Markus Pilgram: After studying art under Willi Baumeister, Charlotte Posenenske worked for a short time as a stage designer at the then so called Landestheater Darmstadt. Following her marriage to the architect Paul Posenenske, she decided to focus on art and quickly developed a form of geometric painting. Moving forward from this, and through the Spachtelarbeiten (Palette-Knife Works, 1956–65), she became interested in the spatiality of her works, going on to develop this further in the years that followed, making a transition from image, through relief, to sculpture. She produced her most important pieces in 1967–8, during her final year as an active artist, particularly with the D and DW series (Vierkantrohre Serie D [Square Tubes Series D] and Vierkantrohre Serie DW [Square Tubes Series DW], 1967), which, in their radicalism, are on a par with the work produced by the most renowned artists of the 1960s. After Charlotte decided to stop working as an artist, her work was forgotten for some time. In your opinion, what makes Charlotte Posenenske’s work relevant today?
Burkhard Brunn: For me, Charlotte Posenenske’s art is relevant in three ways. As we were married, I shall take the liberty from now on of using her first name, Charlotte.
a) Her art is about freedom. Today, in 2020, we are living in exceptional circumstances – to fight the Coronavirus, our basic democratic rights have been suspended. Freedom of movement and freedom to meet have already been compromised. We are heading towards a technocracy, the rules of which are being presented as ‘without alternative’.
b) In recent years, art has become highly politicised. Political art has dominated the Venice Biennale and Documenta. Charlotte’s work is still considered political – though this is a misunderstanding.
c) I have read that Charlotte’s art has had a great influence on young artists. As anything is possible in art today, her conceptual clarity may help guide young artists.
With regard to point a):
There were two phases in Charlotte’s career as an artist: between 1956 and 1965, she worked as a painter. Her works were inspired by the dominant trend of the 1950s, Art Informel* – that is, gestural painting. This required autonomy: on the canvas the artist was supposed to create non- figurative counter-worlds based on their psychological and emotional state. Following the war and the repression of art under fascism, artists worked as lone, creative individuals in what appeared to be boundless in the approach to absolute freedom. It was the French tachiste painter Georges Mathieu who eventually poked fun at this subjectivist painting, charging like Don Quixote on horseback against a giant canvas and painting it rapidly, with a lance (i.e. a giant paintbrush) under his arm.
*inspired: the rapid, gestural strokes with a palette knife appeared rather crystalline, ie pregeometric.
In 1965, Charlotte gave up painting. She had doubts about how original this subjectivity was, feeling that she was being influenced by society. For her, this creative crisis was like a rupture. From painting, via relief, she arrived at the construction of stereometric objects. Disillusioned by what she considered to an overvalued subjectivity, she strove to reach the other extreme, that of objectivity. The second phase began in 1966 and had already come to an end by 1968. Charlotte followed the example of the Russian constructivist artist El Lissitzky who hoped to connect art with technology and architecture through geometry. Charlotte’s best-known works are the “Square Tubes”, installations of which have often been shown in galleries, museums and installed in both interior and exterior public spaces. These are a system of six or four different stereometric elements which can be combined to create a great variety of figures. This concept can be summed up as the same thing different. Here, freedom is no longer absolute, that is to say apparently limitless; instead, it is linked to the specification of the elements: they, and only they (= the same things), can be joined to create installations (= different things), which differ in number, extent and form. Charlotte had recognised that liberty is only possible under certain conditions. (The primary conditions of this group of works are its elements.) This was contrary to the rather naive notion that certain fringe groups have about freedom, believing that it’s possible to escape the hated system of capitalist oppression by living apart from the society. So, freedom is, in fact, relative.
With regard to point b):
On a number of occasions, I have had to refuse exhibition requests which wanted to pigeonhole Charlotte’s art under a political label. Because of the life she had led – she was a victim of the Nazi regime – Charlotte was politicised long before the student rebellion of the 1960s. However, she believed that art should never be made to serve anything at all except art itself. In her opinion – which is also mine – art has no social function; we have all seen where it led when art was placed at the service of the Nazi dictatorship or of East Germany. Art is free. When art is advanced, that is to say non-decorative, it reveals the Other, what man is unable to imagine on his own. Abandoning art in 1968, Charlotte wanted to engage in political activity during the rebellious period of the 1960s, a time when we were already demonstrating against the threat of state interference with democracy. For Charlotte, art could not be politically effective, and that is why she began studying sociology, together with me, in order to acquire the necessary tools for analysing and altering social relations.
