‘When I use nails… my aim is to establish a structured pattern of relationships… in order to set vibrations in motion that disturb and irritate their geometric order. What is important to me is variability, which is capable of revealing the beauty of movement to us’ (G. Uecker, quoted in Gunther Uecker: Twenty Chapters, Berlin 2006, p. 34).
Executed in 1964, Gunther Uecker’s entrancingly hypnotic Inseln (Island) is a perfect example of the artist’s most exciting and iconic period. Depicting two stranded islands, with its undulating surface and rhythmic flow the dynamism of the nails matches the lapping of water along the shore of an island, the deliquescent changing tides illustrated by the play of light and shadow, while passages of impasto painted with sensuous detail across the bottom of the canvas evoke foaming, crashing waves. As the viewer’s eye roams the lively visual surface of the work, he or she is swept up in the sensation of gently rolling and rushing swirls of light and shadow cast by Uecker’s signature artistic medium: nails hammered into a wooden board, all painted an even monochromatic white. ‘When I use nails’, he commented, ‘my aim is to establish a structured pattern of relationships… in order to set vibrations in motion that disturb and irritate their geometric order. What is important to me is variability, which is capable of revealing the beauty of movement to us’ (G. Uecker, quoted in Günther Uecker: Twenty Chapters, Berlin 2006, p. 34).
That such a symphonic effect can be elicited from such humble, workaday materials is of little significance. Raised on the Baltic island of Wtrow, in a rural town the artist has commented on the relevance of his upbringing, ‘this has a very realistic significance, because in fact earlier, as a farm boy, I always had great fun in driving the harrow or the seed planter with the horses straight toward the horizon without the furrows ever going off into curves as a child by the Baltic I always sat by the water, and there I saw sky and water, earth and fire - they used to burn off the fields for the sheep to get rid of the dry grass. So I was familiar too with things in large dimensions’ (G. Uecker, quoted in R. Wedewer, Atelier 3, Gunther Uecker, Leverkusen 1980, p. 19). Importantly, from the artist’s very first use of nails, Uecker has turned the artworks from simply pictures into objects, an important and innovative example of wall-based sculpture. In the present work, the pattern of the nails move across and beyond the edges of the canvas, emphasizing the object character of the work and reinforcing the fluidity of the surface.
Uecker started creating his nailed paintings in 1957. His earlier works are characterized by rigid, gridded forms, or predominantly straight lines of nails delineating the space and structure of the canvas. These early works owe elements of their concept to the earlier and lesser known ‘Unism’ movement supported by Polish artist Wladislaw Strzeminski, a pupil of Kazimir Malevich’s who insisted on a need for total unification of picture and dismantling of all pictorial hierarchies, along with the abolition of the old dualism of figure and ground as premise (D. Honisch, Uecker, New York 1983, p. 28). Following his subscription to the Zero Group in 1961, the artist was exposed to the optical experimentation of fellow artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, whose monochromatic works aimed at dynamic optical vibrations. Uecker’s collaboration with the Zero Group, though brief (from 1961 - 1966, when the group disbanded) was a formative one for the artist. ‘It was from the start an open domain of possibilities, and we speculated with the visionary form of purity, beauty, and stillness. These things moved us greatly. This was perhaps also a very silent and at the same time very loud protest against Expressionism, against an expression-oriented society’ (G. Uecker, quoted in D. Honisch, Uecker, New York 1983, p. 14). Additionally, exposure to Yves Klein’s monochromes in 1957 inspired Uecker to blanket his paintings in an even, white paint, or in this case kaolin, transforming the works into luminous light structures. ‘My works acquire their reality through light’, Uecker has commented. ‘Their intensity is changeable due to the light impinging on them which, from the viewer’s standpoint, is variable’ (G. Uecker, quoted in D. Honisch, Uecker, New York 1983, p. 60). Thus the surfaces of Uecker’s paintings are intrinsically dynamic and ever-changing, paradoxical in that their static forms render ceaseless and fluid movement.