The things I make are variable,
as simple as possible,
They are components of a space; since they are like building elements,
they can always be rearranged into new combinations or positions.
Thus, they alter the space.
I leave this alteration to the consumer who thereby again and anew participates in the creation.
The simplicity of the basic geometric forms is beautiful and suited to demonstrate the principles
of rationalized alteration.
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.
Series DW (at Fischer’s) is made of corrugated pasteboard which is light and cheap: a material for consumption.
Often the elements or their combinations are very large in order to alter the spatial environment
They approximate architectural dimensions and also for this reason differ increasingly from the former gallery objects.
They are less and less recognizable as “artworks.”
The objects should have the objective character of industrial products.
They are not intended to represent anything other than what they are.
The former categorization of the arts no longer exists.
The artist of the future should have to work with a team of specialists in a development laboratory.
Though art’s formal development has progressed at an increasing tempo, its social function has regressed.
Art is a product of temporary topicality, yet, the market is minute while prestige and prices rise the less topical the supply is.
It is painful for me to face the fact that art cannot contribute to the solution of urgent social problems.
Offenbach, February 11, 1968
Burkhard Brunn: A Commentary on the Manifesto
For the observations published in Art International, the word “manifesto” may seem to be a rather grandiose term, which otherwise stands for the program of a community of artists. The artist herself would have referred to the text as a “statement,” but it ultimately became known as a “manifesto,” surely in part due to the fact that it was written in verse. The essentiality of the contentions and intentions is the decisive criterion for the use of the expression. Thus, it may well apply to the oeuvre of Charlotte Posenenske, especially as the artist otherwise left behind no programmatic statements. The Manifesto is the concentrate of her concept of art.
In this article I would like to comment point by point on the programmatic statements compiled in said Manifesto, though its larger context cannot be discussed in such detail. In some cases, this results in redundancies. I take the liberty of simply calling the artist Charlotte; after all, I lived and worked with her for seventeen years. She was born Charlotte Mayer in 1930 and died in 1985. Having turned her back on art in 1968, she studied sociology with me to degree level. I manage her estate, contemplate her work, and have organized many of her posthumous exhibitions.
1. “The things that I make …”
Things, a term for works of art that sounds modest but is in fact provocative, refers to very specific objects, namely the Diagonal Folds, the B Series* and C Series Reliefs, the D Series and DW Series Square Tubes, and the E Series Revolving Vanes. This term means that these are generally products whose artistic character is played down. It is not ruled out that from the point of view of the observer they could be something other than art. “Things” corresponds to a later maxim in the Manifesto, namely, that the things “are less and less recognizable as works of art—the objects are intended to have the objective character of industrial products.” (*The A Series was an early version of the B Series. There are only three copies, which I ne-glect here.)
2. “The things that I make are changeable …”
Changeable is the first and, as will be revealed, essential attribute of all the works she created in 1967.
a) Charlotte refers to the Reliefs as well as to the different parts of the Square Tubes as “elements” that—and this explains the changeability—can be combined in a wide variety of ways. For example, convex Reliefs can be combined with any number of convex as well as concave Reliefs: in pairs, triptychs, clusters, rows, vertically, horizontally (fig. 8), and separated by large or small distances that can increase or decrease in one and the same installation. They can also be lying on the ground. However, not only different shapes, but also different colors can be combined—that is, the primary colors yellow, red, and blue, plus black. This changeability can also be demonstrated, for example, in a combination of concave black relief and convex blue relief, replacing the latter with one of a different color for the audience. Thus, with regard to the changeability of the Reliefs, there are four parameters: shape, color, the number of elements, and their distance from one another.
b) The variability of the stereometric hollow bodies, known as the Square Tubes, which were mentioned earlier, is a result of the fact that with the six elements of the sheet steel D Series or the four elements of the corrugated cardboard DW Series a wide variety of installations can be constructed. This means that adding or taking away other elements changes not only the shape but also the size of an installation. Thus, the installation can grow or gradually disappear. In the event that it grows, it can be continued, both in space and time. The ability to be continued, which breaks down the traditional view of a complete whole that cannot be added to or subtracted from without it being destroyed, is an important aspect of this variability. In this way, every installation is like a torso that can be added to in our imagination and indeed in practice. By being directed implicitly against a state of completeness, it also questions the perfect wholeness, the “masterpiece,” which is accorded significance through-out time. However, this also calls into question the status of the ingenious artist, whose work is kept in a museum for posterity.
