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Untitled (Baum) (Tree)

Untitled (Baum) (Tree)
signed and dated 'Uecker 85' (lower edge)
nails, ash and glue on linden tree trunk
54 x 20 7⁄8 x 24 ¾in. (137 x 53 x 63cm.)
Executed in 1985
Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired directly from the artist).
R. Schroeter and G. Uecker, Schroeter/Uecker. Baum im Glarnerland, Glarus 1986.
Glarus, Galerie Tschudi, Natur - eine Studie. Uecker und seine Schüler: Arbeiten aus dem Glarnerland, 1985 (installation view illustrated, p. 6). This exhibition later travelled to Bad Waldsee, Galerie Elisabethenbad.
Zuoz, Galerie Tschudi, 25 Jahre Galerie Tschudi, 2010.
Further Details
This work is registered in the Uecker Archiv under the number GU.85.018 and will be noted for inclusion in the forthcoming Uecker Catalogue Raisonné.

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Lot Essay

Created in 1985, the present work is a powerful sculpture from Günther Uecker’s series of Nagelwälder or ‘Nail forests.’ It consists of a standing section of linden trunk, smeared with ash and hammered with a bristling corona of Uecker’s trademark nails. A smaller clutch of nails sprouts from a natural knot in the trunk’s side; the base is daubed with Uecker’s signature in large black strokes. Uecker had made his first Nagelwald in 1984—an eight-part work now held in the permanent collection of the Nationalgalerie, Berlin—and revisited the theme several times over the following years. The present sculpture was created as a standalone work in the Glarnerland region of Switzerland. Uecker’s process was documented by his friend and collaborator Rolf Schroeter, a Zürich-based designer and photographer, and presented in their dedicated artist’s book Baum in Glarnerland (Tree in Glarnerland) (1986). Beginning with the nail as an essential marker of human time, Uecker’s tree becomes an emblem of ruin and renewal, probing mankind’s relationship with nature. The trunk might appear wounded, topped with a crown of thorns, but its metallic efflorescence seems also to bloom into new life.

Uecker first started hammering nails into monochrome canvases in 1957. His Nagelbilder or ‘nail pictures’ straddled painting and sculpture, and transformed the humble nail into a vehicle for the poetics of space, light, time and motion. Evolving into billowing, organic white surfaces, these works became emblematic of the ZERO group founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, whom Uecker formally joined in Düsseldorf in 1961. These artists rejected illusion in favour of pure and primary experiences, seeking to reinvent art from a blank slate in the aftermath of World War II. Even before ZERO disbanded in 1966, however, Uecker’s nails began to spread in new directions. In one infamous 1964 action, he studded a piano with nails and splashed it with white paint. Chairs, telephones and television sets received similar treatment. In 1968, he pierced a colossal nail through the façade of a Dortmund department store. Further actions, noise performances, kinetic sculptures and theatrical set designs would follow. For Uecker, these works represented a rejection of consumerist values and an anarchic, vital incursion of art into everyday life.

With its echoes of ritual and totem, the present work evokes a more ancient, elemental way of being, when life was lived in harmony with nature. A memorial to the deep time of the trees with which we share the earth, it places the brevity of our own existence in sharp relief. Uecker has smeared ash over the rough bark with his bare hands in a ceremonial act. The crown of nails implies both regeneration and injury, cautioning humanity not to destroy that which sustains it. The forest is a particularly rich metaphor in Uecker’s native Germany, where it has long been idolised and idealised in Romantic art, literature and music, and protected since the 18th century through the sustainability principle of Nachhaltigkeit. The Romantic forest is a place of mystery and magic, and part of the country’s national identity. Like other post-war German artists including Gerhard Richter, Uecker measures the myth against a more ambivalent and complex reality.

In Baum in Glarnerland, Schroeter’s images appear alongside an evocative handwritten text by Uecker that illuminates the work’s creation.

A linden tree, felled, lying in front of a sawmill in Glarnerland. This trunk is re-erected, rounded at the top, smeared with ash and crowned with nails. The trunk becomes a sculpture.

The linden tree, the centre of a community, often standing in the middle of the town, is transformed into a work of art. The linden tree, an expression of life that renews itself throughout the seasons. The cipher of passing time, the place of confessions of love, strangers and dance, becomes vivid in its transience.

In the silence a leaf falls, a sign of lost time.

The tree, its growth, outlasts the human finiteness of a few generations, a metaphor to us for preserving life. Its living conditions are also ours. The trunk becomes a warning. Art cannot save people, but with the means of art a dialogue is possible that calls for the preservation of mankind.

(G. Uecker and R. Schroeter, Baum in Glarnerland, Glarus 1986, n.p.).

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