Manufacturing Dissent

It’s a Saturday afternoon in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and I’m standing in the low-slung postindustrial Berlin showrooms of a German art collector who, yearly, displays a thematic edit of her collection. This time she has consulted the Chinese zodiac: we’re invited, amid a knowing conflation of the curatorial and the dictatorial, to see serpentine lines everywhere, whatever the artist’s original intentions. Bordered by a Joachim Koester video, a Franz West seat, and a spiraling Richard Deacon sculpture, one of Charlotte Posenenske’s “Vierkantrohre” series or “Square Tubes Series”—linear assemblies of hollow, four-sided, galvanized steel tubes and angled connectors, resembling ventilation pipes—rises up python-like. The intervention, as the collector’s smile affirms, is high-toned, dumb-smart. Of all the artists numbered here, Posenenske most decidedly sanctioned her art’s reformatting in whatever shape or form the buyer desired. This zoomorphic rendering, complicatedly dated 1967–2009 and also 2013, for its conceptual inception, fabrication, and current configuration, may be cartoonish but it doesn’t violate the magnanimous modular spirit of the late German artist’s work. Rather, the specific form and private-collection context open up questions originally encoded into it, making them irrepressible.
Posenenske had been gone twenty-four years by the time this work was manufactured—her estate, administered by her second husband, Burkhard Brunn, sanctions the nonprofit sale of unlimited new versions of these works at cost—and prior to her death in October 1985 it had been over fifteen years since she cared about the art world, or at least participated in it. Famously, she began a full disengagement from contemporary art amid the ructions of 1968. At age thirty-seven, she stopped exhibiting and accepting commissions, dispatched her remaining artworks to an attic, and embarked on a degree in sociology. Focusing on factory work and assessments of its value, she devoted the rest of her life to, as Brunn puts it, “breaking asunder the rigid standardization of factory labor in favor of extended codetermination.”[1] While she studied, she and her husband wrote guiding sentences in pencil on the white headboard of their bed, including one by Goethe that translates, approximately, as: “And time and time again they raised theory to the level of practice.” The snake in the Sammlung Hoffmann was, and is, theory.


Posenenske’s theorizing, which resulted in some three hundred artworks between 1956–68—though her practice only really took off three years before she quit—was formed in what might from a distance look like a crucible of deep idealism, one that followed a harrowing childhood in Nazi Germany. In 1940, when she was nine, her father, who was Jewish (her mother was not) poisoned himself, convinced he would imminently be sent to a concentration camp. Posenenske saw the body and the shock led her to abandon the outside world and cocoon herself; she became an obsessive reader, a reader of absolutely anything. Two years later she was told that being half-Jewish she had to leave school: she “escaped deportation herself only because a sympathetic local police officer hid her file.”[2] Reinstated in education after the war’s end, she went on to study in Stuttgart with the artist Willi Baumeister, who introduced her, as Brunn has elsewhere written, “to the socially related notions of order of Neo-Plasticism (Mondrian), to the socio-revolutionary principles of creation in Soviet constructivism (El Lissitzky), and to the uncompromising ideas of progress, standardization, collective work and anonymity.”[3] These social groundings for art making would be decisive.
While a student in the early 1950s, Posenenske adopted a classically stern, minimal-modernist aesthetic: stark white walls, long travels to obtain the perfect plug socket, admiring readings of Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime (1908). At a certain point, though, she quit her studies and for unaccountable reasons— a tricky affair with Baumeister has been mooted (a photo exists of Posenenske posing nude for him)—relocated to the city of Lübeck and joined a theater group, working as a stage designer from 1952 to 1955. (Again, here one might feel the components of her later work, with its farsighted, proto-relational participatory aspect and neo-Constructivist industrial aesthetic, snapping together.) When she renewed her art practice in the mid-1950s, Posenenske again accentuated the industrial, the impersonal: her “Rasterbilder” (Raster images) paintings of 1956–57, graphic patterns of circles and semicircles, suggest primitive electronic imagery; her “Spachtelarbeiten” (Palette-knife works), and “Spritzbilder” (Sprayed pictures) (both 1964), none publicly exhibited in her lifetime, furthered an impersonal mode of abstraction divorced from the hand and rooted in the prewar European modernism she had studied. From here, Posenenske unwaveringly worked away from flatness, first toward the self-exposing illusionistic depth of her “Plastiches Bilder” (Sculptural pictures, 1965–66)—assured conversations between folded surfaces and advancing and receding colors—and later the more explicitly objectified 1967 “Reliefs” series, wherein she transitioned, too, to the amendable form. (After this, color fades out, natural light henceforth employed as a collaborator, providing differently shadowed and illuminated aspects of white and gray surfaces.)
