Michael Lingner

Franz Erhard Walther

Instruments visibles ou instruments de vision?

Many twentieth-century avant-garde works are no longer directly identifiable as works of art. They present few, if any, morphological similarities with the objects that have been called art in the past. Moreover, the structure of these works is so totally closed in on itself that direct - sensory or emotional - access to them is all but impossible. Similarly, past speculation on the nature of art does not help us understand the avant-garde, because every avant-garde invention entails a redefinition of what art is. In short, the avant-garde has created a situation where people must know that what they are looking at is art in order to experience it as art. This situation sums up the difficulty of trying to come to grips with the twentieth-century avant-garde.

When one reaches a point where the crucial question of whether certain objects are art can be answered neither on a conceptual nor on a personal or emotional level, the only thing one can do - short of letting the current slew of self-appointed experts settle the matter - is to try to reason things out. It would be absurd to hope, and presumptuous to claim, that rational analysis will lead to a global definition of the nature of art or to an objective aesthetic judgment, but it does make it possible to formulate working hypotheses on whether, or at least to what extent, a work raises issues that link it to the general evolution of art. This approach neither presupposes nor creates any judgments on a particular object's aesthetic value. It is simply a way of determining whether an object should or should not be classified as art. This test must take account of the evolution that led to the creation of a given work in the general framework of an artist's career, and of broader issues the work raises in relation to the history of art. The better one elucidates these historical references, and the conceptual underpinnings of an artist's work as a whole, the surer one will be about when an object is really art. Following Goethe, who observed that man sees only what he knows, I would argue that a satisfying experience of contemporary artworks can be achieved only through knowledge of broader issues in the history of art. That, at least, is what the case of Franz Erhard Walther has led me to conclude, for his works hinge on a radically new way of perceiving art.

In the '60s and '70s Walther turned objects into instruments to be used by the viewer, and his later Mural Formations (Wandformationen) cannot be understood without some knowledge of what came before them. Walther's treatment of objects was an outgrowth of his attitude to "informal" art. In the early 1960s Walther (born in 1939) lost interest in "informal" abstraction, which was then the dominant style. But the widespread notion that "informal" abstract painting would have to lead to the zero degree of total formlessness continued to fascinate him. He experimented with ways of radicalizing the notion of "informal" art, of "going back to the starting point, where nothing has a form yet, and everything has just begun to be formed." Thus, quite logically, Walther avoided anything tending to determine form or create illusion. Instead of using paper as a surface to be filled with subjective forms (i.e., invented by himself), he exploited paper's inherent qualities, and produced quasi-objective forms by relying on elementary operations like folding, gluing, tearing, and staining. Almost inevitably, these works were three-dimensional, and the material's role in creating the work became increasingly pronounced. A chance event announced the next stage in Walther's liberation from the way artists had traditionally worked. A bucket he was using to press down a collage sprang a leak, and the paper was soaked. As it dried, it took on new and unexpected forms. This accident showed the artist the possibility of limiting his role to triggering a transformational process. Choosing various types of paper and a range of transformational agents, he stood back and let their interaction produce his works. At first, the transformational processes, which began in 1962 and eventually came to be known as "process art," were used to create abstract pictures. But then the process started to involve how objects were placed, stacked, or arranged - that is, the viewer's perception of them. Walther then discovered another formal principle that reduced the artist's role even further. For the usable "objects" in the First Set of Works (1. Werksatz 1963-69), he replaced the material transformation of paper, a relatively short and self-contained process, by the theoretically infinite process of perception. By calling on the viewer to invent his own mental form, Walther modified the traditional conception of the material artwork in a fundamental way. Everything that could act on "objects" - time, place, thought, language, emotion - became the matter of art. In other words, as the artist stopped producing material works the public started producing mental (i.e., immaterial) ones.

In point of fact, the "objects" were not really works at all. Rather, they were instruments whose appearance was determined by function, and which served to general works. These instruments were made not to be looked at, but rather to be mentally manipulated by the public. Vision played a very limited role: significantly, one of the major pieces in the first set was entitled Blind Object. Only in the Second Set of Works (from the 1970s), which included pieces such as Standing and Advancing Elements (Stand und Schreitstücke) and Bases (Sockel), did Walther "rediscover optics." That rediscovery cleared the way for the Mural Formations, which reflect the artist's decision to treat earlier experiences and experiments in visual terms rather than as purely mental blueprints.

What had been mostly abstract and left to the imagination in the thousands of earlier drawings took on visual reality and became materially, sensorially perceptible. The Mural Formations are pictorial and sculptural in a way the earlier works were not. They tell us they are works of art, and their existence does not depend on the public's processes of perception. Whereas the "objects" in the First Set of Works hid from outer vision and exemplified a radical dematerialization of the work, the Mural Formations make the work as visible as possible. In this respect, like the autonomous works of traditional art, they can be looked at in a totally conventional way, which is not to say - and this is what accounts for their special place in contemporary art - that they cannot also function as instruments. The fact that the Mural Formations propose aesthetic stimuli and contain numerous references to the history of art (columns, cornices, and formal fragments) does not keep them from functioning as instruments. Paradoxically enough, the recognition and use of the material's aesthetic possibilities, and the abandonment of formal principles emphasizing function in order to dematerialize the work, strengthens the functional aspect of the works. The Mural Formations resemble instruments far more than the earlier Objects do, because the multiple ways in which they might be used are obvious for all to see. They can inspire imaginary actions in the viewer, which is why they are also potential, intellectual instruments. They facilitate the viewer's journey to and into them, and make it easier for him to use them as instruments of real, physical action. In any case, the viewer is treated as a material, too, and he is asked to transform himself into a representational sculptural figure, without which the work would remain unfinished.

Translated by Charles Lynn Clark.

Franz Erhard Walther at the Preussischer Kulturbesitz Museum, Berlin, until May; at the Galerie Gilbert Brownstone, Paris, from April 15 through May 24; at the Kunstverein, Düsseldorf, in June; at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, in October; at the Winterthur Kunsthalle and at the Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels, in November.

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