Created at the height of the artist’s involvement with the avant-garde ZERO group in 1963, and held in the same private collection since the following decade, Rote Fahne (Red Flag) is an exceedingly rare red example of Günther Uecker’s nail-paintings. These works straddle painting and sculpture, transforming the humble nail into a vehicle for the poetics of space, light, time and motion. Typically, they are white: the non-hue favoured by the ZERO artists, who sought to reinvent art from a state of blank purity in the postwar era. The present work is one of only a handful of nail-paintings with colour. Even rarer, its colour is not painted, but rather consists of red fabric—the ‘red flag’ of the title—laid over wooden board. Hammered into this surface, a field of nails washes down from the upper right corner, like a wave lapping over a beach; the nails gather in density towards an undulating edge, creating a swelling, organic impression of gravity. The work’s visceral hue enhances its tactile, biomorphic presence. Uecker’s nails—for all their utilitarian origin—become sensate, antenna-like expressions of human experience, coming together with the complexity of a nervous system.
In the beginning was the nail … I incorporated it into my painting, and it forged a link between the works and the space around them. It protruded as a tactile feeler from the flat surface, much like a sundial”
While Rote Fahne’s bright colour is unusual within Uecker’s oeuvre, it is not without precedent. He had first used nails as an extension to the thickly-painted monochromes he had begun making around 1957, when he befriended Yves Klein: these early works include The Yellow Picture (1957-58), on the cover of Uecker’s catalogue raisonné, whose vivid surface is haloed with protruding nails. The present work’s red has special significance in this regard, harking back to his 1957 work The Red Picture I. Uecker showed this canvas in 1958 in Das rote Bild (The Red Picture): a seminal group show that marked the birth of ZERO’s collective activities. Held in the Düsseldorf studio of ZERO co-founders Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, the exhibition included forty-four works by a range of artists involved with the movement: Klein showed a red-painted plate. While white would go on to dominate their aesthetic, monochrome primary colour was key to the foundation of ZERO’s utopian, stripped-back approach. ‘It was from the start an open domain of possibilities, and we speculated with the visionary form of purity, beauty, and stillness’, Uecker explained of ZERO, which he joined formally in 1961. ‘These things moved us greatly’ (G. Uecker, quoted in D. Honisch, Uecker, New York 1983, p. 14).
Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it”
While Uecker’s billowing nail-surfaces create captivating optical effects, the materiality of works like Rote Fahne also anchors them firmly in the real world. Uecker rejected representation in favour of direct experiences of light, colour and space: a stance shared by his ZERO colleagues. The commonplace, everyday quality of the nail, however, held a particularly important role in his practice. As a simple marker of human time and labour, it took on a ritual, meditative significance, bringing the viewer closer to a sense of their own place in the world. The hammering process echoed the work of daily life, from Uecker’s rural upbringing on the Baltic coast to the ongoing cultural reconstruction of postwar Germany. Bringing together conceptual abstraction, performative action and utopian ideals, the powerful, spiritual presence of Rote Fahne—conjured from nothing more than wood, raw fabric and unpainted nails—exemplifies the elemental magic of Uecker’s work.
Lot Essay Header image: Günther Uecker. Photograph by Lothar Wolleh © Oliver Wolleh, Berlin. Artwork: © Günther Uecker, DACS 2021.