Sunday, 25 August 2013


Giuseppe Penone: The Hidden Life Within

Ed Matthew Teitelbaum: contributions by Germano Celant, John Bentley Mays & Didier Semin

Black Dog Publishing, £24.95

As Giuseppe Penone's year-long occupation of the Whitechapel Gallery comes to an end, it seems timely to consider him in the context of an excellent new book...

'Spazio di Luce' (Space of Light) at the Whitechapel Gallery 2012-13

This substantial book celebrates ‘The hidden life within’, an installation of new work by Giuseppe Penone which inaugurated the Art Gallery of Ontario's new Galleria Italia in late 2008, and remained on view there until early 2012. Penone chose to work mainly with wood, in keeping with the new and unusual architecture of the Gallery, which is like a towering upturned boat made of Douglas fir and glass (I was there just after the exhibition closed, and can imagine the effect).

The book, however, goes well beyond the show's contents to provide an impressively illustrated overview of Penone's practice, with a particular emphasis on his work with trees. It includes an insightful memoir/essay by Germano Celant, the writer who helped define the origins of Arte Povera; a long and illuminating interview with the artist; an essay by French art historian Didier Semin; and Toronto-based art and architecture writer John Bentley Mays' thoughts on the installation itself, which is well-enough illustrated here to provide an ersatz viewing experience. There is also Penone’s poetic ‘Liturgy of Wood’:

‘The clarity of the well-traced path is sterile.
To find the path, walk it, probe it and bushwack through the brambles: this is sculpture.’

 Penone has been well served in English recently with several monographs and the translation of his own writings - but the forward is not out of order in claiming this is the most ambitious publication on his work to date in the language.

Celant emphasises Penone's rural background: whereas American land art created a ‘mediation between the wild landscape and the super industrialised civilisation’, Penone integrates himself with the landscape, recognises its traces of human history – from farmer’s to hiker’s – and cedes control of the outcome of his work to ‘the growing of the tree or the interweaving of the branches, following their rhythms and flows' to produce 'an art that continues to happen’. In so doing, he ‘transforms the sculptures into an essential form, which takes shape naturally and expands the sculptural process by introducing a natural dynamic.’ Penone says that he wanted to work with the elements he knew most deeply – the river, the wood, the forest – ‘with which I had a strong relationship when I was a kid’. 

Didier Semin contributes an intriguing essay which draws from philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous article "what is it like to be a bat?' and Roger Callois' remarkable theory that, far from mimicry and camouflage being an evolutionary advance for defensive purposes, animals which seek to look like plants are actually dreaming of an earlier and more peaceful state, making them artists rather than fighters.  He suggests through that analogy how Penone’s  sculpture is haunted by the parallel dream that a man might know what it is like to be a tree.

John Bentley Mays concentrates on the hidden life within of the show's title: how a tree retains the ‘essence of matter’ (Penone) - 'an inner structure that can be deformed by harvesting and sawing and milling, but never wholly obliterated' (Mays). He sees Penone's art as a means of 'figuring forth'  the hidden life he finds in the heart of everything that lives, in what might be seen as a modern version of Platonic form.

Those are interesting viewpoints, but Penone’s own words in an extensive interview have the added advantage of a direct connection to the work. He has, for starters, an interesting definition of art as a perfect product, that is, one with no existing demand. An imperfect product, in contrast, is one for which demand already exists. Art, then, ‘represents the thought that is not yet known, a product which we have not felt the need for ‘. To find that product, Penone sees the role of the artist as being ‘like a priest who performs rituals’ so that ‘the artist becomes the official of this ritual’.

Like a priest, Penone uses traditional materials (more so than is typical of Arte Povera) and is keen to explore their life: ‘bronze, marble, earthenware, wood… it is true that these are materials which have been used in sculpture for centuries, but I use them in a different way.’ Less traditionally, he uses resin as the ‘perfume and blood of the tree’, a phrase illustrating how the artist is at his best when explaining the thoughts behind his works. Let’s take three of his major series. 

First, those works in which thorns are attached to canvas so that they make a pattern which ‘comes from the mark of the skin. When the skin touches a surface, it leaves a mark that is an image of all the points of contact and, consequently, this is the image of the points of sensitivity. I magnified a mark, drawing it on the canvas with some thorns I used thorns because they suggest the sensitivity of the skin. It is surprising the precision with which it is possible to localise a thorn that you have in your body.’

