Franz Erhard Walther
Action Instead of Interpretation
The work as a tool: Franz Erhard Walther withdrew from the picture format in the late 1950s and began designing objects that invite the viewer to become active. Over the past several years, and in the context of "relational aesthetics" and the success of artists like Olafur Eliasson and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Walther's approach has been extensively discussed. Currently, two major solo exhibitions are dedicated to his work. Brigitte Werneburg on a pioneer of participation who is represented by numerous works in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
||Franz Erhard Walther's marriage in 1963 to the tailor's daughter Johanna Friesz was a stroke of luck-of the personal kind, of course, but also of an artistic nature-because in his in-laws' business in Fulda, Walther happened upon the cotton weaves, inserts, and quilted linings that became new material for his work. At the time, no one had considered using fabric to make art.
Until that point, the 24-year-old had primarily worked with paper. His artistic approach was still largely determined by an investigation into Art Informel, the abstract art of the post-war era. Walther understood the term coined in 1951 by the art critic Michel Tapie
as a "going back to the point of origin," as he recalls in a conversation with the art historian Michael Lingner in 1985. A return to a "point zero," where form and art do not yet exist.
This is why Walther used paper manufactured industrially for everyday use, for instance simple DIN A4 sheets. The industry norm helped him depart from the picture format. His attitude at the time: "You're allowed to do everything with the paper-except to draw or paint on it." With the help of artless methods such as folding, gluing, tearing, and soaking the paper in fluids like soy sauce, coffee, and oil instead of using oil paint, he brought the material qualities of the paper to bear as an objective, independent formal means. When a stack of paper became soaked by accident and changed drastically in form after it dried, Walther became fascinated by this autonomous formal process. He began systematically organizing movements in material that were independent of any artistic intervention.
But first of all the fabrics. The initial result of his expedition to his parents-in-law was a narrow upholstered rectangular length of fabric divided into five segments, the "Forehead Piece" of 1963. Hung on the wall, it serves as a place to rest the head. The Forehead Piece is therefore not an autonomous, independent work; it becomes a tool that invites the viewer to become its user. If the viewer accepts the invitation, a sculpture arises in the interaction between user and object.
This puts the prevailing notion of an autonomous work of art up for renegotiation. Along with Joseph Beuys, the minimal artists also took this step at the time. Walther was to get to know these artists personally a short time later, after he moved to New York in 1967. They, too, worked with materials foreign to art, such as fluorescent lights and metal sheets. And the way in which minimal artists operated with them in space accorded the reception of the work of art a new role. It was now the viewer's task to codify or recodify the situation and to support the producer's aim to deliver a sculptural work or, as Donald Judd called it, a "specific object" with the serial repetition of standardized industrial forms.
The viewer's participation didn't, however, yet go beyond the context of interpretation, but remained a purely conceptual continuation or completion of the work. This is different in the case of the Forehead Piece, the prototype for another 58 objects of the First Work Set (1. Werksatz) in which Walther completed a shift in paradigm: action instead of interpretation. The series, finished in 1969, does not merely call for a viewer, but for an active participant; it was to enjoy an amazing success. As a result, curator Jennifer Licht became fascinated by the open and process-oriented character of the First Work Set. Although the viewer becoming active was in direct contradiction to the custom of the time regarding a visit to the museum, she showed this work that same year in the exhibition Spaces. This exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York included, along with Walther, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, and others. And Walther also had work in Harald Szeemann's long since legendary exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in the Kunsthalle Bern.
Walther's international career was launched by the publication Franz Erhard Walther. OBJEKTE, benutzen, published in 1968 by Kasper König. In the photographs included in the volume, but even more so in Walther's later Nachzeichnungen zum 1. Werksatz, one can see that something unprecedented was suddenly happening in the area of art. The viewer puts a spacious foam-filled black sack over his head, giving rise to the Blind Object (1966). If he moves on a bag of fabric into which wooden balls are inserted between two sheets of foam, the result is Walk Objekt (1964). A rectangle of fabric folded together strangely becomes an Object for several (1966). After viewers open it, lay it out in the space, and step into the pockets sewn into it, the form that arises does indeed become an "object for several"-and could also be called "object for a collaboration." It comes into being both through the viewer's social and individual action.
