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"The Material Shouldn't Be Too Beautiful":
On Ulrich Rückriem's Installation in Berlin

The natural and the designed, form and chance, minimalism and monumentality: for over thirty years, Ulrich Rückriem's sculptures have been synthesizing seemingly incompatible opposites. For Berlin's New National Gallery, the 1938-born artist has created an installation that acknowledges the exhibition site in all its individual aspects while at the same time transforming it. A portrait by Ulrich Clewing

Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin

The post-MoMA New National Gallery: on the lower level, the State Museum is now presenting its "Counter-Worlds," a panorama of 20th-century art heralded as Berlin's answer to the spectacular guest appearance from New York, with paintings by artists ranging from Edvard Munch to Andy Warhol. By contrast, the ground floor of the Mies van der Rohe structure seems completely empty; only gradually does the visitor notice the deceptive nature of this first fleeting impression.

The great entrance hall and the installation
"40 Bodenreliefs, 2. Variation 2004, Grand Bleu de Vire, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin" by Ulrich Rückriem,
©Ulrich Rückriem, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Foto: Roman März

Approximately thirty flat stone plates are arranged in varying intervals on the floor of the upper hall. Six, at the most eight inches high and perfectly square, they are made of the same granite as the museum's floor, giving rise for a moment to the illusion that they're growing out of it like so many small islands in a sea of stones, miniature mountain ranges on a plain - landscapes, topographies, regions.

Ulrich Rückriem, born 1938 in Düsseldorf and one of the most well known sculptors from Germany, created the installation. The Deutsche Bank Collection possesses three drawings directly connected to the work in the New National Gallery. Neither preparatory sketches nor designs in a strict sense, they are works in their own right that convey the minimalist and conceptual nature of Rückriem's work. The drawings were made in 1998; all three are called Untitled and are taken from Three Variations on Possible Installations for the Exhibition at the New National Gallery Berlin from 9/16/98 to 1/31/99.

Untitled, from "Drei Variationen zu den möglichen Installationen der Ausstellung in der Nationalgalerie Berlin vom 16.9.98 bis zum 31.1.99",
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

Each consists of a large white square inscribed with numerous little black squares and could be interpreted as a stylized blueprint of the museum, although the two huge support columns for the roof and other elements such as the wardrobe and cashier's booth are missing, as well as the staircase leading down to the lower floor. The drawings paraphrase rather than illustrate the installation in the National Gallery, grasping it in its essence rather than actually depicting it realistically: the variable relationships between two groups reduced by the model's limitations to the essentials and different not in their outward form, but only in their dimension.

Variationen eines Blocks, 2002,
state horticultural show North Rhein-Westphalia, Dyck Castle, Mönchengladbach, Foto: Landesgartenschau NRW

Art as an experimental setup, sculpture as a means for developing models and playing through possible situations: this is what Ulrich Rückriem has been involved with almost from the very beginning of his career - his "grammar," as he likes to call it. Beginning with a basic form, usually a parallelepiped, Rückriem shapes the stones according to an established repertoire of recurrent working principles: simple bracing and drilling, splitting and sawing, breaking and polishing. A surprising number of sculptural options arise in this manner. In an interview, the artist once described them as follows: "the stone is divided - a horizontal division, a vertical cut or division, and a horizontal cut. Or another possibility: I remove material from the slab that I later reinsert. Or, or, or…" Assisted by his "grammar," Rückriem has found over 550 variations, none of which is like any other.

Variationen eines Blocks, 2002, detail
Foto: Landesgartenschau NRW

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