Second, the comparison between a found boulder, formed by the river, and a visually similar boulder sculpted in the studio. The definition between fluid and solid is uncertain, and depends on the temperature and the time. The actions carried out when someone is carving a stone are similar to the actions exerted by the water in the river.

But perhaps we should conclude with Penone’s most famous stream of work, that which discovers the sapling tree within a beam. It is, says Penone, ‘a tautology at heart, but it can also be interpreted as an attempt animate the ‘minimal’ form of the industrial wooden beam, disclosing the organic shape that produced it’.  That seems to be what Penone is ultimately about: connections - and in particular, exploring those between nature, what people make from it, and the people themselves. This book helps the reader make those connections and explore the hidden life within. 

The Tree Works

Penone works across a wide range of natural forms, including notable use of leaves and thorns as well as several streams of work which use the fundamentals of the tree in a very direct manner. 'The Hidden Life Within' discusses and illustrates these works effectively. a partial checklist of which might be as follows:

Interventions in the growth of trees

Planks whittled back to reveal the tree within

Whole trunks into which a space is carved to demonstrate the growth patterns

Trunks with channels, filled with sap-redolent resin, cut into them. Instead of carving around the sapling in the core of the tree as in ‘To Repeat the Forest’, the negative of the form within the tree is revealed and filled with resin – as if to illustrate Penone’s assertion that ‘the two perfect states, liquid and solid – a totality of image – produce sculpture’.

Drawings in the form of tree rings, but using fingerprints

Works which use the reaching out of branches for light as an analogy for sight. Here, says Penone, two people look at each other and so he ‘starts the branches in the brain, basing the work on the gaze’. There is also an echo of early action which twined three trees together ‘as if they were in conversation’.

Bronze casts of trees, held paradoxically aloft by their roots. Penone believes an uprooted tree is already a sculpture, and is ‘the horizontal perspective of the eye, contrasting with the verticality of its being’.

A bronze tree holding a boulder in its branches, has made the Documenta 2012

Work with bark, notably that which draws an analogy of skins by combining it with leather. Animal skin meets tree skin as Penone covers tree trunks with water-softened leather which keeps the form of the bark when it dries. ’It is as if you are inside the tree’, says Penone, who also wanted to make evident how ‘there is always a space between the hand and the surface the hand adheres to. It is the thickness of the waxy grease of the fingerprint'.

The Whitechapel installation cast an empty trunk with golden bark on the inside and the artists fingerprints standing in for the bark on the outside.

Sunday, 18 August 2013


There’s plenty to enjoy a long weekend in the Cologne area, even when a fair proportion of the commercial galleries are on their ‘summer pause’. Here are my highlights from four clustered cities, starting with my top choice - in the least visited city…


The Museum Morsbroic is a stunning castle with a history of ground-breaking shows, but it isn’t easy to reach. It’s certainly worth the effort for the first full retrospective for local boy made internationally good, Thomas Grünfeld, a football fan who grew up 50 metres from the Bayer Leverkusen ground, as shown in the  felt work above. He’s a varied artist, and the press release claimed that thirteen distinct groups of work were mixed around its generous fifteen rooms. So what are the groups, and how do they cohere to form an oeuvre? Twelve of them seemed clear enough:

1. Passe-partout paintings, elaborately framed and grounded, in which Grünfeld first showed he was as interested in the means of presentation as in what was presented

2. Shelving units, which grew naturally from (1) - here we're just missing the central image.

3. Skirts, these being sculptures stood against the wall more like furniture than clothing

4. Upholstery objects, mostly mustard yellow, softening the hard edges of minimalism and maybe – maybe not - returning it to its origins in use

5. A wall-based variant which combines a soft furnishing element with a mirror, here reflecting the Cockatoo / Penguin Misfit

Pelican / Kangaroo / Horse, 2003 

6. His best-known series, the ‘misfits’ which collage animal species together to comic and disturbing effect.

7. The rubbers, for which a random process of following wood patterns becomes the template for biologically amorphous ground-hugging forms.

8. The ‘dyes’, as Grünfeld terms his photos, as the exhibited prints use the dye transfer process: so far there are only a dozen nudes inspired by Carlo Molina, but selected from 3,000 originals!

