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Oscillating Perception:
Notes on the Work of Gunther Uecker


Last month, the Deutsche Bank Collection loaned an early graphic series by Gunther Uecker, Manual Structures, to the Ahlen Art Museum in Germany. There, it augments a collection of works by the Gruppe ZERO (ZERO Group), one of the museum's main areas of concentration. Ulrich Clewing on Uecker's famous nail pieces, his creed of creative movement, and an artist who has remained political throughout his life.


Piene Uecker Mack Zero-Demonstration, Rheinwiesen Düsseldorf,
Germany, 1962, Photo from: catalogue Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover,1972

On the evening of June 15 1962, an unusual demonstration took place on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf. Inside, in the rooms of the Kunsthalle, the exhibition Zehn Jahre Kunstpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen ( Ten Years of the North Rhine-Westphalian Art Award) had just been opened with great pomp. And outside, on the lawn along the riverbank, a young artist was busy painting a white circle on the ground with a roller. A second artist was grappling with a tripod that a huge spotlight was attached to, while a third was directing a group of young women into position, all of whom were dressed in long black robes reminiscent of monks' habits. Further white circles could clearly be seen on the women's robes. Then, the men gathered together in the newly completed circle, smiled into the camera in a friendly way, and instructed the photographer with the urgency customary to such occasions to take a picture. Finally, in casual formation, the demonstration by Mr. Mack, Mr. Piene, and Mr. Uecker shifted over to the more informal part of the evening.


Günther Uecker, 1979

Gunther Uecker, born in 1930, member of the artists' group ZERO and mastermind of the action on the banks of the river Rhine, demonstrated frequently throughout these years. Art and life, art and politics, art and ecstasy - it was all supposed to become one in the sixties and early seventies, and Uecker, brother-in-law of Yves Klein, the French happening artist who painted the brilliant blue canvases, was right in the middle of the scene. The movement wanted to achieve something new and was little impressed by bourgeois criteria.

In 1968, at the height of the student protests, a kind of squatting action was supposed to take place: together with Gerhard Richter, his friend and fellow student at the Dusseldorf art academy, he spontaneously and, of course, purely symbolically declared the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden to be his "apartment" in order to liberate the museum from its "exclusivity." This worked the other way around, too. Shortly after Baden-Baden, Uecker had an exhibition in Dortmund, where a huge nail not only perforated the projecting roof of the local department store, but his works were presented in the store windows alongside Kaufhof's regular products.


Installation in department store
Dortmund, Germany, 1968

At the time, Uecker himself, the "painting stormer," was already moving towards becoming museum material, and there was nothing to stop him. He was widely considered to be one the most important artists in Germany; his works were shown at the documenta in Kassel and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and entered important collections throughout Europe and the US. The nail objects he had been making for some time attracted most of the attention. The plain four inch-long roofing nail became the most salient trademark of his art. He'd already driven hundreds of steel nails into furniture, canvases, and all kinds of other objects of everyday use. Not least, he was interested in representing a dynamic process, always setting the nail in such a way that formations arose which conjured up the illusion of kinetic energy.


Günther Uecker, from the series: Osakaspiralen, Morgen, 1969


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