Die Künstlerin Charlotte Posenenske

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To introduce myself in short: I was lucky to live and work together with Charlotte for 17 years – after she gave up art in 1968. That’s why I call her Charlotte. We married before she died in 1985 - only 55 years old. I now manage her estate and make presentations of her work. Two years ago I published a monograph with the list of all her works and my memories about her life - as far as it is relevant for understanding her art.

When starting as a painter in 1956, Charlotte was very impressed by Piet Mondrian who - as you know - had founded the Dutch De Stijl Movement, and also by El Lissitzky, one of the most important Russian Constructivists, who had claimed to leave the bourgeois painting, which works – as Leon Battista Alberti found out already in the early Renaissance - like a window, through which you may look into a better and more beautiful world. – and mentally escape. El Lissitzky claimed art to move to every day life, where we live and work, represented by architecture. Charlotte repeated El Lissitzky’s program from painterly illusion to every day reality on her own way. Her last work – a kind of mobile walls – was realized the first time in Haus Konstruktiv in Zürich this year and then at the Daimler Collection in Berlin. Unfortunately we can’t show this piece here. But I mention it, to accentuate, that Charlotte had finally arrived at architecture. Then – in 1968 – she left art behind and started to study sociology. People were amazed and gallery owners were angry. Why did an artist, who was already well known, leave art?
It has been said, her reasons were political. It was the time of Vietnam War and the students’ rebellion. Sure, she also wanted to engage herself. But another reason quite obvious is, that she had fulfilled her program. If you see her work under this aspect you find out, that her way was very consequent: having started from paintings with illusionary space on the flat canvas she continued with famous reliefs on the so called paradise door of the Baptistery in Florence in the 13th century. All the red, yellow, blue and black objects, you see here, Charlotte called reliefs. In fact such a relief is an arched or bent rectangular sheet – reminding of the old canvas. There are 5 different types of reliefs in the primary colours and black. After the reliefs – but in the same year 1967 – she started with the foldings of rectangular sheet – you see one piece over there, that lies flat against the wall at one side and rises up into the space on the other side – a bastard between flat picture and a spatial object (Foto diagonale Faltung). While Lucio Fontana slashed the canvas to reach the real space, while Frank Stella for the same reason let his pictures sprawl out of the frame, Charlotte revived the relief, which was a well known traditional form of art, since Lorenzo Ghiberti amazed the world in the renaissance with his wonderful reliefs at the paradise doors in Florenz. In the same year Charlotte started with the steel sheet tubes, a system consisting of 6 different elements with which the most diverse configurations can be built. Look at the installation over there. After this group of work she invented a second system consisting of only 4 huge cardboard tubes – which are not exhibited in this show. Then she constructed the little revolving vane, two of which you can see here, and the revolving vane over there, big enough to be entered. The plates were immediately understood and used as “doors”. Finally there exists another type of revolving vane made from compressed wood: the prototype belongs to the Tate Gallery, three reconstructions were exhibited on documenta 12 in 2007 and you see there, how people use it.

That’s all. Charlotte’s work is very small and most of it realized in a single year, in 1967.
The work which comes next are the Mobile walls, which I mentioned before. They do only exist as a drawing, that we realized this year.
You may ask what these equal blue pictures mean which are scattered all over the gallery.
Charlotte had found these DIN A4 sized sheets somewhere and decided to use it as a slack page between the pages of the catalogue of the show “Serielle Formationen” which had been arranged by Peter Roehr and Paul Maenz in Frankfurt in 1967 and had been the first show in Germany about the phenomenon of seriality. There were 30 of these blue sheets left. So I made them frame to show them in New York as an example of seriality. But why scattered? Because the fact, that the same phenomenon may arise everywhere is an implication of seriality. Here it is a sort of super structure, a demonstration of “over all – art”.