9. ‘Paintings’ using taxidermy eyes, so connecting with the misfits and also paying homage to Fontana and trading on the idea that as well as us looking at a picture, it might be looking at us. The eyes went further at the Museum Morsbroic, taking over a whole room.

10. Rolls of felt, rather like carpets in their scale
Ponygirl, 2009
11. The felts, the most recent substantial stream: Grünfeld uses a standard range to cut out what might be termed paintings which don’t just resist illusionism, but pre-empt its possible means of mark making – indeed, Grünfeld has says he ‘wanted to make pictures without being able to paint’.

12. Fireplaces: somewhere between architectural feature, sculpture and painting in their effect

These are all collage forms – indeed, you could say that such a wide-ranging practice is itself a form of collage. But is there a wider connection? One would be hard put to identify any of the streams as ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture’ in any conventional sense. Grünfeld seems be eschewing categories by relocating each of his materials in an unusual, and often awkward and uncanny, context. Thus furniture arrives in the art gallery: has the gallery taken on the qualities of a living room, or has the furniture been turned into art? The felts mix playroom and craft traditions with art. The rubbers merge industrial processes and mock furniture. Parallel arguments could be constructed to show that all of Grünfeld’s inter-mixtures are, in essence, misfit, all witty and often aesthetically seductive, often combining cliches to contradict them. But what’s the deeper point? Perhaps a stand against the whole notion of pre-ordained classification, whether in art or in life… if we are all, in some sense, misfits, then you might say that everyone fits in.


Cologne is in an American season: perhaps you can spot the common factor in the most interesting shows currently on view:

· Seth Price’s sculptural and fetishistic take on the envelope at Gisela Capitain

· Cheyney Thompson’s abstract sculptures and paintings, driven by the chance factors of the algorithms of economics; and Sam Lewitt’s ‘International Corrosion Fatigue’ at the two Galerie Buchholz spaces.

· Kathryn Andrews’ gleamingly confident institutional debut at the Ludwig Museum, which she turned into an aquarium of sorts: half Koons, half Cady Noland…

· A mystically visceral and very substantial retrospective of Paul Thek’s work, ‘Art is Liturgy’ insinuated into the Kolumba, a ruined church stunningly converted into a gallery which is known for showing old and new in dialogue.

Jo Baer at the Museum Ludwig

The most substantial exhibition in Cologne brought old and new together within one life. The first show – along with the Kathryn Andrews - under the aegis of the Ludwig’s new director Philipp Kaiser (formerly at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) was a full retrospective for Jo Baer. It sought to make the case, supported by a non-chronological hang and a film of Baer in conversation, for a continuation of approach and quality across the two apparently distinct sections of her career: the development of minimalist abstract practice in New York, 1960-75; and a subsequent stylistic and geographical switch to what she calls ‘radical figuration’ and to Ireland (1975-82), London (1982-84) and now Amsterdam.

The integrity behind that change impresses, but looked at purely numerically, the thesis of a balanced two-part career was hard-pressed: the catalogue had 168 works from those first 15 years, but just 15 from the following 40. Moreover, the somewhat pallid palimpsestic amalgams of cave painting themes and personal and erotic symbolisation which make up the recent large paintings did little to suggest that Baer’s European phase has been unjustly ignored.

The show did, however, do a fine job of showing what a fertile period Baer had in the early sixties, after leaving her second husband in Seattle to marry pop artist Jack Wesley in New York: a series of small studies from 1960-62 contained the seeds of most of what she worked out over the coming decade. That included several effective variants on the painting as object, putting one over Judd and Morris’s rejection of painting as the medium for minimalist concerns:

                           Graph-paper Painting (Diamond) (1962 – 1963)

The drawing paintings, which convert small drawings on graph paper into large oils on canvas, including their grids, in meditations on transference.

                                 Korean 3, 1963

The ‘Koreans’, which established the theme of an ‘empty centre’ at a time a dealer characterised her as being as unknown as a Korean art in the west.

Vertical Flanking Diptych (Large, Blue), 1966

The diptychs, in which the doubled format implies the painting as an entity, and which she produced in large and small rectangular and square formats with colours judged to match their dynamics, eg grey hues for a vertical rectangle.

Untitled (Wraparound Triptych - Blue, Green, Lavender) 1969-74

The wrap-arounds, in which the emphasis on the edge of things moves from the front to the side of the canvas to achieve a fuller emptying out of the obvious centre of interest.

