Gail Hastings: In-situ images of the exhibition’s works reproduced beautifully in the catalogue, interspersed with highly informative blocks of historical notes, suggest to me there are three time periods operating within this exhibition. The central period is minimalism, with the exhibition’s modern furniture and architectural design forming an earlier period (including Dom Hans van der Laan’s 1981 pieces that stem from principles he established in 1951, before minimalism) and the international contemporary art a later period.
In other circumstances, when minimalism is positioned centrally this way, it is generally discussed as an ‘endgame’ between modernism and postmodernism that terminated one and precipitated the other. This treatment tends to reduce minimalism to a mirror that reflects modernism onto postmodernism and vice versa. Within this reflection, however, there are two major differences. Firstly, postmodernism’s ‘critique’ not only repeats modernism’s events, but does so by reversing them in some way (hard objects are feminised as ‘soft’ objects, for instance, or the non-personal is made personal). Secondly, the historical glue that pins down relationships between modernism’s artistic events comes unstuck in its reflection when seen from the side of postmodernism, wherein modernism’s events now float, willy-nilly, in postmodernism with no rhyme nor reason in their relation to each other except as a shared reflection. If Alice were to step through this looking glass from modernism into postmodernism, she would not fall due to gravity, but drift in a relativist mono-perspectival space cocooned from others — without any shared medium of truth by which to recognise the gravity of her fellow.
Minimalism and Applied II, however, disrupts this normal affair of things to give minimalism a width and breadth alien to many of postmodernism’s terms.
For if truth is the first casualty of war, then postmodernism has taken up permanent residency in a hospital ward somewhere, swathed in bandages for being permanently at battle with grand themes that rest on an aperspectivally shared reality — such as truth. Yet little is it realised that within the very fabric of postmodernism’s dressings, within the bandages that pronounce its efforts — language — truth exists. It does so in the same way a bandage’s design, for example, functions effectively again and again no matter who uses it (an aperspecitvally shared reality). An object’s very meaning spells the object, itself, through an alphabet constituted by its physical, spatial and structural function. Its meaning points to nothing other than the coherence of a moment within which we engage in that object’s function. The truth embedded in an object is therefore active, whether or not recognition of its truth remains latent or is realised.
In this way truth is found, it seems to me, in the many ‘discussions’ you have arranged between works of contemporary art and particular quintessential objects of modern design in the exhibition. If anxiety over minimalism’s ‘objecthood’ had earlier art historians and critics fear we would be unable to tell the difference between a work of art and a utilitarian object alongside it, then by actually setting up this scenario, your exhibition faces this anxiety and dispels it. For within the exhibition’s discussions what we find revealed is that the truth both types of objects share, is the same truth that differentiates them. For although the truth of a utilitarian object remains beneficial whether or not recognition of how it functions is ‘latent’, it is only by ‘realising’ this recognition that the works of contemporary art in this exhibition, ensure they function as art.
Does this response to Minimalism and Applied II resonate with your view of the exhibition now that it is happening? Is it surprising or expected? Is there anything you might add or subtract — such as discussions within the exhibition that do not fit, or discussions that extend it? Please answer in direct reference to exhibited works.
Renate Wiehager: Dear Gail, It took me some time to penetrate the imagery of your arguments and to arrive at the insights and analyses you gained from studying the images from our exhibition (gaining an impression of the gist of my thoughts from its photographic presentation, as you were unable to attend). I am aware that your arguments are informed by the years you have spent working intensively with all aspects of minimalism and postmodernism.
To come to the point: you write that our exhibition risks providing more space for the growing confusion of artworks with functional objects. This is, in fact, an admirably clear expression of the thoughts that were on my mind during the roughly two years in which I assembled the artworks and art objects for this exhibition, one piece at a time. Perhaps ‘on my mind’ is putting it too strongly: I sensed a potential insight, but I was only able to really grasp it, and to discuss and analyse it, once I was actually standing in the exhibition space.
“Providing space” was, in fact, what I wished to do – I wanted to turn the ‘line’ between art and design into a space in which one can move, and within which one’s senses can be active. In other words: this was not about theoretical reasoning, not about weighing up or judgments in words on paper. It was about a sensory confrontation with a number of takes on art that showed them in relation to ‘applied, practical’ creativity in various ways, so that one could physically experience the creative and material strategies of design at the point where they merge with artistic concepts.
