Anything is possible in Thomas Schütte’s highly unique approach to art. One of the most important sculptors working today, the German artist rejects the notion of repeating a style for the purpose of building a brand. Instead he prefers to return to previous themes, motifs, and forms in order to further develop and transform them. Working for the past five decades from a personal archive of small-scale figurative sculptures and architectural models, Schütte experiments with materials and techniques to create new interpretations of evolving ideas.
A student of Gerhard Richter at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s, Schütte was one of the few artists of his day to make representational art. Working against the grain of Minimalism and conceptual art, he developed his own poetic responses to the human form. Approaching art as a mode of intuitive play, Schütte models things to tell stories—often using what he calls “high-end bricolage” to break the rules and spiritedly put things together that he knows are wrong. He believes, however, that one has to make good mistakes, and then learn from them.
Since winning the Golden Lion for best artist at the Venice Biennale in 2005, the Düsseldorf-based sculptor has had nearly 20 museum shows, with “Three Acts” at the Monnaie de Paris (on view through June 16) being one of the most comprehensive. Taking its title from his theatrical 1982 painting and sculptural installation Dreiakter, which is on loan from the Centre Pompidou, the retrospective marked a homecoming of sorts for the artist, who spent six months in residence at the Cité des Arts in Paris and had an early solo show at La Vitrine, a local bookshop run by Daniel Buren’s brother, in 1979.
The sprawling survey filled the courtyards, countless rooms, and a stairwell of the palatial quarters of the government mint, which was built in the Neoclassical style in the late 1700s and recently renovated to establish the exhibition space. Divided into three thematic sections, the show featured monumental and small-scale bronzes, aluminum castings, ceramics, Murano glassworks, assemblages, watercolors, photographs, architectural models, installations, and a full-size pavilion. Key to it all, however, was a selection of more than 50 of Schütte’s rarely shown handmade sculptural maquettes, dating from 1973 to 2016, which served as the point of departure for many of the works in the exhibition.
A highlight of the show was Schütte’s famous “United Enemies” series (1993–2011) that have been realized in several different forms. Inspired by the ugly old men that he saw while riding the buses during a six-month artist residency in Rome, and the politicians and local art administrators who were at odds with one another when he was there, Schütte modeled the figure’s heads in clay, their bodies with sticks and paper, and dressed them with remnants of his own clothes. Binding them together with cords, he displayed them under bell jars, made headshots for photographic prints, and later had them scanned and scaled up to monumental public pieces—erecting memorials to figures that he considered oppositional and ordinary rather than heroic.
Men also make multiple appearances in the artist’s sculptural heads, including the 2006 series “Wichte” (“Gnomes”), which depict authoritarian figures without eyes in a group of glazed ceramic portraits that were individually sculpted in an hour or less. Ten of the heads were exhibited on metal wall plinths high on the wall of a hallway, where they could symbolically look down on the viewer. The four bronzes in his 2012 series of “Fratelli” (“Brothers”) busts also portray figures of authority, but in their case the characters look more like members of the mob and the clergy.
Women get a nobler treatment in the 2013 “Glaskopf” (“Glass Head”) series of Murano glass ladies with full faces and their chins up. Beautifully rendered in shades of amber, yellow, red, and black blown glass, the striking heads glistened in the gallery’s mix of natural and artificial light. Schütte’s portrayal of the full female form, however, is much more erotic. Ten small-scale pieces of reclining nudes from his ongoing series “Bronze Edition, Frau” (“Bronze Edition, Woman”) were spread throughout the exhibition, while four of his large-scale, chopped-up and contorted nudes—two in the courtyard and two in the galleries—rested more disturbingly on big steel tables.
Schütte’s architectural projects were showcased through two dozen photographs of completed projects filling the walls of a stairwell, and nine nicely crafted models and a crystal-shaped pavilion on display in the upper galleries. Standouts included the three of the five models of One Man House (2006), for which Schütte appropriated air ducts and added miniature furnishings and Plexiglas windows to make models for minimal living units, and the 1:20 scale model Skulpturenhalle III (2012–15), the museum for sculpture that Schütte designed to house his foundation’s collection of his work and to show the work of other contemporary sculptors. One of the air duct houses was built in France for a collector in 2009, and the museum opened outside of Düsseldorf in 2016.
Rounding out the exhibition was a selection of new monumental sculptures in the courtyards, several of which were realized especially for this show. There were three variations on Mann im Wind (Man in the Wind, 2018), one of which captures a lone figure with his legs stuck in the ground as he holds his head high to feel the full force of nature. Two similarly stuck men have one stiffly holding a flag and another—more troublingly—holding his cut-off face in his hand. Commenting on the human condition, they become angst-ridden monuments to the common man, while a bronze statue of a smoke-breathing dragon with a whale’s tail—blown up to its public art scale from a childlike clay model on view indoors—makes light of it all.
Anti-heroic, Schütte’s art mixes the mythic with the utilitarian, turning child’s play into a sculptor’s experimentation with materials. An unclassifiable artist, he’s still following the advice that Gerhard Richter gave him when he was a student: find your own way by creating a repertoire, not a style. Schütte has often stated that it’s not an easy way, but that it’s been the right way for him—and this enchanting Parisian exhibition beautifully revealed that he’s been on the right path.