c) In the case of the Revolving Vanes, the changeability is demonstrated by the motion of the door-like vanes, which can be moved in their frame in either direction. The great importance that the attribute of “changeability” had in Charlotte’s concept becomes clear against the backdrop of the late 1960s, when it was not only rebellious students who wanted to change the rigid social conditions. Everything had to change, not just the economic and political conditions, but also personal families—and love affairs. People demanded not just a “change of consciousness” but also for this change to be lived out in practice. This meant not just any arbitrary form of variability, but rather changeability, which implied action. This also applied to Charlotte’s art: rather than automatic chemical, physical, and visual changes—for example, the variation and shift in structures in Op Art, or subjective changes in perception when the same object appears different from a changing perspective due to the incidence of light and the movement of the observer—Charlotte was interested in changeability through human action. The “consumer”—the term she used to refer to active observers of art in order to emphasize that, however divorced from reality art might appear to be, it is ultimately a consumer good—should be the determining factor in the artistic process, thus mutating from mere observer to practical participant.
With regard to variability in art, however, a second aspect is important: one of at least three artistic strategies aimed at overcoming the hierarchical composition of traditional art, in which the components of the work of art are weighted at the discretion of the artist, which in the 1960s was considered authoritarian. The variability of its components makes the work of art obsolete as an authoritarian composition. Seriality and monochromy are the other two strategies that were carried out at the time. The configuration of identical elements (Peter Roehr) and the use of a single color (Piero Manzoni and Ives Klein, among others) avoid the traditional hierarchy in the structure of a picture.
3. “The things that I make are … as simple as possible.”
For Charlotte, fundamental geometric shapes were simple, as was restricting herself to a single material—in other words, avoiding combinations of material. The Reliefs consist of a rectangular piece of aluminum or sheet steel shaped as a concave or convex semicircle, or folded. She called these objects “Reliefs” because they are interim shapes—in other words, objects that on the one hand are reminiscent of a flat rectangle (the former picture format) and on the other hand show characteristics of sculpture; they are, as it were, still a picture but already a sculpture. They are bastards of pictures and sculptures, and mark the point of transition from two to three dimensions. What is remarkable here is that Charlotte chose two straightforward shapes that represent the parameters for any sculpture: concavely and convexly curved or edged. The Reliefs are not subjectively relevant shapes selected at the discretion of the artist, but basic shapes that, as such, have a high degree of generality and thus great binding authority.
The stereometric hollow bodies that are the Square Tubes are also extremely simple. The sheet steel D Series features a cuboid with a square profile—the “Square Tube” (Element 1). The cuboid that is halved with regard to the cross-section but just as long is called the “Semi-square Tube” (Element 2), and in volume it is half the size of
Element 1. Element 3 is a cube (“Cube Tube”) and likewise has half the volume of Element 1. Element 4 is a “Transitional Piece” whose two openings can be attached (screwed) to the Square Tube on the one hand and the Semi-square Tube on the other, thus bringing about a change in cross- section. The “Angle Piece” (Element 5), whose two openings can be attached to the Square Tube, enables the direction of an installation to be changed. Finally, the “T-Piece” (Element 6), to each of whose three openings a Square Tube can be attached, enables ramification.
In the larger corrugated cardboard Square Tubes from the DW Series the artist omitted the Cube Tube and the T-Piece. The former probably seemed to her to be dispensable, since it had the same volume as the Semi-square Tube, and the latter because as a ramification it simply repeated, in a more complicated fashion, the change in direction enabled by the Angle Piece. Thus, volume and change in direction are the two main criteria in the construction of the Square Tubes, criteria that are decisive for any sculpture.
For Charlotte, the goal of making her art accessible to everyone was an important aspect of this simplicity. Accessibility in physical, mental, as well as commercial terms was an important dimension of her democratic concept. She also erected her Square Tubes outside of galleries—in the middle of traffic (back cover), on an public square or on an airfield, for example—and she kept the prices as low as possible. (cf. section 12)
4. “The things that I make … are reproducible.”
Charlotte called the works she had produced “prototypes for mass production.” As a result, there is no limit to the number of times the prototypes can be reproduced—unlike works of art that are produced as part of a numbered edition, the earlier ones commanding a higher price than later ones. As long as there is demand, I, as the administrator of the estate, have the prototypes reproduced. In addition to selling them at a set cost price (accounting for production, transport and administration costs), the unlimited reproducibility represents a subversive strategy against the commercialization of art, since not only is no profit made, but any increase in value—something most collectors desire—is ruled out. The fact that the artwork can be changed by others (cf. section 6) and reproduced ad infinitum characterizes the artist’s decided renunciation of the status of the traditional artist who creates originals, or one-offs, the price of which is determined by the market. The price of Charlotte’s objects, which are not signed, is fixed and independent of the market. (As late as 1967, the prototypes of the Reliefs bore the designation “CP 67” in Stencil font, though this was more a brand name than a signature.) The mass production she was striving for was directed against expensive works of art that are exclusive in every respect, the enjoyment of which is the preserve of the very few. (cf. section 8)
5. “The things that I make are … part of the space, because they are similar to components, they can always be changed to create new combinations or positions, and in doing so change the space.”
