Haus am Lützowplatz, 7pm, 4th January, 2018

In speaking of this years winner of the Jacqueline Diffring Sculpture Prize, Gary Schlingheider, I feel I might begin by positioning and distinguishing his work as regards that of Jacqueline Diffring whose sculpture comes out of a distinct and different tradition, since she studied sculpture in England under Henry Moore and Fred McWilliam at Chelsea School of Art, in the post-war period of the late 1940s, and early 1950s. Her work comes from an sculptural tradition of modelling and/or carving, and subsequently as and when cast in bronze. Her vision was therefore born of the manipulative hand and the immediate sense of three-dimensionality. This is not the case with Gary Schlingheider who trained primarily as a painter successively under Pia Fries, Gregory Cumins and Christine Streuli, and the University of the Arts, in Berlin, and of course all successful painters. It seems important to mention this, since I will not be talking about Schlingheider’s paintings, though they are an integral part of his practice as an artist. I want to stress again that we are looking at a painter-sculptor as object-maker.

It is the case that the influence of painters on sculpture, and the interactivity of modern through postmodern elasticity of two and three-dimensional expressions, between putative painting and sculpture, is immediately relevant to understanding Schlingheider’s emerging practice as an artist. We might further note that the sophisticated relationship between painter and sculpture has always been central and axiomatic to modernism and the postmodern (this period of Late Capitalism, as some theorists have chosen to call it).

From the beginning of modernism many of the innovations in sculpture and object making came from painters. Degas, Matisse and Picasso for example, or in Dada (Schwitters), in Surrealism (Giacommetti and Dali). In German Expressionism painter-sculptors expand from very outset, Kirchner to today’s so-called Neo-Expressionists such as Baselitz and Lupertz and numerous others. In Abstract Expressionism, we find De Kooning and Cy Twombly, in Neo-Dada, Rauschenberg and Johns, and even the minimalist Donald Judd (maker of Specific Objects) began as an expressionist painter. Two other painters who were operative sculptors also come to mind and have a particular and admitted influence and relevance for Schlingheider, namely the American artists Elsworth Kelly, and perhaps to a lesser extent Frank Stella, discussed hereafter.

Why is this relevant? Because it emphasises the pictorial, or the “pictorialisation” and representation of space as it is both imagined and projected. That is to say rather than focussing on, or stressing, the inert and/or static object-ness of a three-dimensional thingly presence. The pictorial seeks to enliven presence in a particular way.  It focuses less on the conventionally haptic (touch-based) nature of sculpture, and emphasises the optical nature of phenomena and extended visuality—what the French Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, determined as the phenomenal relationship of “L’Oeil et l’Esprit” (“Eye and Mind,” in his series of essays The Primacy of Perception, 1964).

In considering Gary Schlingheider’s works we can begin with his acknowledgement of the influence of Elsworth Kelly’s abstract asymmetrical paintings and later spatial forms, which he claims came about from what he considers their “contentlessness” which we musr take to mean their lack of figuration and/or subject matter. This said while there are material contents (they are made of materials), on the other hand it merely emphasises a sense of material presence. The use of asymmetry is of course phenomenal, rather than ideal (symmetrical forms being always associated with the tradition descending from Platonic idealism), and these phenomenological aspects ground Schlingheider’s works in the act of perceiving and the assimilative perception of a viewer. As a result the intrinsic or innate is rejected in favour of the extrinsic and applied—that is to say in terms of visual experience—in other words good old fashioned phenomenological empiricism—the visual material text asserts itself as is its own context. This was the first influence asymmetry, a second Kelly influence is that of frame and aperture, since Elsworth Kelly simply and metaphorically incised his shapes from the visual world, and often took his asymmetries paintings from the spaces between things. In fact the most important early work of Kelly, executed while still in Paris, is the work called Window, a work exhibited in the Hotel de Bourgogne, in 1949.

“In October of 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I noticed the large windows between the paintings interested me more than the art exhibited. I made a drawing of the window and later in my studio I made what I considered my first object, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. From then on, painting as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be painting/objects, unsigned, anonymous. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose...” Elsworth Kelly

 As Nam June Paik later explained this “Instead of painting a pictorial representation of the window, Kelly chose to make an actual object using two canvases, strips of wood, and paint. He painted the top canvas a monochrome white and the bottom one a monochrome gray, which is recessed, and thus not flush with the white canvas above. Each of the panels was flatly painted, without any sign of gesture, showing the beginnings of his wish to make “anonymous” works that did not register an artistic personality. To replicate the three-dimensional nature of the window with its frame and mullions, he used thin strips of wood painted black. The result was a sculptural object that diverged from the traditions of easel painting."

 This idea is fundamental to understanding the point of departure for the works of this new younger generation artist and Diffring Preis winner, Gary Schlingheider. Of course a window is also a framing aperture, and it hardly needs to be stated that Leon Battista Alberti in Della Pittura (1434), first called painting “a window onto a world”. Hence High Modernism refuted this tradition of figurative subject matter as a visual lie or deceit, a contrivance,, a three dimensional illusion expressed on a two dimensional reality that is the material reality of a painting. The framing “contentless” aperture and use of multiple elements that are found in Schlingheider’s works are therefore his acknowledgement of Kelly. The aperture is also associated or course with the eye, our human window on the world, and therefore with the experiences of phenomenal perception. And of course the camera aperture incises from and frames the world, since Kelly was an avid photographer after 1950 (his Leica images were shown at Matthew Marks, New York, in Elsworth Kelly Photographs, 2016). The question of the pictorial is thereby reasserted, not just as regards painting but “pictorialism” in photography.

