- © Estate of Charlotte Posenenske. Courtesy Collezione La Gaia, Busca, Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin
- Charlotte Posenenske, Two Series A Reliefs, 1966
Fifty-one years after Charlotte Posenenske renounced art forever, she is having her first American retrospective, at Dia:Beacon. The show opens March 8.
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1930, Posenenske, who was half-Jewish, was forced to remain in hiding during the Nazi era. After the war, she worked for several years as a set and costume designer, then began producing art in 1956. Her first influences were Cézanne and Mondrian.
Posenenske's work had a clear progression: from drawings and paintings to wall-mounted sculpture, to freestanding sculpture, to artforms that could be manipulated by viewers (whom she called "activists"). And then, in 1968, Posenenske withdrew entirely from the art world and became a sociologist. Her goal was to combat the "efficiency experts" who studied factory workers and taught them to reduce unnecessary motions, so that they could become more like machines themselves. The ex-artist died in 1985 at the age of 54.
Posenenske's art career was relatively brief: 12 years. It began in the drowsy 1950s and ended in the Year of Revolt, 1968. The way Virginia Woolf's suicide retroactively colors all her novels, Posenenske's withdrawal from art permeates her retrospective. Now her entire career looks like a retreat from the traditional role of "artist."
Posenenske's later pieces were fabricated in factories and sold at cost, so they were easily affordable. (She also switched from metal to cardboard.) Though she never said so explicitly, I suspect Posenenske feared the tragic fate of the political artist: to grow rich by exposing society's inequalities. Also, she didn't wish to monopolize the process of creation. Her last works, Series E, invite viewers to arrange the art pieces themselves, which are partitions, and thus to reshape the room. Minimalist art dissolves into architecture. In the extreme case that there's no art at all—pure minimalism—the gallery itself becomes the artwork.
- © Estate of Charlotte Posenenske. Courtesy Estate of Charlotte Posenenske, Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin and Peter Freeman, New York
- Charlotte Posenenske, Vierantrohr (Square Tube), Series D, 1967. Installation view, Offenbach, Germany, 1967.
There is a spirit of play in Posenenske's sculpture. "Her serial works are structured almost like games," remarks co-curator Alexis Lowry. Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes, 1967), resemble huge Lego blocks that may be stacked and connected in multiple ways. Curators and collectors have a great deal of freedom in displaying the works. American minimalists were often drawn to geometry because it evaded all external meaning; Posenenske made pieces that echoed the industrial landscape—particularly surreal ducts on urban rooftops. Only her colors betray her intentions. They are the colors of a toy shop, not a steel mill.
In the 1940s, Germany erected a vast machinery of death to eradicate Jews, Communists, Roma, and other undesirables. In the 1960s, as a mute protest, Posenenske created a machinery of whimsy.
Dia:Beacon is uniquely suited to this exhibition. "Her pieces work really well in the building, because they are shapes derived from industrial architecture, so the scale of the objects fits the scale of the building," notes Lowry. Dia:Beacon was originally a Nabisco factory producing cardboard boxes.
"Charlotte Posenenske: Work in Progress" will remain at Dia:Beacon from March 8 to September 9. (845) 440-0100.