A Major Isa Genzken Retrospective in Berlin Brings a Rare Clarity to What Makes Her Ingenious, Risk-Taking Art So Vital
"Isa Genzken: 75/75" is on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Lisa Botti.
It starts with a pink rose, astounding in its towering scale and vaguely threatening—each thorn on the stem is about the size of a butcher’s knife. This monumental steel flower seems as if it is finally at home in the surreal and weird context around the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where everything is a bit idiosyncratic. The iconic museum is where Isa Genzken is subject of a smartly styled exhibition to mark her 75th birthday called “75/75,” on view until the date of her birthday, November 27.
An unbridled beauty and a sense of precarity radiate from the German artist’s sculptures once you get past Pink Rose and inside the Mies van der Rohe-designed museum. Like Pink Rose, the Berlin-based artist, who by now one has attained cult status as one of the most important voices in her cohort, works with contradictions. Materials and forms clash and bang together. But the brilliance of Genkzen is the confidence and sensitivity of the medley—it all just works.
Curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Lisa Botti, the show, as its title suggests, consists of 75 works on loan from private and public collections, including from the collections of friends of the artist including artists Wolfgang Tillmans and Katharina Grosse, who are also both based in Berlin. “75/75” touches on every key chapter of Genzken’s career, which has been long, multifaceted, and as of late rockier as she has opened up about struggles with alcohol and bipolar disorder. The artist has been unwell lately, too; Given this, she was unable to participate personally in the exhibition, which Biesenbach and Botti framed instead as a gift to her.
A few days after the opening, Biesenbach posted on Instagram that Genzken did, in the end, make it to see the show. In either case, the show is also a gift to whomever comes to see it in Berlin and wants to understand exactly what makes Genzken essential to contemporary art. The fact that one can simply turn their head left to right and survey the breadth of her career is a unique benefit of this building’s main floor, which is without walls or blind spots.
The transparent building also involves the city beyond it, which is chaotically postmodern—not unlike Genzken’s sculptures. The works here echo a city, arranged in a grid plan that you can walk through as if strolling the avenues of Genzken’s psyche. In one sculpture there is a picture of the artist and Gerhard Richter, to whom she was married for many years. One floor below, just by chance it seems, is a landmark show of Richter—a very different kind of artist bent around measured perfection, unlike Genzken—who just permanently loaned 100 works to the museum.
The modernity of the Neue Nationalgalerie’s jewel-box architecture is a perfect place for the studied chaos of Genzken because it represents her artistic foil—the strictures of modernism. The show also plots out just how Genkzen arrived at this pursuit. It begins with her minimal “ellipsoids” and “hyperbolos,” long and elegant structures that lie on the floor. Then, Genzken’s works jump into the vertical space, into tall standing responses to them in works like Diana. Then, her work begins to spread outwards with works like X from 1992, a see-through box made of epoxy resin that glistens in the afternoon light.
From there it spirals in fits of genius, into works that are like sieves for the by-products of consumerism and western society. Mies, from 2008, is one such work. It seems like it was made to be where it is right now, dangling from the ceiling with a Barcelona chair and pink hula hoops in the suspension scheme—the very same types of Mies van der Rohe-designed seats on which tourists sit on at the other side of the museum looking at their Google Maps. New Buildings for Berlin from 2005, speaks to the random postmodern nature of Berlin, post-war, poking reference to German modernists like van der Rohe. Then, nearby, Genzken’s disturbingly to-the-point disembodied airplane windows leave you with a lurking sense of death.
For Genzken, as for many Berlin artists, this prime spot in the Neue Nationalgalerie is the stuff of dreams. But a show on this level for such an icon is also something special to the public. Laid out chronologically, “75/75” gives you a gorgeously clear way to enter into Genzken’s work, a practice the artist said herself can be hard to understand. And, despite the incredible value of some of these pieces, nothing here is cordoned off behind insurance ropes or motion-sensitive alarms, or constrained to the taming backdrop of a white cube, like zoo animals. At Neue Nationalgalerie, they run free.
‘75/75’ is on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin until November 27, 2023. See more images of the show below.
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