Recently, I have written on my webpage about how the so-called political aspect of Charlotte’s art was only about its accessibility, which might be better described as democratisation. Charlotte sought this accessibility through geometric forms, through involving other people, while also withdrawing as author (the idea of participation was completely new in 1967) and through the open nature of her objects – one can enter them, cross them or remain there with them. That, too, was something new in 1967. And then her art was made accessible by being sold at deliberately low prices. Contrary to what many people think – people who at the time considered that everything, even sex, was political – for us, the ‘political’ amounted to a strategy that could help guide people, with the aid of arguments, to act reasonably, that is to say give them instructions based on reason. But as art at a certain level is always ambiguous, it cannot reason. And to crush the viewer visually – that wasn’t what Charlotte wanted.
With regard to point c):
Despite the rather stiff restraint of her works, Charlotte’s art possesses a multitude of dimensions ranging from reduction to trompe-l’œil. This may be due to the fact that around 1967, when she was creating the majority of her objects, postmodernism was in the process of rising up against modern art. The late 1960s marked a transition between two cultural epochs. The key characteristics of industrial and artistic modernity are seriality and standardisation, whereas the principal feature of postmodernity is difference, that is diversity. It is these aspects of the two epochs that Charlotte combines in her artistic concept. In postmodern art, the enormous variety of possibilities gave birth to a much-criticised arbitrariness, which was in stark contrast with modern art, perceived as rigid and ideological. Perhaps the appeal of Charlotte’s art lies in the fact that she successfully managed to unite contradictory currents of art (for example, by combining geometry and performance, standardisation and evolutivity).
M.P.: Is it useful to consider Charlotte Posenenske’s art in terms of her biographical context? At what point did the particular situation in Frankfurt play a role, on the one hand with the Frankfurt School, social philosophy and the critical theory of Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and on the other given the confrontation with the Nazi past with the Frankfurt Trials – the trials of the guards at Auschwitz – which affected her personally as someone persecuted for being Jewish?
B.B.: Considered to be a Mischling, or a person of mixed blood, Charlotte was expelled from school and was forced to hide in a cellar in order to escape deportation. According to the biologistic ideology of the Nazis, she was considered to be a half Jewish. Charlotte loathed this notion, according to which one was classified as a full Jew, half-Jew, quarter-Jew and eighth-Jew according to how much Jewish blood one had. Her family did not observe any Jewish customs. Charlotte had been christened as a Protestant. There is nothing in her art that can be seen as a ‘Jewish motif’. This is why I later rejected an offer from a well-known museum to exhibit her as a Jewish artist. The suppression of her freedom was certainly an influencial factor in her art. She found being expelled from school traumatic. It was made clear to her that she no longer had the right to belong there.
Charlotte knew Adorno personally but not as a student. One spring, she took the philosopher and a friend from Frankfurt, the architect Ferdinand Kramer – who was also a friend of the architect Paul Posenenske, her husband at the time – to the countryside near Frankfurt where they enjoyed tasting the early fruit and vegetables, like asparagus and the first strawberries. Charlotte told me that she listened to them with a great deal of respect. She was familiar with Adorno’s writing and particularly valued his view that art is capable of showing the ‘Other’ to man. In its philosophical critique of economics, the writings of the Frankfurt School confirmed Charlotte’s outlook.
M.P.: Posenenske’s productive years as an artist ran from the start of her studies in 1951 to 1968, only seventeen years. And it was only during the final two years that her ‘career’ took off, from the summer of 1961 with her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Dorothea Loehr and participation in numerous other exhibitions up to the middle of 1968, in May, with the publication of her ‘Manifesto’, which she had written back in February of that year, and then her decision to sever her ties with art and dedicate herself to studying sociology. The final sentence of her manifesto states: ‘It is difficult for me to accept the fact that art cannot contribute to the solution of pressing social problems.’ Do you think it could be said that she was not really interested in personal success as an artist?