This is where I come to the concept of truth introduced to the debate by you. When the line between art and design becomes a space in which I can move physically and intellectually, then art objects and functional objects can actually reveal latent potential for meaning in, as you say, “the fabric of the bandages”, making this potential recognisable and tangible. In the space between art and functionality, affinities of meaning can develop, manifested in a way that makes them available to our mental processes – and these new meanings only attain reality in an art-design ‘conversation’ or ‘contextualization’ of this kind.
The Minimalism and Applied II presentation of your Skulpturale Situationen in conversation with furniture by Charlotte Perriand that forms the prelude to our exhibition is a wonderful example of this. Your artwork Difficult Art Decisions (1998) consists of a picture object, a chair, cushions and a framed page from the ‘Encyclopaedia of Difficult Art Decisions’. The page presents the short account of two people who install an artwork on the wall and, as they step back from their handiwork, realize that the room contains a chair made of the same substance as the artwork. The two discuss the danger of other viewers being uncertain which is the artwork and which is the functional object. Finally they decide to leave both items where they are and to leave the final decision to an ‘art authority’.
This artwork is the first thing a visitor to our Berlin exhibition sees – followed when turning around by the Refolo sofa by French designer Charlotte Perriand. Charlotte Perriand left Marseille in 1940 in response to an invitation from the imperial trade and industry ministry in Japan. The two-year visit turned into a six-year exile and became a revelation for her that changed her life. She was enthusiastic about traditional materials typical of the country such as clay, wood, straw, bamboo and rice paper, and these had a lasting influence on her creative output. Back in Europe, she came up with the Refolo concept in 1953. The basic idea is a modular system that can be used as a flat table, bench or, when provided with cushions, as a sofa. The basis is a 19-lath substructure on two or three legs according to length. The cushions can be securely fixed to this frame or placed on the bench loose. The Refolo design shows the Japanese influence on her work particularly clearly, along with her new understanding of functional reduction, modularity, a distinct material language as well as simple but characteristic contrasts. The Refolo is simply asking to be used, but its formal and material strategy, which subjugates everything else to its minimalism, also makes the piece appear somewhat distant, so that our attention is drawn to the object as an aesthetic presence. Standing between your sculpture Difficult Art Decisions and Perriand’s Refolo sofa, I experience a physical, sensory and mental ‘space’, which, rather than forcing one to decide what is ‘art’ and what is ‘a functional object’, creates a ‘wandering’ of the attention, an open-minded weighing-up of latent dimensions.
GH: After many a long thesis one might write on art, in the end much seems to fall back on the notion that art heals the wounds that invariably trouble us, either individually or as a society, but which we are often unable to articulate as having. This assessment, though, is often reserved for art that has a ‘subjective’ stake, art that acts in the first person. Excluded, therefore, is just about all the works included in ‘Minimalsim and Applied II’. References, however, made in the exhibition’s catalogue speak of ‘democratic ideals’, ‘the quality of social conditions under which people live together’, ‘new forms of mediation and discussion between the work of art and the viewer’, ‘socially orientated architectural Modernism for the working classes’, objects ‘intended to bring practical benefits and beauty of design’ — to name but a few — all within the language of wound healing. In this way, do you find it is time to appreciate that art need not be ‘subjective’ or ‘expressionistic’ in order to offer the capacity for compassion and betterment in a broader more social sense, as well as in a personal sense, through aesthetic empowerment? Is the ‘hard’ art postmodernism hates and repetitively holds up to ‘critique’ every five or so years — constructively soft and subjectively beneficial after all?
Renate Wiehager: I did not understand why reflecting on the functionality of aesthetic object – of an art or design nature – in social and societal contexts should be a ‘subjective’ or ‘expressionist’ act. It is, after all, precisely the anti-subjective, anti-expressionist action of minimalism in art and design that frees our perception and thinking from a narrow focus on personal attitude and opens a perspective space that, structurally, allows us to be aware of different aspects of an object. Or perhaps I have misunderstood you?
