Isa Genzken's Aesthetic of Excess



by Lisa Lee

In 1998, Isa Genzken produced some two dozen paint-slashed and spray-painted garments – shirts and jackets, mainly, but also a lone dress. Violent and exuberant, expressing the freedom of individuation and the hostility of vandalism, these altered garments have received scant commentary. It is not difficult to surmise why this is so. Since shifting in the late 1990s from the rigors of single-material, architectonic forms toward motley assemblages of mass-produced goods, Genzken has continuously tested the bounds of good taste. The vulgarity of her chosen materials, always accentuated by her aggressive treatment of them, is set in tension with formal ingenuity. Consider the way her precarious cairns of stuff animate space, for instance, or how she achieves a high-keyed coloristic coherence. But as a series, the altered garments have proven to be more intractable. Perhaps we are embarrassed by their brazenness or irked by their casualness. Perhaps the series lacks the dose of formal restraint or potential for narrative that sometimes offsets her works’ more alienating qualities.



A drooping pelt hangs off the bottom of a shirt stained lurid red and laced with yellow. Synthetic flowers, strands of beads, and two balls of steel wool (cartoonish, unseeing eyes, or armored breasts) bedeck a plaid shirt, overlaid with murky gray and silver paint. A white dress shirt, office-wear workhorse, is emblazoned with spray-painted dollar signs. In these and other examples from the series, Genzken demonstrates her considerable tolerance for, and artistic interest in, that which is visually, materially, and psychologically nasty. Certainly, there are exceptions to this rule. Individual examples attain a difficult-to-account-for appeal. My eyes are drawn again and again to a dark blue shirt embellished with scattered deutsche mark coins, silver spray paint, and congealed scabs and skeins of paint. I can hardly come to terms with its – dare I say? – beauty. Or consider the black dress shirt, its front divided into blocks of primary color: red, blue, and yellow expanses involved in an intricate play of line and field, transparency, and opacity.



Since the advent of easel painting in the 16th century, the flat expanse of canvas stretched over a wooden armature has served as the neutral ground upon which artists rendered entire worlds. To a great extent, pictorial illusionism effected and depended upon a suspension of the recognition of the support surface. In modernism, of course, artists increasingly insisted upon, rather than suppressed, that surface. The collapse of figure and ground, the building up of the surface itself through collage, and the use of so-called “deductive structures”, in which the arrangement of forms within the composition refers to the framing edge, are just some of the means by which modernists acknowledged “flatness” as a governing condition of painting. With her modified garments, Genzken shows the extent to which both illusionism and modernist “flatness” presumed the neutrality of the support. Genzken’s “canvases” are emphatically things of the world. Not blank, but replete with connotation; not ideal, but quotidian; not flat, but cut and stitched to accommodate volume; not the site of figuration, but the potential site of an actual, flesh-and-blood person.


On these altered garments we find a veritable lexicon of painterly marks and modes: filaments and mists of paint reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; gestural daubs of paint dried in puckered pools; stains and sprays worked into warp and weft; blocks and stripes that refer to geometric abstraction; graffiti-like deformations of script; assemblage accretions of random matter, from reflective shards of CDs to picture postcards [fig. 6]. Executed with nonchalance and combined as if by caprice, these marks are emptied of their original significance and historical specificity. Thus, Genzken’s appropriation of garments from the realm of mass production finds its analog in her appropriation, as if wholesale, of the repertoire of painterly gestures gleaned from cultural production of the past 100 years or so. Put another way, industrial ready-mades and cultural ready-mades are shown to abide by the same logic, that of the expansion of capitalism into all spheres of life. On Genzken’s modified garments, the traces of painterly acts have the quality of remainders, of residues.


If I have sounded a note of melancholy and raised a specter of futility, both were unintended. Reckoning with these works prompts recognition of a kind of euphoria and an expressive integrity that seem far from resigned. But what is the nature of this euphoria? Is it compensatory? Or manic? Searching for an answer, I recall Hugo Ball’s description of Dada as “a gladiator’s gesture, a play with shabby leftovers”. Genzken’s extravagant and irreverent mash-ups of painterly marks nod knowingly toward painting as a codified system of signs in which she is always already a belated practitioner. With these altered garments, Genzken observes the oft-pronounced “end of painting” not with a funeral procession but with a carnival, which embodies anarchic-transformative potential.