In the footsteps of El Lissitzky, but in her very own way, the artist moved away from panel paintings—in front of which people merely stand as observers of abstract worlds of colors and shapes or spatial illusions that are presented through perspective or other means—toward architecture, the space in which we live and work. In other words, she moved away from the illusion of artistic autonomy or illusions of perspective—deception of the eye, which is what figurative painting is—to everyday reality. Any sculpture of a certain size standing in a gallery can change the space without actually being “part of the space.” As objects, the Square Tubes, on the other hand, are as stereometric as the space itself; they adapt to it, and thus become part of the space. In the installations Charlotte particularly emphasized the Square Tubes’ relation to architecture by attaching them with the opening facing the gallery wall, such that they looked like a ventilation unit . However, this meant that they could no longer claim to be autonomous objects.
The large Revolving Vane changes the surrounding space. It creates a space within a space and has the character of a transit area: one can step inside it, walk through it and close it so as to spend time in it without being disturbed. What is known as the partition, an object comprising two revolving walls fixed to the wall, which in front of one of the corners can be closed to create a cube, is, by half at least, already a piece of architecture. This was the artist’s last piece of work, which was not realized during her lifetime and which she left behind merely as a concept (fig. 39, 40). Realized to date just once in 2010 at Artist Space in New York, the linear partition (fig. 38) enables a space to be divided into two parts like a barrier—one which, however, like the swing door in Western saloons, can be opened and passed through. (cf. section 8)
6. “I leave this change up to the consumer, who is thus repeatedly involved in the production in new ways.”
As indicated earlier, the artist entrusted the curator, the buyer, or even the public with the building and remodeling of the installations. This applied not only to the Square Tubes, but to the Reliefs as well, which were likewise created in 1967. In doing so, Charlotte handed over a key part of her artistic authority to others, who were able to work with the elements she made available as they de-sired. She accepted the fact that the results of this completed work—because it is nothing less than this—often look very different from her own installations. This is genuine collaboration, as it was no longer the artist who merely provided the concept, who was responsible for the result, but the others who complete the work. In the case of the Revolving Vanes it was not the remodeling of the installation that represented the changeability, but rather the alternative alignment of the “doors.”
In different ways other artists (Franz Ehrhard Walter, for example) also pursue concepts of participation. These are attempts to democratize the production of art. Art is intended to lose its inviolability and exclusivity.
Like changeability, participation should also be considered against the backdrop of, to a greater or lesser extent, sociopolitical demands made in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the theater the audience was called on to play a role, in architecture the future inhabitants of a development were asked about their needs, at lectures the listeners were encouraged to voice their own opinion. From these beginnings there later emerged a culture of involvement that increasingly became the norm, making it possible, for example, for TV viewers to take part in live programs with the press of a button.
7. “The simplicity of basic geometric shapes is beautiful, and suitable for making principles of rationalized change clear.”
It is a well-known fact that all figurations and compositions—from Greek Classicism to long after the Renaissance (Piero, Raffael, Perugino)—that we refer to as “classic” are to a greater or lesser extent geometric in nature. Not until Mannerism and the Baroque was this tradition broken with—one that was based on the need for symmetry related to our physical stature and powers of perception. In its basic forms geometry has a simplicity that makes it easier for the public to access art. When Charlotte refers to the simplicity of basic geometric shapes as “beautiful”—the basic shapes, it should be emphasized—she is referring to geometry as a system of order that is fundamental to our culture. Horizontal, vertical, and diagonal are parameters of this order, according to which we visually organize and control our world.
Geometric shapes are not only transparent, but—like logic—universal, at least in our culture. Familiarity with them from engineering and architecture promises a certain degree of accessibility.