To pick up on your use of the phrase ‘wound healing’ – I agree with you that ‘subjective’ or ‘expressionist’ art could be said to offer viewers ‘instant healing’ – because it reflects their fears, inadequacies and suppressed emotions in sublimated form, and therefore makes them spontaneously feel ‘understood’. This is precisely what many people look for in art – a confirmation of their feelings by an ‘other’ that is the mirror image of the self, and makes them feel part of a greater whole. The ‘hard’ art of construction and minimalism, on the other hand, is impervious to my empathy – it refuses to be turned into a vessel for my emotions, inadequacies or longings. If, however, I persevere in the face of this rejection, look it in the face and analyse it, then ‘hard’ art proves to be ‘malleable’ in the sense that it takes my thoughts and feelings to new horizons, opening up new prospects allowing potential for insights that connect my feelings with social facts in an unforced way. In other words, ‘hard’ art can initiate a movement that leads away from me in such a way that it leads me back to myself.
GH: Although we agreed to two questions each, may I sneak it this final third question. The ‘discussion’ you have arranged between my work and Charlotte Perriand’s in one instance, and my work and the collaborative work of Charlotte Perriand with Jean Prouvé in another, has surprised me to the extent I am amazed by the physical and visual correlations that allow me to see things I have not before seen. Have you received similar responses to the couplings you have made? Did you have to negotiate any moments of ‘difficult art decisions’ in order to set up these discussions? And are you, yourself, surprised by some of the incredibly stimulating relations that have surfaced in the discussions you have set up?
Renate Wiehager: As I have briefly remarked, the Minimalism and Applied II exhibition is ‘organic’ in the best sense of the word, like a plant sending out shoots and side shoots. It begins with longstanding artworks from our collection – such as your Skulpturale Situationen, (which has already been mentioned), Charlotte Posenenske’s corrugated cardboard Vierkantrohe (1967) and Rupert Norfolk’s I-Beams (2006). For my own satisfaction, I wanted to investigate these artworks’ potential for ‘bordering’ on the functional in a more precise way than had previously been done, in order to bring out the latent qualities discussed above. Over two years, they were joined by new contemporary art acquisitions that moved me to an auxiliary re-reading. At the same time, I chose favourite classic 20th-century designs which I had always wanted to know more about (beyond their exciting and desirable aura). Looking at both art and design objects revealed overlaps and conceptual affinities, and these insights were further deepened by dialogues with artists.
This wide-ranging but purposeful curiosity on my part also led to significant advances in art history terms – as in the case of Charlotte Posenenske, who was the subject of a monograph I wrote in 2009 in collaboration with Burkhard Brunn. It was only after our book was published that we became aware of Posenenske’s interest in Ferdinand Kramer’s architecture concepts and folding furniture.
Charlotte Posenenske’s lean sculptural oeuvre, developed between 1966 and 1968, stands out succinctly against the – horizon of the sixties avant-garde scene in Germany: firstly because of its quality – the power and logic with which it unfolds – and then again because of the decisiveness with which it was brought to a close. We can attempt to define Posenenskes specific contribution to the art discussions in the 1960s as ‘mimetic Minimalism.’ This means that placed serially in a museum or other public spaces, the metal reliefs and Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes) – made of sheet aluminum and steel or cardboard, painted in standard colors, produced in limited or unlimited edition – involve themselves with reality in such a way that they initially undermine the difference between a work of art and the world that viewers expect.
Ferdinand Kramer was working in the 1920s with the legendary Frankfurt Stadtbaurat (Head of Urban Planning) Ernst May, initiator of the progressive urban architecture program ‘New Frankfurt’. This was one of the most significant examples of a socially oriented architectural Modernism for the working classes, realized as a temporal and intellectual parallel with the model homes on the Weissenhof estate in Stuttgart. In retrospect, it is possible to rediscover Kramer as an outstanding representative of reductive architectural and design practice. He always developed his designs by analyzing function and social use, always meeting the highest aesthetic demands.
The Posenenske and Kramer couples used to meet frequently in the 1960s for conversation and joint excursions, which meant that Charlotte Posenenske was able to get to know items such as Kramer’s folding furniture or corrugated cardboard table at close quarters and in friendly proximity, and so was able to use the same idea for her corrugated cardboard Vierkantrohre, which can be assembled and utilised in a number of different ways. In Minimalism and Applied II, we have tried to present this previously overlooked connection so as to do it justice.