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Svea Bräunert
DAAD Visiting Associate Professor in German studies, University of Cincinnati
Former Fulbright Fellow, Washington University in St. Louis, and guest curator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Bill II and Little Crazy Column belong to a group of column-shaped sculptures that Isa Genzken produced between 1994 and 2003. The columns are slender pillars that are slightly above human height, making for a vertical impression without appearing monumental. Their surfaces are adorned with inexpensive yet shiny and at times outright gaudy materials from everyday life, including mirrored tiling, reflective and overlaid holographic foil, and multicolored industrial tape; in the case of Bill II, there are also photographs from popular American cookbooks and magazines. With their collage of quotidian materials, their vertical orientation reminiscent of skyscrapers (albeit in miniature), and their use of a sculptural idiom, the columns are typical of Genzken’s approach, for although her oeuvre is heterogeneous, architecture, sculpture, modernism, and the readymade remain touchstones of her artistic practice. The alignment of these principles in the columns makes for a highly intriguing and at times outright dizzying viewing experience, which is playful with serious implications.

A significant part of that tension is mediated by the collaged surfaces, as can be seen in Little Crazy Column and its realization of the term crazy. According to the Oxford Dictionary, crazy has its origin in the late sixteenth century, when its meaning was “full of cracks”: “The root here is the verb to craze (Late Middle English), which is now ‘to drive mad, send crazy’ or ‘to develop a network of small cracks’ but originally meant ‘to break in pieces, shatter.’ So a crazy person has had their sanity shattered. Crazy formerly meant ‘broken, damaged’ and ‘frail, unwell, infirm.’”1 The fragmented and pieced-together surface of Little Crazy Column enacts that Late Middle English meaning of crazy. For even though it is adorned with shiny materials, the surface is also literally full of cracks and is broken where one pattern of mirrored tiles meets another. Gaps open up between them, revealing the column’s base structure. Paint is dripped all over, and neon-colored industrial tape is plastered on top of the mirroring surfaces, in some parts in monochrome pink and in others in layers of different colors. The tape is crumpled, and air pockets have formed, which contributes to the general impression that, despite its glitzy surface, Little Crazy Column is not a sleek and impenetrable pillar or tower. Rather, it is defined by a handmade quality that at times tips over into the untidy, broken, damaged, and frail—it is, in a word, crazy.

Furthermore, the column’s positively crazy dimension plays out not only in the realm of the sculpture’s materiality but also in that of a viewer's perception. For it is not just the column that is full of small cracks; the viewer’s body image also becomes fractured. Little Crazy Column’s mirrored surfaces allow for an encounter between viewer and sculpture by reflecting both body and gaze, thus furthering the column’s social dimension.2 Instead of generating holistic physiognomies, however, the reflections create fragmented bodies that are reminiscent of the ways in which a digital image collapses into discernible pixels when blown up to the point at which figuration tips over into abstraction. This physical-optical disintegration occurs in instances in which the colorful tape disrupts the silver coating and, in the mirror image, both dissects and becomes part of one’s body. There are also cases in which the cracks between the mirroring tiles and their divergent patterns make for an image in which body parts appear in different sizes and at various angles and the body—and with it the experience of the viewing subject—is broken up into pieces. It is in these moments that the contemporary notion of crazy comes to the fore, including references to madness and extreme enthusiasm, but also, such as when speaking of angles, to something that appears absurdly out of place or unlikely or to something you do to an extreme degree and with great intensity. In that sense too, Little Crazy Column is crazy, and it conveys its craziness to viewers by constantly displacing, shifting, and fragmenting their experiences of vision, perception, and the physical self.

While craziness, bodily fragmentation, and looking askew may suggest a negative or even clinical state of mind, this is not necessarily the meaning of crazy in its crossover definition between Late Middle and contemporary English, and it is certainly not what Genzken’s Little Crazy Column effects. For one, there is a powerful dimension of cultural criticism in her work. As Lawrence Weiner has said about her, Genzken is one of those people who are “not happy with society as they see it” and who continually attempt to criticize society.3 The columns realize that criticism through a mediation of alienation and relationality, which viewers enact, among other things, in the encounter with the mirroring surfaces that let them experience the work and the self in a mutual state of associative dissociation. Still, stimulation, exuberance, and playfulness are equally important aspects of that viewing experience. They come into play particularly when looking at the bronze- and purple-colored holographic foil that adorns Little Crazy Column. The circular patterns within the holographic foil are reminiscent of old-fashioned television sets screening one’s crazy self-productions many times over. Moving in front of them, one becomes witness to a disco swirl that is lively and upbeat yet highly disorienting. The world around me seems to be dancing. Or is it me who is making the world spin?4 An uncertainty arises that is indicative of a merging between sculpture and viewer, thus confusing the divide between an aesthetic of production and an aesthetic of reception.

