Michael Lingner

Franz Erhard Walther

Between seeing and being

Many twentieth-century avant-garde works are no longer directly identifiable as works of art. They present few, if any, morphological similarities with such 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 do not lead to a better understanding of avant-garde, because the astonishing inventions peculiar to the avant-garde always entail a redefinition totally strange to any existing conception of what art is. In short, the avant-garde has created a situation where people must know 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 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 valid 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 artistic issues that link it to the general evolution of art. This approach neither presupposes nor creates any judgments on a particular object's aesthetical 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 individual 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 The better one elucidates these historical references, and the conceptual underpinnings of an artist's work as a whole will increase and the surer one will be about when an object is really art. In accordance with Goethe, who observed that man sees only what he know, 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 true in the case of Franz Erhard Walther, for his works require action as a radically new way of perceiving art.

How Walther came to turning art objects into instruments to be used by the viewer - and his later "Wandformationen" (Mural Formations) would have been inconceivable without this consequence - can only be understood through Walther's extremely individual attitude to "informal" art. As early as the beginning 1960s Walther (° 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 radicalising the notion of "informal" art, in that way that it really means "the informal ...", "going back to the starting point, where nothing has a form yet, and everything has just begun to be formed." Thus, quite logically, in his works from this period, Walther avoided anything tending to determine form or create illusion. Instead of using paper as a surface to be filled with subjective forms, the exploited paper's inherent qualities as a quasi objected potential of form 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 an unexpected form. 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 became an absolute rule with is known as process art, "informal" pictures were more and more turned into objects. It was unavoidable that Walther manipulated these objects during and after the formational process, and he increasingly accepted the way they placed, stacked, or arranged as a generally valid form of their reception and deliberately conceived them to be manipulated this way. With the viewers active reaction and manipulating process thus become necessary, Walther then discovered another form principal that reduced the artist's role even further. For in the usable "objects" in the "1. Werksatzes" ("First Sets of Works", 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 and immaterial) ones.

In point of fact, the "objects" were not really works at all. They were rather 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 an extremely limited role. Significantly, one of the major pieces in the first set was entitled "Blindobjekt" (Blind Object). Only in the "2.Werksatz" (Second Set of Works, from the 1970s), which included pieces such as "Stand- und Schreitstücken" (Standing and Advancing Elements) and "Sockeln" (Bases), did Walther "rediscover optics" as he calls it himself. That rediscovery cleared the way for the "Wandformationen", 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, censorially perceptible. Therefore the "Wandformationen" 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 of the "1. Werksatz" hid from outer vision and exemplified a radical dematerialization of the work, Walthers "Wandformationen" have regained a material highly visual character. With their columns, cornices and their variety of formal fragments they can be looked at in a totally conventional way. But the fact that the "Wandformationen" propose aesthetic stimuli and contain numerous references to the history of art does by no means keep them from functioning as instruments. By abandoning the purely functional principals of artistic formation and emphasizing the aesthetical side in the "Wandformationen", Walther reduces the actual instrumentality of the work but on the other hand their optical instrumentality gets strengthened: the "Wandformationen" resemble instruments far more than the earlier "Objects" do.

Walther's artistic development away from real action is often considered as an abandonment of his original intentions. It can easily get out of sight that the special form of "visual instrumentality" proper to the "Wandformationen" makes another, as it were, hypothetical action possible. Therefore this concept of action can probably be more easily explained taking the example of another contemporary artistic contribution: Haim Steinbach, referring to Walther's oeuvre, points out that his works which "emphasize the form of presentation predominant in our society", through their "immediate accessibility ... produce a series of conditional reflexes." The viewer involuntarily induced e.g. to displace in his mind the objects displayed on shelves, to exchange them or take them away. The inducement to reflex can lead to hypothetical action without a voluntary previous decision. The artistic invitations to action in the 1960s referring to this have mostly failed. Steinbach most obviously wishes his works to be understood as a pragmatic solution to just this problem. He explicitly declares that "the objects are delivered to the viewer's influence" and that his works "define a platform of equality between the artist, the work and the viewer", in the end that "the viewer has the possibility to be an artist himself".

The idea of hypothetical action to be found also in Walther's "Wandformationen", ameliorates and extends not only the viewer's possibilities of action, it is moreover not in least opposed to an actual use of the works. As virtual instruments, the "Wandformationen" can inspire imaginary actions, and thus they facilitate the viewer's journey to and into 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 representative sculptural figure, without which the work would remain unfinished. This work is for its author no object of contemplation different from himself, he himself is the work. To him is disclosed the fundamental difference between perception and existence, seeing and being.

Michael Lingner (b 1950) is professor Art Theory at the Academy of Arts, Hamburg.

Franz Erhard Walther at Galerie Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, 13.9 -20.10.1990.


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