H. Arcuata, 1971

The radiators, box-like paintings which become even more object-like, and are named for their characteristics in Latin as if classifying plants

Here’s a sample of later Baer: Shrine of the Piggies (The Pigs Hog it All and Defacate and Piss on Where From They Get It and With Whom They Will not Share. That’s It), 2000

Cologne Sculpture Park

Cologne’s Sculpture Park, alongside the Rhine by the zoo, is kept fresh by biannual replacement of much of the work. The 2013-14 version has many pieces which play neatly off the surroundings, natural or otherwise. Here are three:

Karin Sander invite visitors to take a rest by sitting on seven circular mats of synthetic turf. The manufacturer calls this product, selected by Sander from a range of almost one hundred such grasses, ‘Paradise 231’, introducing the suggestion that these are days in which our ideals may well be artificial, from genetic modification to electronic friendship to plastic surgery.

As the visitor approaches Thomas Schütte’s bronze, hidden away in a corner and screened by a curve of brick, streaming is triggered through the eyes and mouth of the Weeping Woman (2011): the most private of acts becomes public. More mundanely, the fountain was also a handy water dispenser on a hot day, until I reached the café.

In one of those neat double-take moments, a helicopter has landed improbably on the roof of the main building – which houses the excellent café. Of course, it is art: Michael Sailstorfer’s ‘High-Ranking Visit – Cologne’ leaves us to wonder if a sculpture fandom or some more sinister purpose might be involved. The engine has apparently been replaced by a silent motor which activates the rotor with a spooky lack of noise on special occasions, but my visit was not one of those…


Wolfgang Tillmans at K21

K21’s big new , Thomas Saraceno in the roof space , was closed due to Health and Safety issues (Vorsprung durch Technik...), though he did have two spectacular cubes in which several species of spider had been encouraged to weave competing webs. That left a huge Wolfgang Tillmans show, organised by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, as the main feature. Such retrospectives are fairly frequent, and operate rather like rock concerts: new stuff alongside the old favourites, some of them in somewhat different versions, and the odd obscurity pulled out of the back catalogue – here some graphics and a 1994 film of half an hour’s action on a New York street. So we had the biggest prints I’ve ever seen of Man Pissing on a Chair (1997), Deer Hirsch (1997), Icestorm (2001) and Headlight (2012) plus plenty of Concorde (1997) and a very full representation of Tillmans' various abstract (though analogue) modes, some of which were very recent, as is the addition of Lady Gaga to his celebrity subjects. The overall display used every size and placement possible, over the walls and on tables – again in Tillmans’ established manner. An unusual feature, though, was that the chunky 200 page catalogue was free to visitors.

There were four main abstract series on view, all of which grow out of the photographic process itself. As Tillmans says 'with these abstract pictures, although the eye recognises them as photographic rather than painted, the eye also tries to connect them to reality. There’s always this association machine working in the brain, and that is why it is important to me that they are actually photographic and not painted'.

A grouped dozen of creased and folded Lighter series, three dimensional monochromes folded / creased / crumpled into a three dimensional states to yield the corporeal presence of specimens in their perspex boxes, and to reflect light differently to different viewpoints. 

The Paper-drop photos of photo paper curling at the edges were tossed in at various points. As Tillmans says, 'paper is the material basis of almost all my work. In 2000 I began making it the subject of my work 
and, soon after, I started making pictures of glossy photographic paper itself, which I had exposed to 
specific coloured light before processing it'.

A Rothko-like room of vast bleeding, erogenously microscopic prints of the Freischwimmer (Free Swimmer – referring to a test of competence taken by German schoolchildren) made lenselessly by dark room chemistry.

The less well-known Silver series dates back to the 1990's. These, says Tillmans, 'begin as paper fed through the machine to clean it, so there are some traces on it relating to this physical process, and then it is enlarged. It is completely analogue, interacting with material and light, controlled and intuitive at the same time' - so that failures in the developing process become the cause and subject of the images

One could reasonably link Tillmans to Grünfeld, as his form of photographic seeing aims to do away with existing cultural clas­sifications, just as Grünfeld seeks to ambush established categorisations.

