THE KONSORTIUM MACHINE
Modernism has been pronounced dead in long, tortuous debates so many times since the late Sixties that this must actually constitute proof of its continued well-being. For artists who grew up during the pioneering period of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, Land Art, Performance and all those other socio-critical approaches, this debate often came as a shock as it undermined the redemptive, salvational character of art with its roots in the utopian potential inherent in Romanticism and ultimately the socially unique role of the artist. In today’s world these battles have already been fought. Be it Modernism, Post-modernism, avant-garde or mainstream, salon or ivory tower – the younger generation of artists aren’t particularly bothered about such categorization. Charging art with ideology no longer works.
No wonder everything co-exists quite happily nowadays: strict Conceptualism alongside poppy New Romanticism, ascetic Minimalism alongside camp Neo-gothic. What is noticeable, however, is the fact that more and more young artists are returning to the revolutionary periods of the 20th Century in their work: Malevich and the radical Russians, Delaunay or Bauhaus, every variant of Constructivism, American colour field painting with Barnett Newman, Frank Stella or Ad Reinhardt, then the Sixties as the last bastion of the avant-garde, which constitutes the fertile humus for almost every movement right up to the present day. At the moment a whole generation is nonchalantly appropriating these classical positions once more and translating them into their own contemporary language. The international stars of this approach number Martin Boyce or Jim Lambie, whose gallery in Glasgow run by Tony Webster bears the programmatic title The Modern Institute; from Germany, above all Anselm Reyle has proved to be exceedingly successful with his paraphrases of »chavvy« material, or the painter Tomma Abts with her crystalline, magical, other-worldly abstract canvases.
The four Konsortium artists are unequivocally at home in this context and yet they stand out from the ever-burgeoning wave of Neo-modernism by virtue of the compelling nature of their work. »We are in the business of making this ironic break with Modernism«, stresses Guido Münch. Which means: you wont find the currently fashionable shrub-sawing avant-garde in the work of Lars Breuer, Sebastian Freytag or Jan Kämmerling. Since 2004 the four of them have been running an exhibition space in a back yard of the Ackerstraße in Düsseldorf where they have held around seventy shows and with an unusual consistency have exhibited positions that cohere and converse with their own approach. They exhibited for the first time together in a similar project space in the Binterimstraße in 2003. It was possible to see Yves-Klein or a Bauhaus-blue wall, upon which a small rectangular canvas was hung made up of a slick red rectangle with a white border. Guido Münch rekindled a classical Minimalism uncompromisingly reduced to its essential forms and colours. At the same time a contemporary aesthetic was at work: the pictogram-like appearance of commercial design or even the subtle air of Pop. Sebastian Freytag’s black paint strip, upon which the word »Villa« was written, seemed like the signature of content at a great remove. The four of them gathered together for the first time for a group portrait in a painting. They are looking forwards in a frontal pose and above them in red letters one can read the phrase »Düsseldorf Warped«.
One could interpret many things into this slogan, but certainly it was also to do with part of Düsseldorf’s art history, which had been lost from view in the previous decade. »The Nineties was nothing but a contextual bog«, says Münch, who consciously chose to study under the geometrician Meuser during his degree at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Art. The other three studied in Düsseldorf, but even Lars Breuer didn’t feel he was in the right place with Gerhard Merz and his Mies van der Rohe and Schinkel obsession, for none of the other students were at all interested in recourse to abstract, pure Modernism. »We were four lonely people during our degrees«, says Freytag. »It was a bit like being in the Foreign Legion«, adds Münch. During the years 1998-2000, Düsseldorf’s so-called off-art was under the spell of the group hobbypopMuseum that set up narrative compositions in a free crossover of all genres in its exhibitions, which dealt with the medial experience of the communications and entertainment world, such as pop, fashion, sport and many private, intimate things. »The art we were interested didn’t even get a mention«, comments Kämmerling.
