CHARLOTTE POSENENSKE IS A MIRROR TO OUR BAD CONSCIENCE. In May 1968--as the revolutionary ambitions of the '60s reached their pinnacle--the thirty-seven-year-old West German artist expressed her struggle to reconcile her artistic practice with her political convictions: "I find it difficult to accept that art cannot contribute to the solution of pressing social problems," she wrote in the Switzerland-based Art International. (1) A year and a half later, she issued a less equivocal statement, tartly declining to submit a proposal for an art project in a public-housing development in Bielefeld, West Germany: "Each investment exceeding the minimum satisfaction of the actual needs [of the tenants] serves only to pretend these needs are met completely," she asserted in the significant if little-known Frankfurt-based cultural magazine EgoIst.
That is why 38,000 DM are to be invested ... for a fountain or a
sculpture. That which is supposedly no longer merely useful--art--
gives a good return for the developer. [Art] is meant to make believe
that these rabbit holes have fulfilled all needs, and that one can
now afford the beautiful. Art is supposed to advertise the slums of
the future. ... Art here has the function of an alibi. (2)
As these disparaging words suggest, Posenenske's faith in art had collapsed entirely. In fact, she had quit: quit making art, quit looking at and talking about art, quit socializing in Frankfurt's art circles, even quit her marriage to the architect Paul Friedrich Posenenske. She had taken up graduate studies in sociology and was to devote the rest of her life to researching and improving the conditions of industrial labor--a career trajectory that continues to bluntly challenge any pieties we may have regarding art's ability to make a measurable difference.
Yet more than forty years after this disavowal, Posenenske's art is
everywhere. In the years following her death from cancer in 1985 at age fifty-four, a few exhibitions kept her memory alive--at least among a select group of German art devotees. Cologne's Galerie Paul Maenz led the effort, surveying her practice in 1986. A smattering of other shows followed, notably one at Frankfurt's Museum fur Moderne Kunst in 1990. But it was only after her inclusion in Documenta 12 in 2007 that Posenenske's belated and posthumous "career" took off on the international stage, culminating in last year's publication of her catalogue raisonne and this year's trio of retrospectives at the Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and Artists Space in New York.
Posenenske's artistic practice spanned roughly seventeen years. Following studies under the German abstract painter Willi Baumeister from 1951 to 1952 at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design and work as a stage designer from 1952 through '55, she produced an impressive oeuvre of roughly three hundred works. The early work comprises the "Rasterbilder" (Raster Images), 1956-57, in which patterns of circles or dots echo the pixelations of electronic imaging; the extensive "Spachtelarbeiten" (Palette Knife Works), 1956-65, in which semi-repetitive applications of casein paint with a palette knife counter the impulsiveness of then-prevalent Informel painting; the transitional "Spritzbilder" (Sprayed Pictures) and "Streifenbilder" (Stripe Pictures), both 1964-65, in which the use of a spray gun and colored tape, respectively, reflect a similar effort to desubjectivize artmaking; and a handful of largely undated paintings and sketches for the facades of public buildings, created in collaboration with architects. What Posenenske considered her mature work includes reliefs, 1965-67, which were made by folding and unfolding metal sheets sprayed mostly in monochrome, industrial-standard shades of black, blue, red, or yellow; the variable "Vierkantrohre" (Ducts, or, literally, four-edged pipes), 1967, which were sculptures assembled from sets of galvanized steel or cardboard components; and the kinetic, semi-architectural aluminum or plywood structures known as "Drehflugel" (Turning Leaves, or Turning Wings), 1967-68. …