Notes on the Work of Gunther
Last month, the Deutsche Bank
Collection loaned an early graphic series by Gunther Uecker, Manual
Structures, to the Ahlen Art Museum in Germany. There, it augments a
collection of works by the Gruppe ZERO (ZERO Group), one of the museum's
main areas of concentration. Ulrich Clewing on Uecker's famous nail
pieces, his creed of creative movement, and an artist who has remained
political throughout his life.
Piene Uecker Mack Zero-Demonstration, Rheinwiesen Düsseldorf,
Germany, 1962, Photo from: catalogue Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover,1972
On the evening of June 15 1962, an unusual demonstration took place on the
banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf. Inside, in the rooms of the Kunsthalle,
the exhibition Zehn Jahre Kunstpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen
( Ten Years of the North Rhine-Westphalian Art Award) had just been
opened with great pomp. And outside, on the lawn along the riverbank, a
young artist was busy painting a white circle on the ground with a roller.
A second artist was grappling with a tripod that a huge spotlight was
attached to, while a third was directing a group of young women into
position, all of whom were dressed in long black robes reminiscent of
monks' habits. Further white circles could clearly be seen on the women's
robes. Then, the men gathered together in the newly completed circle,
smiled into the camera in a friendly way, and instructed the photographer
with the urgency customary to such occasions to take a picture. Finally,
in casual formation, the demonstration by Mr.
Mack, Mr. Piene,
and Mr. Uecker shifted over to the more informal part of the evening.
Günther Uecker, 1979
Gunther Uecker, born in 1930, member of the artists'
group ZERO and mastermind of the action on the banks of the river Rhine,
demonstrated frequently throughout these years. Art and life, art and
politics, art and ecstasy - it was all supposed to become one in the
sixties and early seventies, and Uecker, brother-in-law of
Yves Klein, the French happening artist who painted the brilliant blue
canvases, was right in the middle of the scene. The movement wanted to
achieve something new and was little impressed by bourgeois criteria.
In 1968, at the height of the student protests, a kind of
squatting action was supposed to take place: together with Gerhard
Richter, his friend and fellow student at the Dusseldorf art academy, he
spontaneously and, of course, purely symbolically declared the
Kunsthalle Baden-Baden to be his "apartment" in order to liberate the
museum from its "exclusivity." This worked the other way around, too.
Shortly after Baden-Baden, Uecker had an exhibition in Dortmund, where a
huge nail not only perforated the projecting roof of the local department
store, but his works were presented in the store windows alongside
Kaufhof's regular products.
Installation in department store
Dortmund, Germany, 1968
At the time, Uecker
himself, the "painting stormer," was already moving towards becoming
museum material, and there was nothing to stop him. He was widely
considered to be one the most important artists in Germany; his works were
shown at the documenta
in Kassel and in the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, and entered important collections throughout Europe and the
US. The nail objects he had been making for some time attracted most of
the attention. The plain four inch-long roofing nail became the most
salient trademark of his art. He'd already driven hundreds of steel nails
into furniture, canvases, and all kinds of other objects of everyday use.
Not least, he was interested in representing a dynamic process, always
setting the nail in such a way that formations arose which conjured up the
illusion of kinetic energy.
Günther Uecker, from the series: Osakaspiralen, Morgen, 1969