Martin Boyce, Jim Lambie or Mark Handforth from the Modern Institute with their reflective formalism were altogether different from this. »They were the first people we looked at on the net«, recalls Freytag. Soon enough more and more similarly minded artists from Nineties Conceptualism emerged, such as Sarah Morris, Daniel Pflumm or Michel Majerus. And that’s what the new exhibition space was all about, rented by the four of them in 2003, refurbished and opened in 2004. They wanted to show that they weren’t alone with their interests and that there were like-minded artists all over the world—in Glasgow, Brussels or Australia. Go to any art fair nowadays and this point will be proved. There have also been several exhibitions on the new »Formalism«, Minimalism and recourse to Concrete and Constructivist art. Four or five years ago the prospect was quite a different one. That is why Konsortium has an important pioneering role based upon the consistency of the work it performs. The name of the space is intended to be programmatic. It is supposed to convey a certain toughness, but also openness. »It sounds like an arrangement of business people«, according to Münch. »It means we know what’s what and aren’t naive«, stresses Freytag. They want to »show what art is capable of achieving«. Lars Breuer comments that »people had to turn up time and time again and there were only ever abstract paintings to look at. This sledgehammer method was part of our plan«. Münch comments with a smirk that they had set themselves up with a crow bar. And yet everything should be uncomplicated and obstacle-free. They have even forgone an offer made by the City council to pay the rent. Having to justify themselves officially, well, that is the opposite of art. Even the beer at the openings is on the house because none of them want to be bothered to man the cash register.
It’s a formula that has worked out and Konsortium can look at an impressive programme during the four years of its existence. Anybody happening to write the history of Neo-modernism will not be able to ignore the two basic backyard rooms in the Ackerstraße. Everything connected with the potential of abstraction and geometry is explored here in every conceivable direction. »We do not conceal our precursors«, says Freytag. «It is a thoroughly conscious form of engagement. The group photos of the four of them manifest this, such as Jacques-Louis David’s »Oath of the Horatii« pose or the one in which they line up behind one another on the stairs reminiscent of the stance the futuristic musicians from Kraftwerk adopt on the cover of their 1978 album »Die Mensch-Maschine«. To a certain extent they are fundamentalists, says Münch, and if you take a look at the Konsortium exhibitions then you can believe him. However, they insist upon giving a free hand to any artists they invite to show their work. »We never place our stamp on anybody«. And yet there is an inherent unity about the works that have been exhibited here. That extends as far as Peter K. Koch’s crystalline explosion of form, the ragged sculptures of Felix Schramm via the delicate calligraphy of DAG, Terry Hagerty’s shimmering structures to Tim Ayres’ auratic word paintings. Gerold Miller, Gerwald Rockenschaub and Anselm Reyle, all internationally celebrated figures, also didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of exhibiting in Konsortium’s rooms. For a long time now Breuer, Freytag, Kämmerling und Münch have been disseminating Konsortim’s message around the world. They have demonstrated most impressively in other places within Düsseldorf, but also in Berlin, Munich, Lausanne or Brussels, how their different approaches have come together and produced a characteristic whole each time. An example of this is the show »Supernova« held in Munich’s Raum500. Breuer transformed a mountain range into a dynamic ornamental pattern on a wall painting, Freytag monumentalised mysterious structures by means of serial offset lithography. Münch had a psychedelic fireball circling above a copper-coloured wall and gave it a further nuance with the word »Existenz« (Existence). Kämmerling took the wind out of the topic hung two rent, blue tarpaulins in such a »cheap« way that two »cosmic« rays came into being. Konsortium’s exhibitions in conjunction with other artists were similarly compelling. Each of them was a balancing act between individual artistic ideas and curatorial interest. Somehow it works every time and profoundly straightforward exhibitions such as »Secondary Structures« come into being. Freytag says it’s actually a bit like jazz, »we provide the basic beat and the other artists make something worthwhile out of it«.
Primary Structures – Secondary Structures
»No formal sequence has ever really been ruled out having exhausted all of its possibilities within a coherent series of solutions. The re-evaluation of old problems in new circumstances is always viable and sometimes even topical«. (George Kubler, The shape of Time)
»Primary Structures« was the title of an exhibition by Kynaston McShine held in 1966 in the Jewish Museum in New York. Artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris along with Larry Bell, John McCracken, Robert Smithson and Anne Truitt showed works in the exhibition and made the Minimalist movement more accessible to wider public. The exhibition united more than forty different American and British positions and became the most significant overview of Minimalism in the 1960s. The show was well received both by the art world and the press, as well as successive generations of artists.