Ladies and Gentlemen
I am now going to try to explain Charlotte’s work along her so called manifesto where she concentrated her main ideas. As a matter of fact a piece of art cannot be explained as a whole, there will always be a big rest that leads into the dark. The manifesto starts:

The things I make are
As simple as possible,

1.) She writes “things”: that is a thing like any other thing. Sounds very modest. Variability is the first attribute. That means that the reliefs may be combined as you like: for instance 10 pieces of the same type or a pair of equal types, a pair of different types, a pair of the same or of different colours. A triptychon of 3 reliefs and so on. You may arrange the reliefs in different intervals, vertically or horizontally. Charlotte called the reliefs “elements” which means that you need several of them to form a hole – one only makes no sense.
With the different tube elements you can make many, many kinds of configurations. In fact the system is a building set. The installations can lie on the floor, stand upright or even be hung from the ceiling (Foto). There are two general ways of installation: you can combine some elements to form a figure which – looking more or less harmonic – reminds of the traditional sculpture. The other way is to build up installations that look with it’s ramifications amorphous and are often mixed up with ventilation pipes. If you compare a configuration of this system with a traditional sculpture, the difference becomes obvious: a traditional sculpture has a fixed size and shape, but the installations of the tubes are variable. They may change their size and – which is most important – they stay unfinished. They may be continued. They are fragments. When you take the first element of an installation and fix it at the other side of it – and so on –, you could even say, that there is also a tendency for moving. Elementarization,, variability, continuation and moving are aspects to overcome the traditional sculpture. I like the amorphous installations more, because people have to decide by themselves whether it’s art or not. (Story of the hook between the columns) Let me cite here a sentence from the manifesto: “The objects are decreasingly recognizable as ‘artworks’”
The cardboard tubes are bigger than those made of steel and the installations, we made in the past, were really huge. Charlotte had been a stage designer before - and therefore had no problems with big size. The variability of the revolving vanes is obvious: you may open all the doors or only one door or keep the object shut. With concern to the big type it may be said that people can enter it. To enter a piece of art or to use a piece of art, that was quite a new aspect in 1967. (Only Carl Andre and Bill Graham stressed this aspect at the same time) Generally artwork may be contemplated, but not used. To use is something practical in every day life.
But variability has another crucial dimension here. Charlotte writes: “I leave this alteration to the consumer who thereby again an anew participates in the creation.” Alteration means variability. A little later she writes of the principles of rationalized alteration.” This means at least that there should be given reasons for an alteration. Variability should not be arbitrary. The so called consumers should combine the elements by themselves, they should make the installations by themselves. By this Charlotte transferred a lot of creativity to others, who should develop an idea for an installation, should discuss and decide, what elements to use and how many, where it should be placed, whether on the floor, upright or hanging, and should screw together the elements according to their own criteria. But this transferring of decision making has it’s price: the consumers are responsible for the result. That’s why Charlotte didn’t sign anymore. This participation was a democratic approach to art making, an idea, which Charlotte shared with other artists, who were interested to make also the lonely authoritarian art making more democratic in those days. Not only the students claimed for participating at the decision making in university affairs, but also at the theatre people were asked to come on the stage to play together with the actors, architects asked the later residents of a housing settlement to tell their requirements for changing the floor plan. In one word: cooperation instead of individual decisions was a main idea in the late 60ies and early 70ies of the last century. Today participation has become a sort of a play for instance in television, where you may press a button to tell your opinion in a talk show and is far away of any real decision making in real life. By “consumer” Charlotte did not mean couch potatoes and shoppers, but active people who wanted to interfere.

As you see, variability was in the 60ies and the 70ies not only an intrinsic dimension of art to overcome the traditional composition in art making, which seemed to many young artists to be authoritarian, hierarchical and arbitrary. Variability could also be understood as a metaphor for a change in society which seemed to be ossified in those days. The students, but also people, whom they called “bourgeois”, wanted to change the society, the economy, the family, their partners, their girlfriends and even themselves. Variability was a politically loaded expression in those exciting times. Participation – at least participation, students dreamed of revolution – was another.