The “consumers” involved in the variable installation of the elements manipulate objects that they are generally familiar with due to their geometric shape. (cf. section 3) In contrast to often puzzling works by ingenious artists, in its simplicity, geometric order appears not only beautiful, but even comprehensible. The change in the installations is only “rationalized” inasmuch as the subjective interventions are limited, if not largely ruled out by the prescribed format and the fact that the elements can only be connected to each other. The change can only take place on the basis of the modular system—in other words, not just any way. Changes in volume and direction are the two parameters by which an installation of the Square Tubes can be changed. Thus, this “rationalized change” is neither an arbitrary act nor an act of destruction, which plays an important role in art by allowing something new to emerge.
If one considers “rationalized change” against the backdrop of the much-criticized society of the late 1960s and ’70s and suggests that Charlotte’s artistic concept reflected this state of affairs, one can assume that the politically interested artist wanted the change in society, which others were also striving for at the time, to be rational, i.e., did not want to see it brought about by principles other than order. In other words, her mindset was bound by the state civilization had reached; it was evolutionary, not radical, not revolutionary. Charlotte had great admiration for engineering. It was only as a sociologist, when she turned to labor sciences, which form part of the rationalization movement that began in the 1920s, that she became aware of the fact that technology was already being developed in basic research in the interests of the capitalist method of production. It is well known that revolutions are chaotic and usually end in totalitarian systems. Charlotte was familiar with the Nazi regime, herself having been “racially persecuted” under it.
8. “I make series because I do not want to make individual items for individuals.”
Charlotte had her objects produced in a factory, thus handing over the task of manufacturing them, like many American Minimalists and concept artists at the time. Unlike an edition, the series are not limited. She differentiated between the A, B, C, D, and E Series, thereby creating an intentional link between the groups of works which, as the document verifies, reveals a development trend.
The A Series represents the realization of a single shape and color: the Reliefs are convex. There are just three copies, and, in contrast to the B Series, two of them are painted bright red. The third is an untreated workpiece. The three copies are regarded as one-offs, because as preliminary forms they were not meant to be reproduced.
The B Series consists of five different types in the three primary colors and black. They are matte so as to eliminate reflections, which, as in the work of Pistoletto, draw the outside world into the object.
The C Series consists of a single shape and the color yellow. (In a letter, however, the artist also mentions the color blue, which has not yet been realized.) These Reliefs are twenty-five centimeters longer than the B Series and have a right angle, allowing the installation to fit tightly in the corner of a room or in the angle between the floor and a wall. This makes them appear to be part of the architecture. (cf. section 5)
The D Series is a modular system of six different hollow bodies made of galvanized sheet steel (cover), while the DW Series includes just four different corrugated cardboard elements. Apart from one element, these hollow bodies can be folded, i.e., they are stored and delivered flat and then unfolded.
The E Series includes three different Revolving Vanes made of rigid foam panels coated with aluminum or of untreated chipboard. The small Revolving Vane (1) is a cube (100 × 100 × 100 cm), the sides of which can be rotated. The large (walk-in) Revolving Vane (2) (190 × 190 cm, surface area 200 × 200 × 200 cm) is a vertical prism. When closed, the reproductions of the large chipboard Rotating Vanes (3) displayed at the 2007 documenta, whose prototype is now in the Tate Modern, form a cuboid with the base and cover panel. What is known as the partition (4) belongs to the same group of works; this comprises just two square, white, approximately ceiling-high, mobile walls of undetermined size, which in front of a corner can be closed to form a cube. To date this partition has been realized twice, first in 2009 at Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, and then in 2010 at the Daimler Collection’s Haus Huth in Berlin. A partition (5) that was likewise reproduced posthumously from a drawing dated “67/68” consists of four panels of variable size in a line, each of which can be rotated around a post. These panels form either a continuous wall—a barrier in the space—or, like swing doors, can be moved and passed through. Moreover, from the same drawing a Revolving Vane was recently reproduced that, when closed, forms a cube whose sides are one hundred and fifty centimeters long (6). In contrast to the other Revolving Vanes, this one is transparent, as its “doors” are made not of panels but frames that are just as big as the base and the cover frame, in which they can be revolved.
The Revolving Vanes are reproductions of the prototypes Charlotte left behind (1, 2, 3), while the partitions and the steel frame Revolving Vane are reproductions based on drawings (4, 5, 6). Originally produced in series, they were and indeed still are occasionally presented in series, i.e., in series of the identical reliefs or identical installations at identical or increasing distances.
In contrast to the exclusive character of a one-off, which in a worst-case scenario disappears forever into a private collection, objects produced as series offer excellent value, and almost anyone interested in art can afford them. This too characterizes the democratic nature of this art. Instead of turning originals into fetish objects, which today seems primitive, several collectors share the same material form of an idea. Instead of a single person owning an object, many share a materialized concept. Charlotte was against the privatization of art. Art was meant to be public, which for her was a reason for exhibiting outside of galleries.