All of which would only count for so much had Posenenske not, as she went, also rigorously dissolved her own authority. By 1967 when she dreamed up the “Square Tubes Series” and began having them fabricated in steel and corrugated pasteboard, her conception of authorship and ownership had expanded and sophisticated radically. Equal in “producing” the sculptures, her “coauthors” included collectors, promoters, steel workers, transporters, installers, and “spiritual and financial supporters.” The work, as she saw it, was akin to factory goods—she labeled her audience “consumers”—and was expressly a collective achievement. Collectivity extended to the owners refashioning the work’s parts however they liked, and to Posenenske exhibiting outside of the gallery system—which she already had issues with—on a traffic island in Offenbach, for example. (Her sculptures, needless to say, were unsigned.) “The elements are reproducible, and the circulation is unlimited,” she wrote, in 1968: “The parts are similar to prefabricated assembly parts, but are distinct from these in that they lack a use value and make a claim to be art. Aside from this claim, everything else about them is controllable.”[4]
One might, as others have, see the “Square Tubes Series” as superbly drafted concords between the art world and the factory floor, undercutting the exclusivity and privilege of the one with a sharp blast of reality—and egoless communality— from the other. But Posenenske, who had seen the horrific side of systematic industrialization via the Nazi regime, departs from the chimerical tenets of Constructivism in decisive ways, and it’s notable that in their echoes of and retreats from industrial conditions, the “Square Tubes Series” foreshadow the real-world quandaries of industrial standardization that she would spend her “second” career working to ameliorate. They are standardized objects designed to behave in non-standardized ways: they restore power to owners, they’re intended to be unruly and subjectively slanted, they remain in flow. They reacted to the art market’s profiteering preference for the unique, the one-off, but also to a narrow conformist ideology telescoped into labor practice.
Yet they fell short in one important way. Although they redistributed authorship, the “Square Tubes Series” did not allow audience interaction within the exhibition space. The nearest Posenenske came to this was in a 1967 group show—put together by future dealer Paul Maenz and artist Peter Roehr, lasting two hours and ten minutes, featuring art that couldn’t be taken away, and entitled “All This, Sweetie, Will One Day Be Yours”—at Galerie Dorothea Loehr, a former farm building on the outskirts of Frankurt. Here, as archival photographs demonstrate, four men wearing Lufthansa overalls repeatedly reconfigured the artist’s cumbrous cardboard-tube structures, responding to factors including the weather and the number of viewers. That, in the compelling post facto logic of Posenenske’s progress, is why the “Drehflügel” (Turning leaves, or Turning wings) works were necessary, why they constitute a pellucid endpoint. In these 1967–68 object/environments, hinged panels can be opened or closed by viewers. Even as she made them, however, Posenenske was already just about done. “It is painful for me to face the fact that art cannot contribute to the solution of urgent social problems,” she wrote, in Offenbach, in a statement on her work for the Swiss journal Art International, published in May 1968.[5] Sometime later she refused an invitation to propose a public art project in West Germany, writing that she resented how art was now an “alibi” used to soft-pedal “the slums of the future.”[6]
The Occam’s razor reading of this is that Posenenske had swung art as close to reality as possible and found it lacking, and had also been overtaken by events. In a year of rambunctious political activism she was asking her audience to enter a gallery and daintily revolve some metal sheets, as if doing so would transform society in a trickle-down way while streets burned. While it pressured the context, this manifestly wasn’t enough. A more affirming interpretation—that of art historian Christine Mehring, for example, who says that Posenenske, despite espousing hopeful aspects of her era’s new interconnectedness, “was never an idealist”[7]—is that her works were a thrown towel,
designed to illuminate the limits of art’s agency, and that hands-on sociological work was not a disavowal of her previous position but absolutely continuous with it. (First, perform the limits of art vis-à-vis social change; second, do something that really contributes to it.) This, arguably, is to overlook the word “painful” in her 1968 statement,[8] and the fact that industrial sociology, as an alternative, is not directly “political” but academic.
More tenable might be a reading wherein Posenenske was lengthily trying, through her actions, to get somewhere and was honest enough to say when she hit an unassailable wall—a journeying and an ethical steadfastness that ought to be considered courageous enough in itself. Some artists seek and others find, Picasso noted; it seems obvious which Posenenske was, and the search went on inside and outside art. The latter, and sociological studies, might be construed as the accommodating acts of someone negotiating lifelong between working- and middle-class roots, between a learned love of idealistic art and its apparent underperformance in the real world (and in an art world that preaches to a miscellany of the converted and the disengaged), between political consciousness and what she could best do to live up to it.