2.) “As simple as possible”, Charlotte wrote, should her art be. Why simple? As you know Informel, tachism, action painting was until the late 50ies the dominant way of painting. You may find in our catalogue a lot of pictures between 1956 and 1964, painted very fast and with swinging gestures, pictures of a strong subjectivity. Since 1964 expressing subjectivity was no more, what Charlotte intended. She thought excessive individualism to be an illusion, because individualism is only possible on the basis of a lot of – mostly forgotten - conditions made by others. So she turned to geometry, to objectivity. It was a break. Geometry is a basic system of mankind which connects architecture, machinery, ballistic, the human body with the cosmos. Charlotte loved transparency, and geometry is a formal system which is more or less understandable for everyone, if its forms are basic. So simplicity of geometry guaranteed an access to her art. She writes in her manifesto: “The simplicity of the basic geometric forms is beautiful and suited to demonstrate the principles of rationalized alteration.” The beauty of simple geometric forms was the credo of the German Bauhaus, one of Charlotte’s roots. It was probably Mies van der Rohe who uttered the famous sentence “less is more”, a sentence that became a guiding line for most of the modern architects and also for Charlotte Posenenske.

3.) She wrote in her manifesto: The things I make a reproducible. Reproducibility is the third main attribute of Charlotte’s art. This means, that she refused to construct original, unique pieces of art. Why that? In her own words: “I make series, because I do not want to make single pieces for individuals, in order to have elements combinable within a system, in order to make something which is repeatable, objective, and because it is economical. The series could be prototypes for mass production.”
Mass production? Charlotte wanted her objects to be available for everybody. Unique pieces of art in general claim originality and a high price for that. They are exclusive, if private owners keep them in their houses. Her objects are sold at cost price. This decision belongs to the heart of her concept: not only are the reliefs and tubes produced like any good for consumption still after Charlotte’s death, but also undergo the rules of the market, which are to make profit. Not making profit – Charlotte lived from renting her little parent’s house – means to use the market only as a distribution mechanism. Ideed: surfing on the market rules is one of the most elegant ways of subversion. And subversion – breaking rules of art or society – is one of the intrinsic dimensions of good art, as you know. When she says, to make series, is economical, she does not mean profitable of course, but that the production cost is less and so people would not have to pay much for her art. As the prices cannot be raised by the galleries – they are not amused about this aspect – they stay stabile and the consumers - as Charlotte called the buyers – cannot hope, that the art would get worthier. What they buy is not a single piece of art for a happy owning, but the materialization of an idea, which they have to share with others. This is no doubt a democratic dimension. When Charlotte says, her art would be objective, she stresses that she had left all the subjectivity of her early paintings.
And there is also another accent, when she writes: “The objects should have the objective character of industrial products.” Industrial products are fabricated in cooperation, division of labour and machines, in series, all equal. They cannot have an individuality like a handmade chair. They are objective in so far individual labour has been replaced by a highly organized common labour.
Charlotte continues in her manifesto: “Series DW (at Fischer’s) is made of corrugated pasteboard which is light and cheap: a material for consumption.” The material should be light, so that the cardboard elements could easily be carried around and combined. At the Art Fair in Bale I have made a demonstration, what is meant by variability, participation and cooperation. Slim girls in light summer clothes were dancing around carrying the huge elements overhead (Foto). The monumentality of the huge pieces is of course an ironic one. It is not a monumentality for ever like the pyramids have or the art of some famous artists like Richard Serra – whom Charlotte admired very much. It is a monumentality which does not express power. At the beginning of an installation the elements lie piled like a heap of rays that I once saw in a harbour of northern France. Then they are unfolded and getting huge. It is a little bit like magic, when the magician fetches a pigeon out of his handkerchief. The elements are light, to make it also possible to build up installations which are very high. We used ladders. (Foto Flughafen, Großmarkt)
Charlotte wrote: “They approximate architectural dimensions.” And architecture was, as I have mentioned before, where Charlotte wanted to end her program on her trip from illusion to reality. With concern to the material for consumption it is important to know, that Charlotte did not want to produce art for eternity in bronze, marble, granite or steel to be admired overhead on a pedestal and when you touch it, the security man comes running. She would have been very astonished to find her objects in famous museums like MoMA, Tate, Pompidou and so on. She produced art as a good for consumption which has of course only a certain lifetime after that it’s rotten, rotten like a car after 15 years. I once called Hans van Manen, the famous chorreógrapher of the Netherlands Dance Theatre who had bought some cardboard tubes years ago. I asked him whether he remembered Charlotte Posenenske. He did. I asked him, what had happened to the cardboard tubes he had bought. After a little while he answered in the high voice of a very old man: “My dog ate it all up.” This is exaggerated, I think, a joke, but perhaps his dog has taken a piece. Anyway, it demonstrates the end of a piece of art. Once I got a call by my gallery in New York, they told me, a collector in Texas had gotten angry, when he had discovered blue figures, traces of a hand and even of a foot on the surface of the steel tubes. On the wooden doors of the revolving vane you could read, when it was taken back to the store from an exhibition, for example: “This is art? This is shit. Killroy was here” and so on. Charlotte did not erase those comments, but left it to demonstrate this negative participation to be part of the history of the work of art. So I had to explain to the collector, that the craftsmen had written the blue figures when they were cutting the sheet, and that the traces of fingers were from carrying around the objects, that means traces of work, transport and perhaps of rain and sun, traces of history, traces of life. The technoid looking tubes got a human touch, but no touch by the artist. She only designed the concept. So art historians finally decided to call Charlottes art not minimal Art, but conceptual Art.
Collectors and curators like to have a clean surface of the objects and the surface of each element equal, so that an installation looks homogenious. They prefer the free standing harmonic type of an installation of the steel tubes that has the autonomy of the traditional modern sculpture. According to Charlottes idea of continuity I like better the amorphous installations, that lean against the wall, where I take elements produced in 1986 with elements from 2007 together. The surface looks different then, the new tubes are shiny, the old ones dark: an installation looks inhomogenious then, technical and dependent, more every day like, less aesthetic, more ugly, but shows, that also art has a history.