The term »Minimal Art« or Minimalism did not come from the artists themselves but from the art critics who had adopted the concept from a similarly entitled essay by Richard Wollheim. However, Wollheim was not using this term specifically to describe American trends in art, but was conversely trying to find a blanket term to cover a general phenomenon in art of the 20th Century per se. By referring to the increasing reduction of content in art, i.e. the »minimal art content«, its object nature and connection with sources outside of art, such as the natural or technological world, this minimal trend in art could be understood as an example of the concept he introduced. Wollheim made reference primarily to Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg und Marcel Duchamp in his argument.
Alongside the term »Minimal Art« there were other attempts, albeit partially less convincing, to give this »new« form of art a name: ABC Art, Mini Art, Rejective Art or Primary Structures are but a few of the examples of these efforts. This monopolization effect through the use of one unifying term led to critical remarks from some of the artists because they did not see themselves as a unified group, but rather a set of differing positions aiming at expressing their own individual concepts.
The title of the exhibition »Primary Structures« refers in this context to spatial positions made up of the most elementary basic units. There are derived from basic geometric forms, so-called primary structures, which create new units through their combination.
The essential features of Minimal Art are thus a limitation in the vocabulary of form as well as a conscious reduction to a few formal means of representation, for »art precludes the unnecessary«, in the words of Carl Andre. (Carl Andre, Preface to Stripe Painting (Frank Stella), 1959) However, in so doing the respective artists did not intend to found a new style as such, but were rather intent upon criticising other, antecedent movements in the history of art. In their critique of Abstract Expressionism, they proclaimed the renunciation of emotions as well as the intuitive moments of decision-making and eschewed all metaphysical reference. Instead, their art suggests nothing that might transcend the material presence of the work. The object character of the work was paramount, functioning in its existence as a painted object rather than a vehicle for imaginary worlds. Drawing upon the ethos of Russian Constructivism and Suprematism from the 1920s, painting and sculpture were to be liberated from the obligation to represent, to dissolve its mimetic quality and establish autonomous forms, among them geometrical structures and modular schemata.
Gradually the theoretical background to Minimal Art and its enforced new definition of art began to find purchase in the art critical discourse of the day through the publication of artists’ essays and texts and interviews.
The concomitant negation of a specific artistic signature accompanied the use of new, frequently industrially produced materials as the salient parameters of this Minimalist pictorial language. The majority of Minimalists favoured lacquer paint, a variety of metals and stone, all of which were mass-produced in a technical process geared towards industrial needs. The artistic process concentrated less upon production itself and more upon the bringing together of prefabricated elements. For example, formal perfection of the polished surface that no longer was to be the vehicle for the individual artistic moment became the new goal. Neither the trace of the brushstroke, classical sculptor’s chisel nor polishing stone was to been seen on the surface. Instead they were supposed to reflect the surrounding space and the silhouette of the viewer.
In the serial works within Minimal Art this principle of mass production and the concomitant idea of exchangeability is particularly pronounced. They championed the »non-relational« connection between the individual parts that are ordered schematically without any particular relationship between them and which do not reveal any internal structure. No longer the singular, autonomous »masterpiece« – emblem of individual expression and vehicle for personal emotion – but the »reproducible artefact« (Gregor Stemmrich (ed), Minimal Art – eine kritische Retrospektive, Dresden, 1995 ) became the centre of focus. Objective laws were adopted from technology for the purposes of reducing the compositional, creative moment of creation. »In order to forgo all compositional effects, primary forms are used in a very elementary way and are neither divided into parts nor do they relate to one another, but form conversely an indivisible integrity«, according to Develing. (Enno Develing, »Was ist Minimal Art?«, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (ed.) Minimal Art, ex. cat. January/February 1969)
It is not the primary elements themselves that are so new, but the context into which they are placed (by the artist). The goal of this action with these primary forms is the creation of so-called »specific objects«, (Donald Judd, Specific Objects, 1965) that relate in concrete manner to the surrounding space. Implicit in this demand is the softening or perhaps the crossing-over of classical genre boundaries such as painting, sculpture, architecture and drawing towards more object-like, spatial installations. Thus the wall is often integrated into many Minimalist works, a sculpture connects directly with the ground by forgoing the pedestal or the sides of a stretcher are included in the surface of the picture.
