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Günther Uecker’s bristling œuvre

[04 Dec 2018]

We need images to communicate the unspeakable

In some ways, the work of German artist Günther Uecker seems like a synthesis of Lucio Fontana’s logic with that of Yves Klein, who he knew well. The purpose of art? To go beyond words… to open the door to immateriality and transcendence while remaining rooted in everyday life. As an ordinary everyday material, Uecker chose the nail a raw and intrusive object that he has used repeatedly to enhance the artistic qualities of an exceptional and prolific œuvre.

Hammered poetry…

For Günther UECKER, nails have a personal and poignant significance. He has been using nails with remarkable consistency for 50 years, planted them in wood, canvases, chairs and even televisions. a logical and poetic result of the artist’s direct personal experience. As a teenager, Günther Uecker found himself obliged to nail boards to his doors and windows to protect his sisters and mother from the arrival of Russian soldiers. As a young man Uecker experienced intense fear and horror during the Second World War, including having to bury the rotting bodies of soldiers killed by a British bombardment on a beach. He was just 14 or 15 at the time, but does not remember exactly anymore… an inexpressible trauma that left indelible traces. After the war, he dedicated himself entirely to art to get over the past and provide a language-transcending response to the barbarity he had witnessed.

The first work stuck with nails was a portrait carved in wood of his sister Rotraut (who married Yves KLEIN). To express the strong bond he felt with this sister, Uecker transformed the carved head into a spikey and somewhat fetishised portrait, giving it a radiant energy. He was about twenty at the time. Thereafter, he began using nails repeatedly, developing an extremely precise technique, taking the lengths of his fingers as the standard values for the spaces between the nails. In the repetition of this simple but rigorous act – planting nails into the surface of things – Uecker invented a ritual, but never lost sight of the notion that his work was simply a vehicle for artistic expression. Uecker is not seeking to create optical illusions; his art is a means of communication… a way to express experience.

Concentric lines, centrifugal movements, the effects of light and shade, hypnotic repetitions… by a process of accumulation, the artist has created a language of light and shade, offering optical structures that reach out towards the viewer, generating a vibration that reaches the spirit beyond any physical or ‘authoritarian presence. The use of nails is fundamental because the shadows shift as the light changes angle thereby making time visible. Each nail can therefore be perceived as a gnomon, a sundial indicating the advance of time. As in the work of Pierre SOULAGES, the modulations of daylight give an almost cosmic dimension to his works.

Career and prices

After attending the Düsseldorf School of Fine Arts in Germany and Berlin-Weißensee (1949-1953), Günther Uecker became friends with Yves Klein who married his sister Rotraut in 1962. Through Klein, Uecker met Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, founders of the ZERO group (Düsseldorf) whom he joined in 1961, while Klein, Tinguely, Arman and Spoerri, initially close to the ZERO group, gave birth to New Realism in France. For his first exhibition with the ZERO group (Schmela Gallery, 1961), Günther Uecker painted a whole street in white. Walking in the wet paint, the visitors actually spread their white footprints throughout the space, a metaphor of a new beginning that seemed to summarize the ethos of the Zero group.

ZERO is silence, ZERO is beginning, ZERO is round, ZERO turns …”. ZERO was a kind of return to zero the after World War IIa clean slate a starting point for new artistic research. The viewer’s participation was often required in exhibitions that only lasted as long as the opening. In 1962, Uecker and the other group members participated in the ZERO exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. After the group’s breakup in 1966, Uecker met John CAGE and discovered Conceptual and Body art. His career gained new momentum with his participation in Kassel’s Documenta 4 in 1968 and then at the Venice Biennale in 1970, but honours and international recognition came much later: in 1996 Uecker was elected a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts, then appointed Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2001. His first retrospective in Germany did not take place until 2010 (at the Ulmer Museum) and he had his first major exhibition in France in 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art in Saint Etienne. Günther Uecker’s work is today present in the collections of lots of leading museums including the Buffalo Art Institute of Chicago, the MoMA and Guggenheim in New York, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.

Although Uecker counts among the major artists of our time, his prices have remained much more restrained than lots of other artists from his generation like Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana or Piero Manzoni. But his auction prices are currently rising with his annual turnover posting seven times what it was a decade ago and his price index up 330% since the year 2000. While his work is still very rare in American prestige sales, London has clearly taken a stand in favour of the artist. Several excellent results have been recorded, including an absolute record at $3.2 million for two hypnotic studded spirals each measuring two x two metres at Christies in March 2017 (Spirale I-II). The price of this pair of works doubled between the sale of two identical spirals in Cologne in December 2016 and the London a year later. Year after year, Günther Ueckers prices are gradually catching up slightly with those of Lucio Fontana whose work maintains a similar metaphysical relation to space. However, compared with Fontana’s current prices there is still a huge gap since Fontana has already crossed the $10 million dollars line on 13 occasions over the last ten years. Today, over 70% of Uecker’s lots sell above $100,000, mostly in Germany, his home country, which generates half of his annual auction turnover (versus 34% in the UK).

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