Early on in his career, Mecklenburg-born artist Günther Uecker turned against the predominant art movements of the 1950s: socialist realism in the GDR and informalism in the West. This early work was dominated by haptically structured, monochrome colour fields, until he subsequently discovered the nail as a pictorial element. For him, however, the nail was never merely a structural feature, he also gives it a symbolic value as an aggressive and hurtful object.
The concept of structure became central to Uecker’s continuing oeuvre. Starting in 1957, he began exhibiting his works with Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, before joining the group ZERO, which he remained a member of until 1966. He created light-space structures that were initially limited to perceptual movements, such as the work Lichtmodulationen (1960). After 1960, as his activities with ZERO intensified, he also began adding mechanical drive systems to his works. Essential points of reference and influence include Władysław Strzemiński and the suprematism of Kazimir Malevich as well as László Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus. Starting in the 1950s, Zen Buddhism began to shape and influence his life. “It is actually not possible to describe Uecker in phenomenological terms alone. For Uecker, white, real space (Fontana) and emptiness (Yves Klein) are not only aesthetic forms of perception but also forms of meditation, prerequisites for a new humanity, zones that are the nexus for absorbing and providing new stimuli. ‘White has been sought by all avowed monists (known to us as monks) in different cultures as an absolute experience of being, causing a blurring of the boundaries between being and non-being and allowing a new existence to emerge.’ This complete congruence in Uecker’s work between forms of thinking, perception and imagination, this ability, which he owes to his intensive preoccupation with Zen Buddhism, to see himself as being not in opposition to but part of something, lends his works a transcendental aspect.”1
Schwarzraum-Weißraum is shown in the exhibition as a digitised video film created in collaboration with the photographer Lothar Wolleh at Museum Folkwang in Essen. The project goes back to Uecker’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1970, where, in a sense, he took stock of the work he had done up to that point. No longer merely interested in the painting on the wall, he instead wanted to penetrate the room and the architecture of the room. The video department at the Essen museum facilitated the performance and recording of Schwarzraum-Weißraum. The artist wanted to develop a pictorial space in which he could record the action of painting on video. In the performance, Uecker, painted all in black, sat inside a 3 × 3 × 3 metre cube that was painted black, perched on a black chair in front of a black table. The only points of luminosity were the whites of his eyes. The sight had a shocking effect on the numerous visitors present. Using a string that he had attached to the table with a nail, he then introduced white paint into the cube and began to paint the room and himself with a wide brush. The characteristic painting style was visible. The viewers subsequently found Uecker whitewashed, sitting in the same stoic posture as before – on his chair, only now in white and thus visible.2
1 Dieter Honisch, “Günther Uecker, 1970”, in id., Texte, Stuttgart, 1992, p. 338.
2 See Dieter Honisch, in Günther Uecker, exh. cat. Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Ostfildern, 2005, p. 88.
In the exhibition:
Günther Uecker Lichtmodulationen, 1960 Cork on canvas, painted 99 × 98,5 × 4,5 cm Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf
Günther Uecker / Lothar Wolleh Schwarzraum – Weißraum, 1975 Documentation of the performance, digitised video Günther Uecker / Lothar Wolleh Raum
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