The way space is utilised can also be differentiated: in the case of Dan Flavin’s neon installations one could speak of an accentuation of the surroundings; Carl Andre by contrast integrated his floor plates into surrounding space. The goal is a spatial integrity, which is activated by a single form. The pronounced integration of the viewer constitutes a further component of Minimalist pictorial language; strong »sensations of form« are to be induced in the mind of the viewer. This means that the form of the objects needs to be both assimilatable and recognisable at one glance in order to preclude any surprise-factor from the outset. The viewer is supposed to be able to assimilate and compliment the simple, regular geometrical forms with his knowledge from the outset. Contrary to classical sculpture, for example that of the Baroque period, which is characterised by the differentiation of individual sides, when one walks around the minimal object and looks at the rear of it, one is not surprised. For, according to Robert Morris, »as soon as the form of the object has been recognised, then the viewer has received all the information about it«. (Robert Morris ) American art is progressive because, as Judd claims, it doesn’t need anybody who knows an ideal order, but just someone who can perceive material facts. (James Meyer (ed.) Minimalismus 26.) To convey the assimilation of the objects as forms, the arrangement of their structures is important for the minimal artist. The objects are placed in the space so that the viewer can see the full extent and proportion of the form. Judd’s boxes for example are always attached to the wall so that the underside is visible. Morris places his polyhedrons directly on the floor or fixes them high up on the wall so that the form is visible in its entirety either from above or from below. Morris designates the purpose of an exhibition as being the exercise of making it clear to the recipient that the values he ascribes to an artwork are not immanent, but are determined by his own viewing perspective. (Jutta Held Minimal Art)
Colour is not included in the typical sculptural properties, such as mass, proportion, form and dimension in Minimal Art, because it is viewed as an additive, according to Morris. It is in essence not tactile, but non-material and acts optically. A very intensive use of colour can ultimately dissolve itself as a specific element from the whole in order to enter into its own relationships.
The »Secondary Structures« show was conceived by extension from the first significant Minimal Art exhibition »Primary Structures«. The exhibition taking place in Düsseldorf’s KIT space was initiated by Konsortium, a group of artists comprising Lars Breuer, Sebastian Freytag, Jan Kämmerling and Guido Münch, who have been working together since 2004. Since then, Konsortium has been organising international exhibitions in the eponymous project studio at No. 65 Ackerstraße featuring work by young artists within the framework of external curatorial projects. Conscious engagement with artistic precursors is a decisive feature of Konsortium’s method and informs the intention of their group show here. Running in parallel to the Palermo retrospective in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and im Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, this show is intended as a homage to the American artists and pioneers of Minimal Art from the 1960s. Represented here are young artists from Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Cologne as well as Florence, Lausanne und Rotterdam, who have engaged among other things with prominent trends in 20th Century art, such as Minimal Art, Op and Pop Art, but also with diverse art historical motifs.
The exhibition »Secondary Structures« implies concrete reference to the Minimalist positions of the 1960s and contains two possible forms of reception and strategy of artistic appropriation in the engagement with artistic precursors. From the so-called »primary structures« – the simple geometric elementary forms – more complex, secondary structures are derived.
It is worthwhile therefore to pursue the following line of enquiry: what value does Minimal Art occupy within the respective œuvres and is this affinity really expressed in the works?
A possible method of using Minimalist vocabulary of form consists of direct adaptation, that is to say a conscious harnessing of pre-existing selection of forms.
