'The aspect of strictness in minimal art bothered me… Of course, this strictness was initially good and radical. But at some point, rather soon in fact, it had come to an end for me. You do have to go further, or all else all is dead’
(I. Genzken, quoted in Isa Genzken. Oil, exh. cat., German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice, 2007, p. 155).
With its intersecting component planes and interlocking geometric solids, Isa Genzken’s Steiner appears, at first glance, imposingly abstract. Yet as the facets and fragments come into focus, its mass and thickness, its verticality and angularity, begin to recall a half-built model for a towering skyscraper. The viewer is able to mentally inhabit its recesses, to step beneath its lofty overhangs, to lean in the shadows of its monumental walls. Created in 1985, Steiner is a unique work, one of only two ever cast in bronze by the artist. As such, it represents an early and significant experiment with materials in Genzken’s practice, whose work would later come to be defined by heterogeneous collaging of materials, combining high-grade building components with kitsch found objects.
In Steiner, Genzken engages in a dialogue with the built world, taking on the complex legacy of architectural modernism. This theme dominated the artist’s practice in the years 1984-89, first explored in plaster sculptures, and then developed in constructions made of poured concrete. These works spoke the language of architectural form, with their overhangs and chambers, corridors and platforms, and took on architectural identity through their titles – such as Bahnhof (Train Station), 1984, or Tribune, Fassade (Façade), Bank, all from 1985. In the concrete sculptures, Genzken embraced the very material of brutalist architecture, describing how she found the use of concrete in ‘the core structures of new buildings more interesting, because the rational thinking of the engineers has more to do with truth than the routine masking of facades with pseudo-precious materials’ (I. Genzken, quoted in Isa Genzken. Retrospective, exh. cat., MoMA, New York, 2013, p. 39). Steiner is closely related to these works – it was cast in bronze from one of the plaster sculptures, the plaster iteration being destroyed in the process. In the partially complete, handmade forms of these sculptures, Genzken was able to recall the very first models of modernist utopias, ambitiously conceived by artist-architects such as Kazimir Malevich, Theo Van Doesburg and Le Corbusier. Yet their imperfect aspect already suggests the exhaustion of this dream in the face of prosaic reality, foreshadowing the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Steiner marked Genzken’s departure from the reticent forms of Minimalism, which were a major influence on her early career. The artist soon exhausted the movement’s silently geometric vocabulary: ‘The aspect of strictness in minimal art bothered me… Of course, this strictness was initially good and radical. But at some point, rather soon in fact, it had come to an end for me. You do have to go further, or all else all is dead’ (I. Genzken, quoted in Isa Genzken. Oil, exh. cat., German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice, 2007, p. 155). Instead, her work re-introduced a riot of associations to the hermetic and enigmatic form, sometimes literally humanising geometry with the introduction of miniature figures. In this way, Genzken’s practice recalls that of Thomas Schütte, who builds scaled shelters for his populations of moulded manikins. Occupying the space between abstract sculpture and architecture, spanning reduced and actual scale, Genzken’s Steiner reclaims the abandoned positions of modernity, paving the way for their post-modern appropriation.