From her early computer-calculated abstract sculptures in the mid-1970s to the assemblages of her latest body of work, Isa Genzken has proven to be one of the most influential artists of our time, challenging her artistic media and continuously redefining their aesthetics. Radically inventive in her oeuvre, Genzken is a continuing inspiration for many artists, particularly from recent generations. This influence is confirmed in “Mach Dich hübsch!,” a survey of nearly 300 works—one of the most extensive ever presented in an institution—currently on view at the Stedelijk, Amsterdam. The exhibition presents an important and inspiring figure with enormous influence on a generation of artists with whom the Stedelijk has close relationships. Engaging with reality and the present. Genzken’s work reflects upon the material world around us: the built, designed, manmade structures that define our lives. Among artists, Genzken’s embodiment of the challenging, unconventional tradition of the Stedelijk Museum is virtually unequaled.
“Mach Dich Hübsch!” is an odyssey through four decades of an astonishing practice defined by artistic freedom and bold inventiveness. Genzken’s work is presented as a montage, not a chronology, so as to explore interconnections and thematic threads. The artist engages with themes such as identity, the human figure, seriality and individuality, (self-) portraiture, architecture, life in urban culture and how to make contact with the “real.” Her practice is rooted in the medium of sculpture, and is distinguished by radical experimentation and the unconstrained use of media.
1998’s “Jacken und Hemden” comes from a completely different world than Genzken’s introverted, abstract wooden and concrete sculptures from previous decades. The series reflects the Berlin techno and club scene, with its distinctive aesthetics and extroverted lifestyle. Items of clothing from Genzken’s own wardrobe have been customized with fringes, fluorescent paint, photos and small objects, the alterations transforming them into something like constructions of the “self.” The works combine new influences that determined Genzken’s course in the mid-1990s, with her focus shifting from an exploration of material and form to questions of narrative. This series in particular forms a self-portrait of an artist for whom identity is not fixed, but rather a continuous negotiation between public image, sexuality, male and female roles, and the clothes, surfaces and imaginations we wear and identify ourselves with.
By combining diverse and contrasting objects and materials, Genzken offers a critical view of materialism and mass culture. For example, in the series “Fuck the Bauhaus” (2000), “Soziale Fassaden” (2002), and “Hallelujah” (2012), she brings together photos from magazines, kitschy souvenirs, plastic toys and other mass-produced objects, as well as design pieces like hand-blown Venetian glass and a Mies van der Rohe chair, to create layered collages and assemblages. The viewer is subtly confronted with themes like overconsumption, commercial culture and the aesthetics of the banal. Although Genzken’s works are never unequivocal statements of social criticism, they often spring from the need to speak out about political or social situations. The series “Ground Zero” (2008) and “Empire/Vampire” (2002–2003), for example, spring off her experience in New York during the attacks on the World Trade Center; they read as metaphors for the machinations of world powers and mass media, of dark plays written with objects from merchandising and design of the world. With these orchestrations of objects, Genzken insists on the necessity of being alert and involved in the world, as she does in her ongoing series of “Weltempfänger,” concrete sculptures that are always equipped with antennae.
Isa Genzken (German, b. 1948) is an artist who lives and works in Berlin. She is represented by Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; Hauser & Wirth, Zurich/London; ; Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels; Marc Jancou, New York/Geneva; and David Zwirner, New York. “Mach Dich Hübsch!,” her first comprehensive retrospective, is currently on view at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, through 6 March.
Beatrix Ruf is the Director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and, since 2010, a member of the think tank core group of the LUMA foundation. Previously, she was Curator at Kunstmuseum Thurgau, Warth from 1994–1998 and Director of Kunsthalle Zürich from 2001–2012. In 2006, she curated the third edition of the Tate Triennial in London, and in 2008, she was Co-Curator of the Yokohama Triennial.
All images: Isa Genzken, “Hemden,” 1998. Presentation at Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York.