B.B.: In her so-called ‘Manifesto’, Charlotte formulated her artistic concept concisely. It is the final sentence that tends to be quoted most often: ‘Art cannot contribute to the solution of pressing social problems.’ Of course, she never denied that art can affect everyday life. However, these effects are in the long term. All the same, art is not able to resolve ‘urgent’ problems, that is current problems. Which is why she believed that, given the political situation of the time, she needed to use other means, in other words strategies derived from sociology. We studied – and we were the only sociologists in Frankfurt – the science of work, which, among other things, deals with the post-Taylorist measurement of work intensity and work evaluation. Charlotte’s concept of participation corresponded more or less with the trade union concept of employee participation, which she later became interested in as a sociologist.
Charlotte had quickly begun exhibiting at some of the leading avant-garde galleries of the time such as Art & Project in Amsterdam, Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf (together with Hanne Darboven) and Galerie René Block in Berlin. Calling everything to a halt at the start of a promising career was a difficult decision and remained an open wound. After 1968, we turned away completely from contemporary art and talked about it very little. However, we did visit all the major museums of Europe to view classical and modern art.
Charlotte never doubted her artistic ability. But she never thought that one day the objects she created would be found in many international museums. For her, art was simply a commodity like any other, which should not last for eternity. So, she programmatically chose poor materials, like sheet metal and corrugated cardboard, normally used for packaging and which eventually rots. She wanted her art to disappear after a certain time. Also, she sold her work as cheaply as possible and did not sign it. She called her collectors ‘consumers’. She believed that being an artist was a disappearing trade. She wanted her works to be mass-produced cheaply in factories so that anyone could buy them. That is why there are no unique pieces, no originals, only reproductions. Even after her death, her works are still mass-produced.
M.P.: The 1960s were a time of radical change and expansion of the paradigms of art. Art and life became more clearly intertwined than before. Social questions arose at the expense of individualism. Viewers became participants, first via their eyes only, but soon through their actions, too. Joseph Beuys declared that all social process is creative and is therefore art, while Franz Erhard Walther’s objects are art only during their performative action. With her Drehflügel Serie E (Revolving Vanes Series E, 1967), Posenenske also created works that required activation by the viewer, whom she also referred to as the ‘consumer’. Other artists explored the limits of art and even its end; some even abandoned it completely, seeing this as the most radical consequence of their conclusions, like Michel Parmentier in France and Posenenske in Germany.
How do you see her art in this context?
B.B.: Charlotte’s work confronted the commercialisation of art. Towards the end of the 1960s and during the 70s, huge galleries, fairs and art markets began to grow up and multiply. The most powerful galleries obliged their artists to be part of Documenta, and young artists and students revolted against this by distributing pamphlets in which they vented their fury. Charlotte was part of this, although she didn’t write any. She respected Joseph Beuys as an important figure in the art world, although she found his idea of fusing art and politics to be out of touch with reality. The most radical strategy against the commercialisation of art was most certainly to abandon it altogether. (At the time, there was a lot of talk of denial.) Charlotte was not the only one to choose this strategy. Her art dealer, Konrad Fischer, had also abandoned his career as an artist, which he had begun under the name Konrad Lueg. In 2004, Mumok in Vienna devoted an exhibition to these ‘dropouts’, entitled Kurze Karrieren (Short Careers). Charlotte found Jörg Immendorf’s piece Hört auf zu malen (Give Up Painting, 1966), amusing.
M.P.: In many ways, Charlotte is positioned between the antagonists of the Cold War, that is to say between the United States and socialism. Not only did she paint a portrait of Karl Marx with a Coca-Cola bottle on the façade of Paul Maenz and Peter Roehr’s short-lived Pudding Explosion store, her gratitude towards the American liberators was also at odds with her socialist convictions. Her final works are distinct from the American minimalism of a Donald Judd or a Sol LeWitt and can be seen more in a European tradition running from the Russian constructivists to De Stijl and Bauhaus.
How do you see Charlotte’s art and her work in this specific Cold War context?
B.B.: For Charlotte, on the one hand the United States represented an idea of liberty, which also plays an important role in her art; on the other hand, in the USSR she found her ideals of equality and cooperation. Her grandfather became an American citizen and made a living importing American canvas used for their covered wagons. Most of the members of her family had emigrated to the United States before the Nazis took power. For Charlotte, American soldiers were liberators. She always spoke of ‘liberation’, despising those Germans who spoke of the end of the war as a ‘collapse’. Her mother’s lover, an anarchist who had gone as far as Russia as a travelling artisan, talked to her about the new future that he had encountered there. It was certainly from there that her liking for cooperation came, which was something that became especially important for her life and her art. The elements of her ‘Square Tubes’ are so large that they require cooperative assembly involving several people. As for equality, in these works, for Charlotte this meant the abandonment of her artistic capacity during this cooperation, which sets her apart from Franz Erhard Walther. Participants assemble the elements according to their own ideas and are entirely responsible for the completion of the work. There is no longer a hierarchy.