Philippe Decrauzat, Jan Kämmerling, Christine Rusche and Mirko Tschauner for example engage in different ways in their works with the geometrical abstract primary forms within the Minimalist succession, as it were. In site-specific works on walls and sculptural objects, spatial interventions arise that effectively break up and manipulate the structure of the space. Architectural boundaries are traversed or muddied when, for example, Christine Rusche connects the walls, floor and ceiling of adjoining spaces at the same time with a blanket formal pattern. The title of her wall drawing shown here – »Off Sounding« – has been borrowed from a nautical context and alludes to the seabed at depths, which render any attempt at direction finding or location fixing impossible. Philippe Decrauzat operates with scenery from Op and Minimal Art as wells as quotations from films in his works on walls or shaped canvas. A black and white linear structure in different formations covers two sides of the block-like pillar in the exhibition space and is coupled with a quotation from Stanley Kubrick’s »The Shining«. The usual perception of the viewer is disrupted by the confusion of the space or the use of known quotations that evoke a kind of déjà-vu effect whilst viewing.
Jan Kämmerling’s works are characterised by purist abstraction and non-figurative painting. The central element of his works on walls or shaped canvas is the composition out of forms of canvases and Minimalist, geometrical elements on the surface of the painting. Dynamic asymmetrical paintings arise thus whose goal it is to develop a stark presence in space. His pink striped cube in the entrance hall confronts the viewer like a block. Despite its massive presence, it fits in with the architectural properties – the narrow and diminishing height of the tunnel’s bore.
Mirko Tschauner works similarly with geometrical forms and a strong reference to the spatial surroundings in his sculptural objects. His choice of materials – terrazzo, slabs of Jura limestone or fairfaced concrete in open and closed constellations – evokes associations of architectural fragments. Arrangements of slabs that are leaning against one another or are slightly displaced suggest a play on balance and demonstrate structural dependencies. Constructions from iron pipes traverse the space and result in contrasting scenarios full of tension.
Didier Rittener adapts geometrical Minimalist elements in the sculptural star formation shown here and translates them into three-dimensional objects. They are reminiscent of tank traps in their outward appearance, which develops a strong relationship to the space within the context of the exhibition. The serial lining-up and avoidance of presenting a singular object induces a moment of disquiet and stewards the viewer through the exhibition.
The other strategy of artistic appropriation starts similarly from Minimalist primary structures, yet demonstrates a utilisation and concomitant alternation of these forms. The concept of Minimal Art is extended and placed into a current context. The artists who fall into this category consider themselves to be »successors« of a particular art historical tradition, from which they are trying to draw a line of demarcation in order to follow their own innovative concepts.
Guido Münch and Francis Baudevin for example share a similar conceptual approach; they engage with borrowings from music, consumer society and the everyday world. In the process of arriving at the compositional end result they are not to be regarded as the creators of new forms, but rather as interpreters of pre-existing signs that acquire altered meaning through the new context. Münch uses the term »samples« following on from electronic music. It involves a certain appropriation of the most varied motifs and symbols yet without being bound up with their content in any way. Forms outside of art are brought back into the artistic context. Their expression is reduced to the pictorial parameters of form, colour and surface. Both the format and the colour design are predetermined by the respective template.
Francis Baudevin also works with found symbols and logos, which, isolated from their original context, he then adopts for his compositions. An album cover by the band »New Order« and the UPS logo find expression on his work displayed here.
Guido Münch’s »Autobahnschild« (»motorway sign«) and the »Atomkraftzeichen« (»nuclear power sign«) arouse associations of the space of the neighbouring tunnel to the exhibition as well as the band »Kraftwerk«.
Markus Ebner exhibits exponents from a cycle of works, in which he copies paintings by his teacher Günter Fruhtrunk. Like Münch, he strives for the radical reduction of the artistic moment of decision-making. Ebner does not offer the viewer any new pictures as such, but repetitions instead, creating a déjà vu effect in the mind of the viewer on account of things already experienced. The method of repetition can also be found in the work of the person he is copying, because Fruhtrunk quoted himself and worked on particular motifs over a prolonged period in many different variations.
In the absence of references to the original socio-political background, Ebner’s treatment here can be interpreted as an aesthetic-formalist approach.
Jörg Nittenwilm’s works are characterised by motif-laden, putatively classicist quotations and art historical references, including icons, such as Nike of Samothrace. His work of a great maelstrom presented here in its graphic form evokes associations with Leonardo’s scientific watercolours, but also avant-garde artistic positions, such as the English Futurists (Vorticists). »Vorticism« is the name of an artistic movement at the start of the 20th Century parallel to Cubism and Italian Futurism, which for its part elevated the idea of a »vortex« as source and metaphor of all creative activity.