Although such arrangements give rise not only to bodily, temporal, spatial, and object-oriented connections, but also communicative and social connections between people, Walther insists that they are a form of sculpture, albeit radically new and not yet clearly defined. As he remarked 30 years later, the arrangements "definitely possess a sculptural quality" through the "presence of the body in the work." They come to expression in the movements of walking, standing, and lying and in the simple geometric forms of his rectangular, triangular, cross-shaped, and cylindrical rolled-out or rolled-up fabric objects.
This concept makes the sculpture into the event of a participating viewer's performance. Concerning this work, Walther remarked in his Diagrammen zum 1. Werksatz in 1976: "The experiences there have their effects later in other areas of life; they develop their own repercussions." And then he adds this decisive sentence: "This all belongs to the work." But what also belongs to the work is that his objects, in a resting state, exert their own aesthetic power and fetish-like majesty-such as the truncated column of fabric formed by the vertically positioned Eleven Meter Roll (1964) in its tied-up state. To this extent, it's possible to see Walther's approach in the context of American Minimal Art, although the differences are so evident that the curator and gallery dealer Andreas Koch speaks of a "participatory minimalism."
This rediscovery of Franz Erhard Walther began in the mid-nineties-not least in connection with discussions about "relational aesthetics." In 1996, the French art theoretician and curator Nicolas Bourriaud gave the name "relational aesthetics" to the phenomenon of a radically expanded concept of art: suddenly, we were having dinner with Rirkrit Tiravanija or lying down beneath Olafur Eliasson's lamps and imagining the sunset in the Tate Modern. While Walther's revision of the concept of art and the artwork is not identical with Bourriaud's dissolution of the autonomous work in favor of interactive scenes for alternative forms of community, these contemporary concepts are inconceivable without his earlier subversion of the relationship of authority between the work of art, the art space, and the visitor.
At the beginning of this year, Walther's Berlin gallery Koch Oberhuber Wolff presented a major museum-quality show of the artist's work. Franz Erhard Walther is currently the subject of renewed critical attention. It's only now that the extensive influence of the internationally respected, four-time documenta participant (d5 through d8) has been properly recognized-particularly on a younger generation of artists since the 1990s. Last year, with Der Gesang der Schreitbahnen the Kunstmuseum Luzern gave him a major solo show. The Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York is currently presenting Franz Erhard Walther: Work as Action. In the context of this year's Frieze Art Fair, his former student John Bock will conduct a conversation with Walther about his work and his legacy as a teacher. At the Hamburg Kunstakademie, he taught Martin Kippenberger, Jonathan Meese, and Christian Jankowski, among others. And the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld presents the exhibition Sternenstaub with approximately 500 drawn and written sheets from the years 1943 to 1973. Walther calls them a "drawn novel" because they bring together the fundamental aspects of his work-concept, reduction, materiality, process, order, and language-to form an epic story.
Deutsche Bank has been collecting the artist's works since the mid-eighties-for instance the Nachzeichnungen, his records on the various different actions. As Franz Erhard Walther explained on the occasion of his exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Luzern, the photographic documentation takes on more of a model character, while his Nachzeichnungen, for instance in the First Work Set, show "what the camera cannot record." Which is precisely that which happens between the visitors. Indeed, the social activity is what emerges in the foreground of these records.
In addition, the extensive group of Walther's works in the Deutsche Bank Collection is significant to the extent that they mirror the gradual return of his "love of the picture format," as Franz Erhard Walther admitted in 2009 in a conversation with the French art historian Erik Verhagen. The paper works of the group Gesang des Lagers, for instance, investigate how a series of wooden, fabric-covered forms ranging in size from large to small can be continually reassembled and ordered according to their different bright coloration. Even if their surfaces invite the viewer to take part in the haptic experience of touching or leaning on them, this late group of works commands the optical experience of the picture format, from which Walther had so radically departed over four decades previously.
Franz Erhard Walther
Sternenstaub. Ein gezeichneter Roman
Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld
10/23/2011 - 2/5/2012
Franz Erhard Walther: Work as Action
Franz Erhard Walther: Work Stages
13 March – 28 April 2012
Drawing Room, London
Walther's first solo exhibition in the UK. A selection of works that span the length of his fifty-year career, from the ground-breaking artistic experiments of the 1960s to the artist’s latest retrospective and autobiographical drawing project.