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More than Just Nails
Berlin Honors Günther Uecker With an Opulent Exhibition

Günther Uecker made a name for himself as a "nail artist". On the occasion of his 75th birthday, a three-part exhibition in Berlin, sponsort by Deutsche Bank, presents his work in all its aspects - from Uecker's early "noise machines" to his light installations and rarely-shown watercolors. Christiane Meixner took a look at this birthday show.

Actionism is old hat. In the 1960s, Günther Uecker constructed his Krachmaschinen with his own hands and unleashed them on a perplexed public, which soon ran off, in Baden-Baden in 1968. Instead of playing pleasant melodies, Uecker’s Terrororchester brought the noise of factories and industrial shops into the museum, in order to “show a society fleeing itself at the place of their wishes”. The artist subsequently published his texts about his machines in a “Uecker newspaper”, in the style of a manifesto, because the mainstream media weren’t interested in social criticism.

Nail performance with a piano, 1964, © Günther Uecker

That’s all changed today. The public is flocking to the major, three-part exhibition in Berlin marking the occasion of the 75th birthday of this painter and sculptor, who has long since become one of the most important international representatives of German art of the 20th century. And Uecker, who has spent months at a time in South America, Tibet, Japan and Patagonia, has become a traveling salesman for cultural expression, which has long been a factor in his work.

Brief an Peking, 1994 Works in the Düsseldorf studio, © Günther Uecker

Now Uecker is turning to spiritual matters instead of aggressive hammering of nails. Friedensgebot (peace offer) is the name of his latest installation at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. It places quotes from the Bible, the Torah and the Koran alongside each other as equals, and shows that, as one gains personal insight, one’s understanding of cultural dependencies grows. In the 1980s, as a reaction to the nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl, Uecker created human-sized ash pictures that show silhouettes desperately flailing their arms. His Letter to Peking, for which he wrote the United Nations human rights charter on large white pieces of cloth, was meant to be exhibited in China in the mid-1990s. But the show was cancelled shortly before it was due to open. In front of this impressive “gesamtkunstwerk”, a nail, his trademark, appears as simply one tool among others – even though “nail artist” has become a kind of synonym for Günther Uecker.

Aschemensch, 1987, © Günther Uecker

The excessive gestures of covering chairs, bedside tables and entire pianos with nails – thus removing them from the bourgeois sphere – fits perfectly with the romanticized image of an ebullient, rebellious genius.

This exhibition, which has been organized by the Neue Berliner Kunstverein (NBK) and sponsored in large part by Deutsche Bank, gives Uecker’s work a different framework. In 20 chapters, which the visitor can move through room by room, it tells in a structured manner of “ ZERO” and other activities with which the artist, born in Mecklenburg in 1930 as a farmer’s son, began following his move to the Düsseldorf art academy. Light and movement were the themes that connected him in the 1950s to artists like Otto Piene. The group’s central creed was that art occurs in front of the viewer and is not generated as a fixed image made up of abstract painterly gestures and a bit of paint.

Das gelbe Bild, 1995, © Günther Uecker

The show at the Martin-Gropius-Bau begins with Gelbes Bild from 1957, the tension strips of which Uecker was covered with nails, as an expression of his mistrust of the classic panel. In a similar manner to Lucio Fontana, who, during the 1950s, expanded the surfaces of his monochrome works by a further dimension through perforated and slashed canvases, Uecker discovered in the nail an individual instrument with which the flat image could be dangerously extended into space.

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