Executed in 1986, Günther Uecker’s entrancingly hypnotic Nagelrelief is a perfect example of the artist’s signature nail motif. Nagelrelief is a poetic work that combines visual dynamism with physical stasis. The ambulatory pattern of nails creates an undulating sense of movement that works in counterpoint with the physical force and exertion needed to fix them to the canvas. ‘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).
The present work is remarkable for its formal articulation: light passes through and over the relief, breaking into shadows that momentarily transform the work and presenting the viewer with a seductive optical experience. As Uecker has described ‘my works acquire their reality through light... 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. 28). It is this optical effect that invites the viewer’s eye to roam across the surface of the work, seeking new relationships between volume and shadow.
Uecker joined the ZERO group in 1961, where he was introduced to the visual practices of fellow artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. In Nagelrelief the viewer traces the evolution of Uecker’s career, marking the transformation of his early monochrome nail works into a complex abstract composition of smokey black and cream, evocative of a cloudscape or the unfurling petals of a flower. From the 1980s onwards Uecker’s art became increasingly reactive; in his Aschemensch series made in 1987 with ashes and coal he offered a response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while the Stutz series from the same year are expressions of the existential trauma and destruction that defined the post-War world. Yet, the Feld series to which the present work belongs, offered a more holistic perspective, countering the chaos and violence of Uecker’s politically motivated works from this decade. In Nagelrelief the meditative pattern of swirling nails and dynamic optical vibrations connect with the organic and natural, relinquishing pain and grief for a reflective composition that marks Uecker’s reunion of art and nature.