Maybe her irresolution never stopped. Note this, as virtually none of her commentators do: “Shortly before she died,” Brunn writes, “Charlotte Posenenske returned to art.”[9] She stored the artworks that she “still accepted” in one room of her house, tossing out all the others—Brunn says he smashed them with a hammer. When Maenz asked to show her work, she was “very pleased and agreed to show her works which had not been presented for 20 years.” Maybe she did want to come back, and maybe backsliding is not so terrible, illustrative as it might be of an art industry whose witch’s brew of virtue and vice it is endlessly hard to be conclusive about. What kind of virtue is silence if your stand is forgotten by art history, as—at that time for Posenenske—it seemingly had been?
These questions remain forever tabled because the only person who could say for sure isn’t around to answer them, and it’s difficult otherwise to disentangle truth from vested interests. Posenenske, modular even in death, becomes who her commentators want her to be (“our bad conscience”);[10] gallerists and curators and ex-husbands always have something to gain. We are left to examine our own pieties concerning a handful of ideas: that art making represents some kind of acme of engagement with “urgent social problems” rather than a salve, that it should operate parallel to political activism and should enact change at the same speed, that the artist has to be consistent, even, in their thinking. Contention is there, too, concerning where art stops—whether the category, if one was once an artist, arcs over the whole life. In its irresolution as narrative, Posenenske’s portmanteau career keeps these issues in abiding play.


For a couple of decades, her work flickered intermittently in the art world. There was a survey in 1986 (the one at Maenz’s gallery, her first solo showing since 1969) and a thin sprinkling of others up to 1990—including some installations set up by Brunn in fruit-and-vegetable markets, chemical factories, and art fairs that only ran a single day. During the 1990s, as art became increasingly characterized by precisely the type of interactive, audience-privileging strategies Posenenske pioneered, she was somehow nowhere. It was her work’s reappearance in 2007’s documenta 12, curated by Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, that launched its widespread reappraisal, ironically so since one of Posenenske’s final acts as an artist was to protest against the documenta 4 of 1968. There she involved herself in contrarian activities, for example, handing out flyers that pointed out how such exhibitions “blind us to social misery and the deplorable state of affairs in society.”[11] (No mention was made of this, unsurprisingly, in the documenta 12 catalogue.)
From this point, amid an apotheosis of the art market that would surely have disgusted her, the cultural resurrection proceeded apace: gallery shows, retrospectives in Zurich, Paris, Antwerp, and New York, appearances in themed group exhibitions, a monograph. In 2010, at New York’s Artists Space—Posenenske’s first US institutional solo—a different New York–based artist was invited every second weekend to reconfigure the work, including Rirkrit Tiravanija and Ei Arakawa. Here the “Square Tubes Series” were once more restyled: as cultural capital, as literal “connectors” between a late rediscovered refusenik—a distaff Bartleby—and another generation of relational practitioners, as romantic inspiration, as commodity. The venue republished Posenenske’s sayonara to art in a booklet and on its website. “Though art’s formal development has progressed at an increasing tempo, its social function has regressed,” she had written forty-two years earlier.[12] Following this, she had stood outside the entrance to documenta handing out a broadside that read, in part, “You culture vultures, so here you are all gathered together to chat and lie and talk crap so as to gain the upper hand.”[13] A small reception was held to mark each changeover of the New York show. Picture Charlotte Posenenske looking down, half-amused. Picture her looking away.

1. Burkhard Brunn, Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985): Erinnerungen an die Künstlerin (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2005), 119.
2. Christine Mehring, “Public Options: The Art of Charlotte Posenenske,” Artforum, September 2010, 275.
3. Burkhard Brunn, “For an Introduction,” in Charlotte Posenenske, ed. Museum für Moderne Kunst (Frankfurt am Main: Museum für Moderne Kunst, 1990), 5.
4. Cited in Christophe Cherix, ed., In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 108. Originally published in Charlotte Posenenske, Art & Project Bulletin 1 (September 1968).
5. Charlotte Posenenske, “Statements,” Art International 12, no. 5 (May 1968): 50.
6. Cited in “Charlotte Posenenske an einem Bauunternehmer,” Egoist 1 (1970): 17.
7. Mehring, “Public Options,” 277.
8. Tellingly, Mehring translates it differently, more adamantly, as: “I find it difficult to accept that art cannot contribute to the solution of pressing social problems” (ibid., 273).
9. Brunn, “Biography,” in Charlotte Posenenske, 79.
10. Mehring, “Public Options,” 273.
11. Cited in Brunn, Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985), 117.
12. See
13. Cited in Brunn, Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985), 117.