In a certain sense Schlingheider’s sculptures takes this further, or at least in a new direction, creating the question of “shape as form.” Traditionally “shape” refers to the external character of an object or thing, the contours, the outline, or simply a geometric figure such as a square, triangle, rectangle, or any asymmetrical contour defied by simple shape. Whereas “form” is extended to the visible shape beyond configuration, that which is in someway embodied as an arrangement that has cognitive identity beyond its mere indexical function as a shape. Schlingheider’s work is unique in this respect that the two are elided, shape becomes the form, and the form is the shape. To put it in more banal theoretical terms his shape-formed frames move from a fixed signifier into a potentially mobile dynamic signifier—that is inferring body movement in, around, and sometimes through the works.. The viewer’s body as active phenomena are incorporated into the work as is evident here. The shapes themselves as the artist has admitted derive often from that of common shaped object that becomes interpreted into an abstract form. And it is in this respect that they remind me of Frank Stella’s shaped paintings, detached from the wall, reduced into a framing configuration and installed within a variable space. That there is a wall to floor relationship is made clear in the colour installed series he called PLAYGROUND, where the chosen shapes as displayed on both the wall and the floor.   

At another quite obvious level Schlingheider’s works also evoke the idea of drawing, since they emphasise the linear aspect most associated historically with configuration. This idea echoes both the conceptual and the minimal, but most notably conceptual-minimal artists like the late Fred Sandback and to a lesser extent Robert Irwin and Sol Lewitt. Sandback’s yarn, elastic cord, and wire sculptures define edges of virtual shapes that ask the viewer's brain to perceive the rest of the form.  And like Sandback also Schlingheider’s pictorial sculptures evoke specifically an engagement with the site-specific use of the room or exhibiting space, and the variability of reception that it implies. At the same time line and space are intimately connected. In fact if you speak of architecture and drawings they are the first principle of a potentiality of a new existent form. In the current installation the energising of the space is made clear since you can walk in and around the spaces that the framing sculptures configure. By definition what we consider real space is three-dimensional. Generally space in a work of art refers to a feeling of depth as three dimensions. That is if we put aside Einstein’s relative space-time and later quantum mechanics. Space can also refer to the artist's use of the area within the picture plane—the potential planimetry. It also refers to the areas around the primary objects in a work of art and is known as negative space, while the space occupied by the primary objects is known as positive space. In this case Schlingheider elides the dichotomy, by removing volume and mass normally evident in three-dimensional objects in space, and diminishing the effect of negative space replacing it with the free mobility of the viewer

These issues lead into the other significant sources of influence on the artist, namely aspects of German Constructivism in the 1960s, and the continuing post-war history of Minimal Art and Konkrete Kunst (Concrete Art). From the first we might note the material qualities that conflate both approaches of the Dusseldorf Late Constructivist artists like Reiner Ruthenbeck, Blinky Palermo, and Imi Knoebel, with West Coast Minimalists like John MacCracken. Those material approaches such as propping or leaning works against the wall, and wall to floor, or as stacking and layering. In the past Schlingseider has stacked or superimposed his sculpture on top of one another while leaning them against a wall. The variable potential of number and layer allows these frame sculptures to be configured and related to each other in numerous ways. This enables the frame sculptures to be presented as open and flexible in relation to the given spaces of reception.  Although painting is not the subject I addressing here, the paintings are also the product of the overlaying of asymmetrical forms and shapes of varied colour.

This approach feeds also into the powerful tradition of Konrete Kunst in Germany, known most famously from Max Bill’’s famed Hochschule fuer Gestaltung—Ulm School of Design (Inge Aicher-Scholl and Otl Aicher), founded in 1953, and closed in 1968. Though deriving of course from Doesburg’s original Art Concret, Abstraction Creation in the pre-war 1930s. Here is the origin perhaps, also within the European tradition of the “contentlessness” idea that Schlingheider argues as assertion in his sculptural works:

“A work of art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data. We want to exclude lyricism, drama, symbolism, and so on.” Art Concret Manifesto (1930)

 Whereas in Germany, Ulm may have evolved primarily later as a School of Design, it nonetheless like minimalism focused on processes of manufacturing, metal technologies, construction techniques, the standardization or procedures, (another way of espousing Minimalism’s so-called “Systemic Objects”) and social theories of perception at the site of reception. All of which is some part are reflected in these metal frame sculptures by Gary Schlingheider. The divergence in this artist’s works from traditional notion of Concrete Art may be as Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed, in his opening line of his essay “Eye and Mind,” claiming, that “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” This cannot be said of Schlingheider’s framing sculptures, which retain the embodied nature of human interaction and phenomenal presence through mobile experience.

After six-and-a-half years of study at UdK, we find a young 1983, Detmold-born artist, who has found his own special language and direction. Prior to his art studies Gary Schlingheider worked as a professional caregiver in the field of geriatric nursing. We therefore might suppose that his life has moved from the immediate realm of the ethical into the aesthetical, and we wish him every success in his future endeavours. Winning the Jacqueline Diffring Sculpture Prize is a good place to begin. I have no doubt Jacqueline herself who shortly enters her 99th year (98, on the 7th February) would be delighted. And I am reminded when thinking of these two sculptors so far apart in terms of age, that we might imagine an ongoing a continuum of creative circularity.  Or as T.S Eliot famously stated it.  

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation…...

(Burnt Norton, 1936)


©Mark Gisbourne

Thursday 4. January 2018