9. “I make series … in order to have elements that can be combined within a system.”
In the case of the Square Tubes, the “system” comprises a set of four or six different elements. With the Reliefs the set consists of five different elements in different colors. Each system implies a limitation: it includes only the element types mentioned and, in the case of the Reliefs, only the primary colors and black. Since these works are elements, exhibiting individual Reliefs would be contrary to the concept.
The term “system” means that, apart from the restriction to a small number of elements, the relationship between the elements is also relevant—for example, the distances between the Reliefs hung on the wall, or the combination of the shapes and/or colors—and secondly, the context of the system, i.e., the surrounding space, which is important for the constitution of meaning accorded to the artwork by the observer. System theory speaks of an “environment.” When they are connected to the wall, the stereometric Square Tubes’ relation to architecture makes them ambivalent: on the one hand they belong to the system, while on the other hand they are a part of its context, the environment. Here, too, art understandably becomes part of everyday life.
10. “I make series in order to make something repeatable, objective.”
In contrast to her gestural painting (1956 to 1965; cf. the catalog “Charlotte Posenenske: The Early Works” with an essay by Philipp Kaiser), in which each picture was the result of a single, often eruptive, subjective act, repetition is the expression of objectivization, or desubjectivization. Repetition is a characteristic of natural, industrial, and everyday ritualized procedures: for example, the sequence of the seasons, conveyor-belt production, and the daily breakfast routine. Serial production and the production of series, in which the individual’s creativity hardly plays a role, are objective. An art object is objective not only because it is a quasi-industrially manufactured serial product, but also an item that is generally available everywhere en masse. As demonstrated by the fact that she handed over the making of artistic decisions to others (cf. section 6), the artist withdrew more and more from the production of art until she disappeared completely from the art world. It goes without saying that repeatability is aimed directly against the traditional interpretation of art as the creation of one-offs.
11. “I make series … because it is economical.”
It is obvious that a serial product is cheaper than a one-off. Charlotte attempted to adapt her artistic production to industrialized everyday life not just by means of geometry, elementarization, series production, engineering-based design, and standard, inexpensive materials, but also by means of explicit economic activity. Economy of thought and action is based on efficiency: the aim is to achieve as much as possible with as little means as possible (including power, energy, material, space, time). Charlotte chose cheap materials for her works; sheet steel, aluminum, and corrugated cardboard. The maxim “less is more,” which Charlotte followed, is not merely an aesthetic criterion but also an economic and technical one—technicians speak of the “degree of efficiency”—and did not emerge only with the dawn of the Modern Age. The early bourgeois philosophy of saving (Alberti) was “economical,” as opposed to the waste of feudalism. In the case of “less is more,” “aesthetic” characterizes the strategy of omitting and concentrating on the essential, as opposed to a wealth of aspects, including decorative ones.
Seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes include on the one hand opulent paintings for the more Catholic taste
of the nobility, with tables full of all things edible, from select fruits to game and poultry, and on the other hand images portraying thriftiness, with just a herring, a piece of bread, and a tankard of beer, the staple food of the Dutch—but how delightfully painted! Aesthetic frugality, usually bearing a reference to transience (memento mori), suited the taste of the Protestant Dutch bourgeoisie and is the humus of “less is more,” the maxim that in the 1920s became a basic principle of Modernism in architecture, design, and the fine arts.
This concept of an innocent economy, of achieving much with little means and producing inexpensive series in no way implies a subjection to capitalist production methods, which Charlotte, as discussed in section 4, avoided in an extremely elegant manner.
12. “The series can be prototypes for mass production.”
The mass production of art objects implies that, in principle, anyone should be able to possess a work of art. However, art for everyone presupposes that it is accessible—not just materially and commercially, but mentally as well. Geometry, which, like logic, is a fundamental organizational tool, is intended to be one way of ensuring this accessibility.
The expression “mass production” is a contradiction of the manufacture of exclusive one-offs for elite buyers. Mass-produced goods are cheaper than originals. Mass production is one aspect of the democratization of art. The mass production of art is unequivocally a provocation to the prevailing bourgeois view of art, whose main criteria include uniqueness and value, and there-fore exclusivity.
13. “The DW Series is made of corrugated cardboard, which is light and cheap: a material for consuming.”