While the mirroring surfaces play a crucial part in creating a relational effect, the works’ titles are also important. Genzken named several of her columns after friends and colleagues—including Wolfgang Tillmans (Wolfgang, 1998), Kai Altho (Kai, 2000), and Daniel Buchholz (Daniel, 1999)—and also named one after herself (Isa, 2000). Bill II is one of four columns named after her longtime friend Wilhelm (Bill) Schnell, an artist based in New York.5 Naming the columns after friends and colleagues places them not just in a familiar context but also into a familial one, which is reinforced by the fact that they are often “exhibited in sociable groups of three or more.”6 The familial constellation makes for an intimate and highly reciprocal setting in which relations are established and solidified by looking and being looked at. As Marianne Hirsch writes: “The familial look . . . is not the look of a subject looking at an object, but a mutual look of a subject looking at an object who is a subject looking (back) at an object. Within the family, as I look I am always also looked at, seen, scrutinized, surveyed, monitored. Familial subjectivity is constructed relationally, and in these relations I am always both self and other(ed), both speaking and looking subject and spoken and looked at object: I am subjected and objectified.”7

The familial gaze enacted by the columns works in a similar way—and not just because the columns’ mirroring surfaces literally look back at the viewer and make her feel “subjected and objectified” at the same time. For beyond the direct and immediate exchange between sculpture and viewer and sculpture and sculpture, there is also an exchange on the level of discourse, particularly where it concerns architecture, modernism, and the cityscape of New York. It is on that level that the seemingly autonomous artwork is pulled into a network of real-life references that are familiar and have to do with everyday life in the city.

The columns’ connection with New York is first and foremost established by making reference to the skyscraper as a sculptural form and by integrating everyday materials from the streets and shop fronts of Manhattan.8 In Bill II the latter aspect is present in the form of photographs showing foods, such as corn on the cob, pretzels, and different kinds of German-style whole wheat bread. Pulled from old-fashioned yet still popular American cookbooks and magazines, such as the Betty Crocker Cookbook and Better Homes and Gardens, these images clearly differ from the highly stylized food photography that we encounter nowadays on Instagram or Facebook. Some of the images are details or close-ups that are hard to recognize at first. Some have faded in color and vibrancy, which makes them reminiscent of the displays on food carts on the streets of Manhattan, where such images are supposed to attract customers yet can sometimes also have the opposite effect. A similar tension of attraction and repulsion is at play in Bill II. The column employs the metaphor of food and eating as a mediator between inside and outside, familiar and strange, self and other. In that, it points to the social and relational dimension of eating, which is in line with the irrefutable yet always challenging impulse in Genzken’s columns to connect—with the world and with others.

The impulse to connect is part of the artist’s “effort not to represent the world but to be part of it—in other words, to be modern.”9 It takes the form of an indexical relationship with the real, which is most notable in the sculpture’s use of common materials and is supplemented further by the integration of photographs. In Genzken’s oeuvre, sculpture and photography share a certain kind of realism that, according to Laura Hoptman, “forms one of the pillars of [her] assemblage aesthetic. The link between the two seemingly diverse mediums was made . . . through the idea that a photograph itself is a thing in the world and, as such, can stand for the thing that it depicts.”10 By applying photographs to Bill II, Genzken establishes a direct connection to the materiality of everyday life, thereby emphasizing both the column’s indexical thrust and its social dimension. It is a dimension that exists in tandem with the sculpture’s claim to be an autonomous artwork, thereby navigating an intriguing set of paradoxes, including alienation and relationality, autonomy and sociality, art and real life. Navigating the tension that arises within the fractures of these concepts and thus applying a positively crazy view to things, the columns invite us to experience some of the contradictions that make up our contemporary world, the places we inhabit, and the relations we strive to maintain.

  • 1 Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “crazy,” accessed June 2, 2016,
  • 2 The social claim of the mirroring surfaces in Genzken’s work is made explicit in the title of her series Social Facades (2002), which consists of twenty-five abstract collages in various reflective materials, including faux mirrors and mosaic and hologram foils, that are similar to those used in the columns and create comparable visual effects and viewing experiences.
  • 3 Lawrence Weiner, in the documentary This Is Isa Genzken, produced by the Museum of Modern Art in 2013,
  • 4 Focusing on the similarities with dancing, Diedrich Diederichsen has compared the columns to feelings experienced during the early days of electronic music: “to be self-absorbed, tall and alone, and yet surrounded by others, and to know that these others in their unbridgeable individual ways feel exactly the same.” Diederichsen, “Subjects at the End of the Flagpole,” in Isa Genzken: “Sie sind mein Glück,” ed. Carina Herring (Ost ldern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2000), 37.
  • 5 Two of the other Bill columns are in private collections; the third belongs to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. Thanks to Allison Unruh and Galerie neugerriemschneider for providing this information.
  • 6 Laura Hoptman, “Isa Genzken: The Art of Assemblage, 1993–2013,” in Isa Genzken: Retrospective, ed. Sabine Breitwieser et al. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 144.
  • 7 Marianne Hirsch, introduction to Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 9.
  • 8 In their thematic approach, appearance, and materials, the columns are also connected to other projects Genzken has conceived in relation to New York City, including her scrapbooks I Love New York, Crazy City (1995–96), the photographic series New York, NY (1998–2000), and the sculpture group Fuck the Bauhaus (2000).
  • 9 Hoptman, “Isa Genzken,” 132.
  • 10 Ibid., 133–34.