Lars Breuer also uses eclectic quotations for his work and borrowings from art history, music and literature in particular. These fragments of differing provenance are placed in a connection with one another and are visually provocative, aggressive and dynamic. Breuer created four works for »Secondary Structures«, amongst them two compositions on canvas framed by two signs in neon yellow and orange covered with reflective foil and then painted with black paint leaving only a star-shaped form.
Sebastian Freytag uses different, preferably standardised materials, which he combines in site-specific spatial compositions. The decisive medium here is litho print; it is used in the form of posters in an all-over structure with which Freytag papers the walls. The forms and motifs selected here are for the most part ones borrowed from the world of industry, technology and architecture, found material as well as a ship canal lift, stealth bomber or the structure of a slab of marble. The potential for reproduction propagated here and the implicit repudiation of the auratic single composition or the singular objet trouvé forms a central pillar of the work and refers to precursors such as Andy Warhol or Peter Roehr. The content of the works is frequently thwarted by the title or the use of a typeface. »Countdown« refers to the artistic contingent present here, which, despite its divergent positions, provides a clear direction for the future.
Angela Fette has developed an installation for the exhibition comprising three high, triptych-like canvases. The colourful concentric lines on a black ground have been borrowed from the trajectories of stars through the universe – in front of the wall a sculptural object reminiscent of an Olympic rostrum and which forms the base for another sculptural object incorporating the motif of the circular formation. Formally recognisable elements borrowed from Minimalism are placed in a new semantic context. The title »Mittelmaß - Masters of the Universe« (»Mediocrity – master of the Universe«) evokes associations of heroic moments, the artistic cosmos and poses the question of how the individual can do justice to such things.
Luc Aubort exhibits a large work on the wall in the vicinity of the entrance area. On a canvas fixed to the concrete wall, one can see abstract forms reminiscent of Pop Art and Minimalism as well comic books and graphic design. Isolated as they are they (only) refer to their own presence within the space, supported by the colourful surface and without the viewer necessarily being able to discern an unequivocally original context. Vague associations abide of something one might have seen – predominantly symmetrical, abstract forms.
Karsten Weber’s participation underlines the aspect of a pronounced reference of the works to the surrounding space. His piece »Ein Tisch für Secondary Sructures« (»A table for Secondary Structures«) in the entrance area/foyer also has a practical function in addition to its manifest purpose and presence as an artistic object and indication of the exhibition’s architectural specificity. His three-part conception reminiscent of a trestle table, comprising a metal frame as well as a plywood board painted black, sets the tone of the exhibition.
The differentiation outlined here in the posited appropriation of Minimalist pictorial language does not profess to any normative validity because some of the artistic positions unite both aspects within them. It facilitates the comprehension of the different works without necessarily desiring to categorise them. However, common features and references can be established between the works and constitute the reason behind the presented assortment within the group show: heterogeneous forms and motifs from various areas such as music, advertising, design, art history, literature, everyday life, pop and the world of commerce and have been adapted by the artists for their compositions as a further development of primary structures under the aegis of an »Appropriation Art«. The innovative and creative moment is reduced by the reference back to a pre-existing Minimalist vocabulary of form. Through the isolation of the elements from their original context and their integration into a new semantic context highly charged works arise possessing surprising effects. The majority of the works were especially conceived for »Secondary Structures« and open up conversations with the surrounding architecture. In this way the exhibition space becomes an integral part the exhibition, even if the way it is utilised is different from one artist to another.
The following question takes on central importance when engaging with the historic exhibition »Primary Structures«: how can the ideas and concepts as well as the specific Minimalist understanding of art be changed today in view of the altered historical background and placed within a productive dialogue with the present day? The prefabricated »found and utilised forms« of the first generation are discussed and critically assessed in the individual artistic works in respect of their further usefulness. Nature no longer functions as both artistic model and criterion within this dialogue, but rather art itself, whose history and visuality have become now become the source. Ursula Ströbele