She is no naïf. Genzken does not imagine that painting can be reborn, disencumbered of its history. (Nor would she wish it – modernist and avant-garde painting held out crucial utopian ambitions that she would not abandon.) Rather, Genzken has focused on finding ways to invest both painting and sculpture with new possibilities for expressiveness. Painting’s self-referentiality will not save it (or us), she seems to suggest. Rather, its survival depends upon its capacity to confront the status of things, images, and bodies in the commodified world, and to agitate for relevance among them. To attempt to extract expressiveness from a painterly language understood as long depleted might seem a fool’s errand. But Genzken’s hopes for success are predicated upon honest confrontations with, rather than denials of, obstacles. To hold fast to artistic expression of authentic subjectivity is optimistic at heart, yet to attain it demands an offensive stance. Hence the intractability of Genzken’s altered garments, their deliberate refusal of the norms of beauty, their affinity with the grotesque and the base, and their binding of art with the everyday.


In the same year that she executed these radically individuated garments, Genzken produced a series of columns covered in a variety of surface claddings. Each column is unique: some are cool and austere, with square marble tiles or perforated metal and mahogany-stained veneers; others are flamboyant, decked out in holographic and iridescent foil; still others are endearingly kooky, with patchworks of neon and wood, mirror and glass. Most of the columns are named after friends and fellow artists – Wolfgang (after Wolfgang Tillmans), Dan (after Dan Graham), etc. The christening of the works only underscores the physical and visual sensation they impart on the viewer, which is that of being in the presence of another person or group of people. What the columns share with the altered garments, then, is a kind of exteriorizing of subjectivity in the form of a polychromatic surface, sometimes harmonious, sometimes eccentric. Genzken’s gambit is to take superficiality literally, analytically, and without judgment. Surfaces – whether sensitive dermis or architectural façade, photographic emulsion or sartorial covering – constitute the complex social skin through which we come into contact with one another.


I don’t want to suggest that Genzken reasserts the artist – her self, her body, or her biography – as the locus of significance. Yet she includes herself in her work in ways that are alternately matter-of-fact and tongue-in-cheek. Consider her photographic documentation of a hospital stay, the amusing X-rays of her skull as she drinks a glass of wine, or I Love New York, Crazy City, a scrapbook that features paraphernalia from her escapades in New York in the mid-1990s. Alternatively, to draw from the series under discussion, consider the contrast-collar shirt she has graffitied with her name (nearly illegible), or the yellow and black striped column named Isa. Such works point less to the person of Isa Genzken than to broader concerns: the idea of the self as constituted in contemporary society, the status of the artist as brand name, the interpenetration of public and private. Even when Genzken dons one of the silver-coated altered garments, as captured in a striking portrait by Tillmans, her short-circuiting of relations between art and use value, and between art and ornament, seems more significant than any reassertion of art’s relation to the artist’s body. This is a point of difference between the altered garments and their most significant precedent in the history of art, Joseph Beuys’s iconic Felt Suit (1970). Tailored after one of Beuys’s own suits, it is – or, to be more precise, they are, for Felt Suit was produced as an edition of 100 – a self-portrait of sorts that refers to Beuys’s mythic autobiography, in which nomadic Tartars supposedly saved him from the wreckage of his Luftwaffe plane and healed his wounds by swaddling him in fat and felt. Felt Suit thus encapsulates the role of the matted textile in Beuys’s theory of materials, where it is privileged for its heat-retaining properties. Any interpretation of the material, formal, and symbolic specificity of the Felt Suit must refer to Beuys’s origin story. Correspondingly, the absent body conjured up by the work is inevitably Beuys’s own.


Of the Felt Suit, Beuys elaborated, “On the one hand, it’s a house, a cave that isolates a person from everybody else. On the other, it is a symbol of the isolation of human beings in our era.” In other words, it suggests both a positive function of shelter and a negative condition of alienation. Analogous ambivalences are evident in Genzken’s garments and columns. The expressive ornamentation of the columns is set in tension with their contained and armored quality. The garments suggest utter nakedness (as a psychological state), as well as a protective repulsion of external forces. Emblazoned on the chest and worn on the sleeve, these ambivalences mark Genzken’s attempt to hold fast to the idea of an authentic subject, however precarious.

Piece crossposted with Garage. Excerpted from “Effervestments,” Garage Magazine. A comprehensive retrospective for German artist Isa Genzken (born 1948) opened at MOMA in January 2014.

About the Author:

Lisa Lee is the editor, with Hal Foster, of Critical Laboratory, the collected writings of Thomas Hirschhorn, published in 2013, and of Isa Genzken, a new volume in the October Files, series, both by MIT Press.