The largest element in the corrugated cardboard Square Tubes is one hundred and forty centimeters long. Installations can easily reach lengths of six meters. It is astonishing to see young gallery employees carrying such large objects around. The lightness of the cardboard not only makes them easy to transport but also quick to remodel. At the legendary event “One day, my dear, all this will be yours,” which Paul Maenz and Peter Roehr held in 1967 at Galerie Dorothea Loehr in Frankfurt, Charlotte herself had helpers repeatedly remodel her installations. It was a sort of performance, which would not have been as easy with the heavier sheet steel Square Tubes. The material had to be light to be able to demonstrate the changeability of the artwork. The possibility of a performative use goes beyond Minimal Art.
The fact that corrugated cardboard is packaging—in other words, secondary material normally used for packing artworks—represents an affront to the use of “high-end” materials, which last forever. It is reminiscent of the Italian Arte Povera movement, which expressly worked with poor-quality materials. Cardboard rots. Sheet steel rusts. This means that the artwork slowly disappears, which is a major problem for museums. This disappearing is an expression of the reductive tendency that characterizes the artist’s entire oeuvre. Charlotte did not claim to create something that was valid beyond the era in which it was made—something that was generally accepted to be timeless. That ultimately her work came to be kept in several major museums and important private collections—including the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt am Main, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Siegen, the Museum Ludwig in Vienna, the Tate Modern in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Dallas Museum, the Daimler Collection, and the Deutsche Bank Collection—is a posthumous fact and was not part of the concept.
The same elements are repeatedly erected in a wide range of places, indoors and outdoors. The sheet steel Square Tubes are often exposed to the weather—and to vandalism as well. The aging of and damage to the material, and thus the ultimate disappearance of the artwork, give these technoid-looking objects something natural. The signs of wear and tear on the surface, which Charlotte, as an expression of a frequently negative participation (evident in scribblings such as “Is this meant to be art?”), did not remove, demonstrate that the work of art is alive and, unlike museum pieces that cannot be touched, changes on a daily basis like any everyday object that will someday break and be thrown out.
14. “The elements, or combinations of them, are often very large, in order to change the spatial environment
all the more fundamentally. They approach architectural dimensions, thereby distancing themselves ever more from earlier gallery objects.”
Gallery objects are traditionally pictures whose size suits a collector’s residence. Collectors whose houses are so spacious that an installation of corrugated cardboard Square Tubes could be permanently assembled in the living room are rare in Germany. Thus, the size of the objects makes it difficult for them to be bought by private individuals. This corresponds with Charlotte’s intention of “not making individual pieces for individuals”. Because the giant installations are light, even a child can push them aside. There is nothing overwhelming about their monumentality, compared with fixed, large sculptures in steel or stone; this is tongue-in-cheek monumentality. The size of the installations is an aspect of the artistic strategy of leaving the gallery behind and becoming a part of the public space. Late-1960s galleries were not only too small for Charlotte, they were also hubs of the commercial art world, which she was attempting to thwart by means of unlimited production and selling at a low, set price.
So why fundamentally alter the spatial environment? Charlotte’s path—in the footprints of El Lissitzky—took her from illusionist panel paintings to architecture, in which we conduct our everyday life. It is a fact that architecture, the spaces in which we live and work, influences our life in many ways, and this is part of the credo of great Modernist architects. They believed it was the duty of architects, through architecture, to exert a positive influence on people. Charlotte’s installations, architectural as they are in terms of size, should perhaps also be seen in this context.
15. “They are less and less recognizable as ‘works of art.’”
The strategy of transferring art to everyday life, or infiltrating everyday life with it, i.e., overcoming the boundary
between art and everyday life, is part of the tradition of Constructivism in Russia, the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, and in the Bauhaus school in Germany, all of which aimed to transport art into everyday life in the hope of improving people’s circumstances through their new surroundings. These artistic movements sympathized with socialism, which in the 1920s aimed to create a “new human being.” At some exhibitions of the sheet steel Square Tubes, the visitors, who immediately recognize anything hanging in a frame or standing on a pedestal as art, were uncertain as to whether the works were art at all or technical equipment.
They were forced to make a decision and had to ask themselves what characteristics made something recognizable as art at all. Works of art that are difficult to recognize as such come across as ambiguous objects with the potential to unsettle observers—or, in the best-case scenario, to inspire them to think. Contrary to the concept of democratic accessibility, however, this artistic strategy can cause the educated to be pleased to be able to recognize the object as a work of art, while the uneducated misinterpret the installation as a ventilation unit. I view an artwork’s innate potential for being misinterpreted as an everyday object as a sign of modesty, one that revokes art’s desire to catch the eye, namely the aesthetic intrusiveness that art normally has about it.
