‘My objects are spatial realities, zones of light. I use mechanical means in order to overcome the subjective gesture, to objectify it, and to create the situation of freedom’
‘Art is like the traces of wounds ploughed into the field’
‘The intervals between the nails, for example, that I used as means for articulating light, had their origin in the relationships of my hands. The nails were placed at intervals equivalent to the thickness of my fingers. The intermediate space was the proportion of my hand. The handiness of an object has always been related to body dimensions’
Christie’s is proud to present three works by Günther Uecker, Serge Poliakoff and Antoni Tàpies from one of Switzerland’s most important art collections. All three works, offered across our October Evening and Day Auctions, are from a collection with very close ties to the legendary Erker-Galerie in St. Gallen. The Erker-Galerie was founded in 1958 in St. Gallen by Franz Larese and Jürg Janett, and soon established itself as one of the most innovative galleries in Europe. For many decades the gallery not only showed the avant-garde of its times, with exhibitions of works by artists such as Max Bill, Chillida, Dix, Dorazio, Motherwell, Piene, Poliakoff, Tàpies and Uecker among many others, but also established itself as a meeting point for novelists, writers and intellectuals. Most of the works from the collection were purchased directly from the artists as a result of the deep friendship that was established over the years between the artists, the gallery and the collector.
With stunning tectonic force, Günther Uecker splits one of his iconic fields of nails with an axe. A crevasse tears down the centre of Riß (Rupture) (1986), huge nails splayed across the support as if bristling from seismic impact. Behind them is a gestural storm of black paint on raw canvas, the artist’s handprints showing through in vivid, primal detail. A vast vision of dramatic rift, the work fuses the emotional painterly churn of Abstract Expressionism with the poetic materiality of Uecker’s nail-paintings. The hacked and punctured canvas, the physical record of violence towards the object, creates a thing of elegiac beauty whose themes of wounding, division and elemental energy further Uecker’s ritual inquest into the unifying power of art.
Created in 1986, Riß takes its place among a body of work that Uecker produced following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April that year. His Aschemenschen (‘ash people’) – full-body self-portraits formed by the artist thrashing in ash upon canvas as if in his death throes – signified a direct response to the catastrophe and its terrors of contamination and mortality. Riß similarly reels as if hit by a cataclysm, the efflorescence of nails seeming to flee the strike of Uecker’s blade. As in the Aschenmenschen, the artist’s smeared handprints in Riß insist on his physical presence, grasping at the limits of the canvas. Uecker took the threat of nuclear fallout so seriously that he urged his wife to leave Germany with their young son: the despair and defiance he felt in the face of man’s endangerment of man is palpable in this work, which brims with the vigorous life of the body from where all of Uecker’s practice flows. As he has explained, ‘The intervals between the nails, for example, that I used as means for articulating light, had their origin in the relationships of my hands. The nails were placed at intervals equivalent to the thickness of my fingers. The intermediate space was the proportion of my hand. The handiness of an object has always been related to body dimensions’ (G. Uecker, ‘Die Traumstation der Immer-Gleichen,’ 1977, in G. Uecker, Schriften, Sankt Gallen 1979, p. 167).
As Dieter Honisch has eloquently put it, ‘Uecker’s work develops in a manner similar to Rothko’s rather than Picasso’s: it does not change so much as it condenses. The individual works demarcate different states or intensities rather than particular stages of development … It is more important, I believe, to describe the function of individual works in Uecker’s ritual of action, which is entirely oriented to life and reality’ (D. Honisch, ‘Foreword,’ in Uecker, New York 1986, p. 9). Indeed, it is a profound and dynamic engagement with the world around him that has always informed Uecker’s work. The Italian Arte Povera pioneers Burri and Fontana, who, like Uecker, transcended the canvas with slashes, sutures and punctures, sought to revitalise the devastated post-War cultural landscape of their country: Uecker similarly pursued a spiritual foundation in his art that would offer a new form of belief for the Germany he knew, a land beset by guilt, divisions and disillusion. In the early 1960s, as a member of the ZERO group with fellow German artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, he aimed to recreate art as a blank zone of pure potential. By the 1980s his art’s concerns with hurting, healing, destruction and repair had widened, and the nail-paintings had become a richly articulate vehicle through which to express his feelings about the state of the world. Despite its fracture, Riß is perhaps also a vehicle of hope: like Uecker’s mechanical spinning sculptures, its swirling composition echoes the dance of the Sufi dervishes who whirl their way to divine ecstasy. The work is a lyrical affirmation of the place of art in life in all its turbulence, encompassing and transcending the troubles of humanity.