Living with Pop at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf
Richter photo-reproductions alongside a view of the Düsseldorf furniture store in which Richter and Lueg put on the originating action 'Living with Pop - A Demonstration for Capitalist Realsim' in 1963
There was a more unexpected feel and a much lower-tech booklet for a comparatively excessive euro at the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf: ‘Living with Pop: A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism’ aimed to recreate the atmosphere as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Leug emerged 50 years ago. There was documentation (invitation cards, posters, photos of the artists, letters, press material etc) for six key shows, together with fifty key works from the early 60’s … in life size photographic reproductions. That made some sense, as they were paintings made from photographs, and there was a logic to presenting the background as primary and the work as secondary rather than the more usual opposite way round. There were three problems: first, the reproductions served mainly to emphasise how important the physical presence of the brushwork is to the effect of these works, even where they’re intended to be pretty flat (that may well have been the idea, but it’s still irritating); second, there were no installation shots of these works as they had appeared in the shows – presumably because they do not exist; and third, there were virtually no moving images or voices to animate the impact. There was an interesting selection of films by the American conceptual photographer Christopher Williams, who teaches at Düsseldorf’s famous Academie, but though these drew interesting parallels, they don‘t help to give us the atmosphere of the early 60’s shows.


Bonn, the quiet city which was the capital of West Germany, has a classy ‘Museum Mile’. 

The Kunstmuseum

The Kunstmuseum could be divided into four impressive quarters:

               Alexej Jawlensky, Woman with Downcast Eyes, 1912

Display of the museum's collection of classic expressionist painting, which is particularly strong on August Macke and Jawlensky.

Fries & Frize

The current installations of the Museum’s impressive painting-oriented contemporary collection mostly presented one or two artists in each room, giving them the space to make a powerful impact. Notable successes included Franz Ackermann’s optical thunderbolts of psycho-geographical colour energy; a glowing Thomas Scheibitz room; Christoph Ruttimann’s stacks of coloured glass; and the proof that combining two of my long-term personal favourites - Pia Fries and Bernard Frize – makes for more than a match-up of homonyms.

The excitedly titled ‘Mary, Blinky, Yay!’ which showed Mary Heilman’s paintings alongside those of local star Blinky Palermo, who was her contemporary - born three years later, but dying in 1977 – indeed, they both lived in New York in the seventies, but did not meet. This provided a revealing contrast, as they both dismantled the grand traditions of abstract painting, from different directions but with sometimes-parallel results. Palermo by moving them away from heroism towards the architectural and craft-based; Heilman by adding contingency to the certainties of inspiration and objectivity. She does with a reverence for such forebears as Newman, Mondrian and Kelly (but channelling them in the casual manner of emerging post-modernism), and by feeding personal memories into apparent abstraction.

The Kunstmuseum’s biggest show was installation-based: 21 artists who had made uncanny spaces into which the viewer was frequently invited. Or as the press release put it ‘HEIMsuchung is about the transition from a formerly intimidating exterior to an intimidating interior and the parallelization between destabilized subjects and unstable spaces’. It sounds hard work, but that translates into chances to experience such fun as curved and mirrored multiplicities, furniture which moves, interior ice, a couple who go about everyday life while on fire, a room being crushed, a fall-out shelter made from books on German art, intense greyness, melting interiors and a whole houseful of narrowness – that being the version of Erwin Wurm’s childhood home set up outside the gallery.

Cleopatra, the Eternal Diva at the Bundeskunsthalle

Enough of Liz Taylor - here's Vivien Leigh in the Cleopatra role

Elsewhere Bonn had contrasting takes on feminism. ‘HERstories’ celebrated the Kunstverein’s 50th anniversary by concentrating on early extensive presentations of female positions, and included such interesting artists as Miriam Cahn, Marlene Dumas, Monika Baer, Spartacus Chetwynd and Katharina Sieverding. Pity I got the closing time wrong and missed it! More populist, but superbly presented, was the Bundeskunsthalle’s exploration of the life and historical reception of Cleopatra. Her life story as the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt was economically retold: queen at 19, lover at 21 of the 52-year old Ceasar until his assassination three years later, embroiled with Marc Anthony and global power politics from then until her suicide at 39 in 30 BC). There were grand orientalist paintings, Warhol’s Liz Taylors, fashion, pop videos, TV adverts, stage and film versions, Cleopatra as role model for female empowerment,  a whole room of the asp biting her breast...  all was set in scarlet and ultramarine spaces with chaises longues for visitors to relax on.  Odd that all that power, love, beauty and sex is not slated to travel…

About Me

My photo
Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.