Feature

Exhibit of the week: Isa Genzken: Retrospective

The German artist has emerged as the chief instigator of a movement that’s draining the self-seriousness out of sculpture.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York CityThrough March 10

Isa Genzken has just become a name worth remembering, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. On the strength of a surprising show at MoMA that “rejiggers recent art-world history,” the 65-year-old German has now emerged as the chief instigator of a movement that’s draining the self-seriousness out of sculpture and teaching it new tricks. Her work across 40 years has ranged from 1970s minimalist studies of ruin to “hilarious” recent assemblages featuring plastic toys and mannequins, all unified by “a brash spirit that is strangely both celebratory and bedeviled.” Beginning in the mid-1990s, when she created a series of architectural models from refuse like pizza boxes and oyster shells, viewers have had to make a leap of faith just to take her seriously. But make that leap, and “the payoff is exhilarating.”

“Nowhere are Genzken’s transformative powers more visible than in “Actors” (2013), the gaggle of mannequins that greet visitors at the show’s entrance,” said Jessica Dawson in Art in America. “Clad in a dime store’s worth of goods (cowboy hats, masks, packing tape),” they give off so much energy that it could “pass for body heat.” Not everything here reaches the same level, said Maika Pollack in GalleristNY.com. The political commentary she offers can at times be “a little obvious.” Still, this 150-object survey rates as “one of the best major shows the museum has put on in a long time.”

Genzken is an artist “who seems to become younger with each decade,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. She’s also visited New York City so often since she was a teenager that she’s practically a local talent, and “it is hard to imagine her work without the city’s skyscrapers, street life, trash, and style.” In 2001, she was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked, and many of her most assured pieces date from the years since. Her “Ground Zero” series offers a variety of proposals for rebuilding, and though each would-be building is composed of mass-production detritus, the shiny, colorful surfaces “read as resilience.” Genzken never stands still long enough to thoroughly explore any one direction, but her work has an “insistent force” that keeps you moving along with her. Thanks to Genzken and a few like her, sculpture in our time has become unmonumental and anti-heroic. Frequently, it “decimates taste and looks nothing like art.” But Genzken’s loose-jointed assemblages point art in a direction that allows it to be personal and political as well as formally satisfying. Better yet, it’s fun—“brash, improvisational,” and “full of searing color and attitude.”

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