in action, buried alive by history–even as they try to fill it with the sensuous richness of life. There is no better medium than sculpture in which to make contact with the body, especially when to do so is the only way to preserve a vestige of selfhood, especially when one does not feel entitled to it.

Donald Kuspit has written numerous articles and books on art, including “The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist”.