In fact, our private life was also organised on a cooperative basis. All our writings were produced jointly, every sentence. And even the housework, the shopping, and so on – we did everything together.
Charlotte had met Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt through the Konrad Fischer gallery. Although she learned to appreciate their work during a trip to the United States in 1966, her conceptual minimalism was founded on the European tradition of constructivism, De Stijl and Bauhaus. It was mainly in her relationship with movement that her minimalism differed from the American version. Movement as evolution, as continuation, reduction, sequence, seriality, played a major role in her art. Her introduction of participation and performance into her concept also speaks of movement. American minimalism, however (Judd, Sol LeWitt), tends to be static.
M.P.: For an exhibition of works by Charlotte Posenenske, does it seem useful to ask about her personality? Would knowing more about her way of seeing things help to understand her art? Or would this simply be anecdotal illustration? Would you like to say anything on this subject?
B.B.: When explaining an artist’s oeuvre, the personality of the artist may perhaps have a role to play in the culture pages of a magazine where those writings still follow preconceived notions about the production of art, according to which the importance of a work of art is drawn from their depths, like one, with the aid of biographical detail. Charlotte told me that her teacher, Willi Baumeister, told her one day that he could not say anything more about the significance of his own images than an interpreter doing their best. So Baumeister, in fact, formulated semiotic reception theory before the term was coined. According to reception theory (Umberto Eco, Wolfgang Iser), it is the viewer or reader who gives meaning to the product in the semiotic triad of ‘producer-product-recipient’, a meaning which quite evidently does not correspond to a personal opinion but which can be verified in the work itself. The consequence of this input by an interpreter means that an image facing the wall is not a work of art, but an object, and that a manuscript in the drawer is nothing more than paper.
It is always problematic to draw conclusions about an artist’s work based on the artist, or to get a sense of the artist based on their work. The former director of a well-known art school stated, for example, that only an artist who leads a responsible life can produce art that has value for society. Which means we can forget the work of Caravaggio, who was constantly involved in brawls, and the work of Jörg Immendorf and Martin Kippenberger, too. And censorship operates in the other direction: when Polynesia, the ancient parrot that has sailed on so many pirate ships in Hugh Lofting’s world-famous children’s book The Story of Doctor Dolittle, insults black people by referring to them as ‘niggers’, the author himself is considered to be racist. The argument being that the author must have thought what his characters say. The fact is that a work always represents an objectification, an autonomy, which means that there is a distance between creator and work.
One thing is certain – freedom played a major role in the story of Charlotte’s life and it is not by chance that freedom is also a dominant feature of her work.
In West Germany, feminism was beginning to emerge during the years when we were studying. Female students asked Charlotte if she would like to get involved. In her succinct way, she replied: ‘I am a human being.’ In view of the social conditions of the time, we were now in a technocracy (the Notstandsgesetze, or German Emergency Acts, had been passed, limiting basic constitutional rights), she judged it less important to reflect on her role as a woman. However, she was very sensitive to male prejudices, and was uncompromising with it. Furthermore, it is important to underline that her posthumous career has been due notably to the commitment of women from the world of art, who have very generously supported me in my role as administrator of Charlotte’s estate.
M.P.: How would Charlotte have seen her own work retrospectively? Did she do this?
B.B.: Charlotte divided her life into projects – the ‘Theatre’ project, the ‘Art’ project, the ‘Sociology Studies’ project, the ‘Marriage to BB’ project and the ‘Trade Union Cooperation’ project which was never completed. When, as a sociologist, she reflected on her period as an artist, I am sure she could see a connection, although she spoke of a complete break. She always pursued the idea of ‘working in freedom’, both in her concept of viewer participation and during her study of worker participation. Work was a central concept in both projects. To put it in a somewhat exaggerated way, when Charlotte made the transition from art to sociology, she only changed tools.
Markus Pilgram & Burkhard Brunn, March 2020