16. “The objects should have the objective character of industrial products.”
Works of art that look like industrial products are indeed not easily recognizable as such. Industrial products have an “objective character” in that, being the result of machine processing during serial production, they do not have
the subjective character that a handmade artwork traditionally has. This objectivization is to be understood as desubjectivization, a strategy that Charlotte pursued in order to withdraw more and more as an artist. She subsequently only delivered the concept, and for this reason is quite rightly regarded both as a Minimal artist and a Concept artist—though the dividing line is blurred. Industrial products are also objective in that, being mass-produced articles, they are ubiquitous in character, i.e., they can be found everywhere, similar to a cheap everyday item on the global market. The term “industrial product,” in the sense of mass-produced items, also implies the concept’s democratic character: this art was meant to be available to everyone.
17. “They [the objects] should present nothing aside from what they are.”
Although with characteristics such as elementarization, seriality, mass production, ordinary materials, and stereometric, technology-related design Charlotte’s art reveals unmistakable references to the industrial working world, the proposition presented here postulates self-reference otherwise attributed only to autonomous works of art, which, as the sovereign artist’s own creation, differ from the secular world. What I mean by this is that self-referential art neither depicts nor symbolizes the outside world. But art that maintains its autonomy as a sovereign form of independence, like those traditional (abstract) artists who within a picture frame create previously unseen worlds of their own, also has a trace of the outside world. A square in an “abstract” picture, for example, irrefutably references squares in engineering and architecture, regardless of whether the artist intended this or not. The relation to reality is demonstrable, and this alone counts. The aspiration of autonomy is reminiscent of the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill, knowing full well that it would only roll down again. In short, autonomy, radical self-reference, though a worthy goal, can never be achieved: every work of art, except those that consist purely of color, remains rooted in the outside world, be it formally or in terms of content. In the case of Charlotte’s art, changeability—as the fundamental dimension of the concept—clearly reveals the social background of an era in which change was a guiding principle of emancipatory social action. The similarity between the Square Tubes and ventilation equipment alone contradicts the claim of self-reference. This is why Renate Wiehager coined the term “mimetic minimalism” in reference to Charlotte’s art.
18. “The way the arts were previously classified no longer exists. The artist of the future will need to work
with a team of specialists in a development lab.”
Here Charlotte turns against traditional artists working alone in their studios to produce one-offs with outdated tools (Charlotte never used a brush!). Previously, a distinction was made between landscape, genre, historical, and portrait painters. Of course, much has changed since 1968, when Charlotte penned her Manifesto. Nowadays many artists work in a variety of media. In Charlotte’s view, the production of art should be a cooperative undertaking in which tasks are divided among specialists. She believed in the creative powers of cooperation, which she came to know and appreciate when she worked in the theater. To a certain extent she achieved this cooperation in her own work: an installation of the Square Tubes, for example, implies, first, the elaboration of the concept by the artist; second, the quasi-industrial, wage-dependent production in a factory; and third, the cooperative assembly and remodeling of the elements, i.e., the modification of an installation through others—three different types and stages of work.
A “development laboratory” means experimenting with a specific goal in mind until a formula is found that can be produced serially. The production of art should be on a factory scale. The artist should work as much as possible with state-of-the-art technology, i.e., with the latest materials and cutting-edge tools. As the material and processing techniques in turn impact on the content, art as a whole would change—all the more because, created in a “development laboratory,” it is subject to a development that the artist, according to the criteria of the time, imagined to be progressive.
19. “Although the formal development of art has continued at ever greater speed, its social function is degenerating.”
