[IMAGE: Isa Genzken, Basic Research, 1989, oil on canvas, 90 x 75 cm. ICA]
You may be forgiven for thinking that the new exhibition in the upper galleries of the ICA is a photography exhibition – micro and macro shots of the unseen, sweeping aerial views of uninhabited vistas and minute details under back lit scientific plates. In reality, Basic Research Paintings is a series of canvases made by the influential German sculptor between 1989 and 1991 when she was married to Gerhard Richter. The influences between the practices of these artists are easy to see, but they couldn’t be further apart. Rarely displayed in isolation, these murky paintings light up the space with their stark honesty and clouded mystery.
Genzken is a Goliath of 20th century art. Since the 1970s her sculptures have been swept into ever expanding national collections and biennial representations; the media hype which surrounded her in the 1980s did nothing to take the sheen off of her cultural reputation and her recent retrospective at MoMA shows that she is one of the biggest names on the international circuit.
So then, why have these paintings not had their soapbox before now?
They were created to accompany her sculptures, to be hung in the background or alongside the collaged sculptures we all know. However, they show something more when shown alone. Created by painting her studio floor with oils, Genzken then placed an un-stretched canvas over the ground and used a squeegee to record the concrete.
Basic Research Paintings aren’t ‘basic’ but they do demonstrate the basis of a lot of things. Representational art, according to Didi-Huberman, has its foundations in frottage. Recording the tactile topography of a surface is an impulse which occupied the earliest artists and artists at their earliest: Genzken herself said that the process took her back to her childhood. The series speaks of painting itself, of an earlier form of painting. From Duchamp to Bacon and Richter, painting in the 20th century has been ‘photographic’ in some respect. You can’t not see through the eyes of modern man. However, Genzken’s painting predates and anticipates photography in its simplicity and method. Light, dark, high, low, transposing the inverse of a surface; they are closer to prints than painting as we imagine.
And on top of all this they have both a personal and a powerful social significance. In using her body to scrape the floor with her squeegee, Genzken is limited by her arm span, and therefore the largest canvases (of which the ICA shows two) measure the artist in her body and in her action. By recording the floor and picking up the debris of an artist working in Germany during the late 80s, creating sculptures which have been linked to the fall of the Berlin Wall, these canvases are architectural – taking up the role of illustration of the studio – the basis of an artists’ practice – and the wider cultural fabric of life at a time when uncertainties hung over many aspects of Germany.
Gregor Muir, director of the ICA and curator of Basic Research Paintings, is sympathetic to the series. They are displayed starkly but only so that they are in dialogue with the room and the viewer and not Muir’s didactic dictation. Being a friend of Genzken’s and having hung the works last year in Turin, you can see that paintings have taken on their own, renewed significance in light of this display and no doubt in part to the conversations Genzken has been forced to have around them.
Compared to Hauser and Wirth’s exhibition Gilbeld which aimed to show “self- and social-examination” in the paintings of Genzken, Basic Research Paintings strike you without being striking. They are timeless and tell a tale much larger than Genzken could have ever had imagined.
Basic Research Paintings are displayed in the Upper Galleries of the ICA, The Mall, London until 6th September 2015. Entry with day membership.