When I spoke about participation I mentioned that Charlotte gave a lot of her creativity as an artists to others who at the end are responsible for the installation, they had combined. In other words: the artist retired from art step by step. Indeed there is a trend of reduction in Charlottes work according to her affection to simplicity and “less is more”. This reduction may easily be explained if you see the development of the colours in her work: many colours in painting, only primary colours used for the reliefs, the colour of the material (cardboard; steel, the wooden revolving vanes), simply grey for the revolving vanes you see here in the show, and at last the mobile walls are white like the wall. That’s why I am convinced, that leaving art was a final act in the area of art, but is also a consequence of this trend of reduction. Her art tends to get rotten and she herself vanished into every day life.

Coming to the end now I want to sum up the main aspects of Charlotte’s art:
her way from illusionary space on the flat canvas to architecture may be understood as a way from illusion to reality
variability as the freedom for others to make installations on their own account, for which they are responsible. Participation of the – active – consumers as cooperative art making
elementarization and variability makes the sculpture endless, locally and temporarely
variability with concern to the revolving vanes means the usability of art, art to be entered
the objectivity of geometry means to give up subjectivity as much as possible
simplicity of geometry means accessibility for more or less everyone
reproducibility unlimited means art is an ordinary good for consumption
selling for cost prize means art for low prize
selling for cost prize means to undergo the market rules and is certainly a very elegant way of subversion
the trend of reduction means not only less colours, the simplest material that will rot, but also that the artist retires more an more until she vanishes as an artist at last.
giving up art in the case of Charlotte seems to me to be an act on the terrain of art, it is a dimension of art.