The social function of art? What is meant by this? As long as art was figurative, it served to give meaning in churches and museums. It portrayed “good” (virtue) and “bad” (sin), “beautiful” (Aphrodite, Adonis) and “ugly” (Medusa, Polyphemus), teaching and strengthening the valid Western, Christian values and standards, which gave the observers orientation in life. But because it wasn’t democratic society that first accorded art a liberty similar to that of court jesters, it dared to reveal deficits. Bluntly speaking, this was its “social function,” for which one would have previously used the term “edification,” a term that formulated “beauty,” “entertainment,” and “upbringing” in a constructive way. Abstract art, on the other hand, strives neither to depict nor to symbolize the world, but rather to construct an alternative world on the terrain accorded to it by society. The person viewing the art, who considers it not to be decoration, is forced to interpret what he sees to a far greater extent than is the case with figurative art—something that, without the relevant education, training, and expert assistance, is often very difficult. In view of the “degeneration of social functions” in the late 1960s, an art form emerged that extended the artistic freedom accorded it by society and understood it politically so as to set new norms. With regard to its political intentions, however, it faced competition from other media and needed to outdo their impact with its own specific, suggestive means—which often enough tended toward visually overwhelming the observer. Personally, Charlotte rejected overwhelming strategies aimed at motivating the public not by means of argument, but on an emotional level. In her opinion, politicians should attempt to convince people with arguments, which, in order to be of practical relevance, had to be clear and unambiguous. Good art, however, is always ambiguous, which is why it does not send out a practically relevant message in itself but rather needs interpreting. This makes it unsuited to politics—in the sense of the argumentative exertion of influence that is relevant to affairs. Finally, art is also degenerating as a result of its unscrupulous commercialization. Nowadays more than ever art is purposefully produced for the market; in other words, like any commodity it is geared to supply and demand and is intended to generate profit. The commercial consideration tends to ruin the form and content of art, which loses not only its social power of orientation but also its critical potential. By increasingly striving to effectively entertain the public, with criticism even presented as an effect, it loses its independence, and thus its freedom—precisely the characteristic that sets it apart from the dependencies of everyday life (interests, needs) and gives it such value as an unadjusted social authority.
20. “Art is a good that remains current only for a short time, but the market is tiny, and prestige and prices rise the less current the supply is.”
Like fashion, art is nowadays subject to rapid changes in trends. It follows the zeitgeist, and by becoming more topical and market-oriented toward a specific target audience, it loses its essentiality. Because, since the late 1960s, the art business has emerged as a highly efficient economic subsystem in which huge sums of money change hands, the market is by no means still small. Nor is it any longer true that art that is not current and does not follow the zeitgeist is expensive, and up-to-date art cheap. The exact opposite is often the case. Unlike money and securities, good art is regarded as stable in value. Particularly in times of economic crisis, current art is bought as an investment. Charlotte was wrong about this point.
21. “I find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that art can do nothing to help solve urgent social problems.”
This sentence is often quoted, as it appears to justify Charlotte’s leaving the art world, which occurred that same year. The statement leads people to conclude that her motives for turning her back on art were political in nature. Logically, however, it can hardly be deduced that she intended to become politically active from the fact that she found it difficult to come to terms with something. At the 1968 documenta, however, she did distribute flyers against the art business. Though she did not write the crude texts, she nevertheless distributed them, indicating that, to a certain extent at least, she agreed with them. Charlotte actually began studying sociology with me the same year. Her degree thesis addressed a labor-related topic. In it she investigated the pseudo-scientific scheme being introduced in large factories at the time to prevent the workers from codetermining their work. Codetermination? This is reminiscent of the participation of the “consumers”—the curators, buyers, and ideally the exhibition visitors too, who are called upon to help assemble and remodel the installations. (cf. section 6) As a sociologist, Charlotte therefore pursued a topic she had already touched on in art. Because she failed to believe she could help solve urgent social problems by means of art, for her, producing “political art” was a path she also could not pursue.
But did she seriously think that art was a suitable means for solving social problems? As someone who as an artist was against illusionism and as a sociologist was against ideologies, Charlotte was anything but naive. Her persecution by the Nazis had made Charlotte politically aware. After the war she had been her school’s student representative, had helped draft a democratic constitution for it, and attended events organized by the Communists, who had been the most determined in the fight against the Nazis and had saved her from deportation. The constitution that came into force in the state of Hesse at the time was very progressive. Charlotte kept it at hand at all times, since for her it seemed to be a guarantee that the West German republic would never again become a totalitarian regime. Comforted, she devoted herself to art and became a student of Willi Baumeister.
However, when Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi who had worked with Goebbels, became Chancellor of the Federal Republic with the support of the former oppositional Social Democratic Party (the Social Democrats formed a Grand Coalition with the Conservative CDU party) there was no longer any parliamentary opposition, and Charlotte wasn’t the only one who feared that at a time of emergency laws, student rebellion, raids and the Vietnam War, and despite a progressive Basic Law, a new form of totalitarianism could emerge. This was the situation when, to the disappointment of her friends and art dealers, she finished with art in order to study sociology, a discipline that she hoped would give her a broader view of social conditions than, for example, political science. She intended to work as a sociologist for trade unions, and believed she needed to offer them her in-depth knowledge. If she had ever believed that art could influence society, then perhaps this was in the very general hope shared by most artists that art can exert a lasting effect on the observers and thus impact their consciousness.