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Katharina Fritsch
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essay Katharina Fritsch

Katharina Fritsch thinks in pictures.1 For more than two decades, she has produced both handmade and industrially fabricated objects that begin as immaterial visions in her imagination. Fritsch mines the fertile ground of her thoughts, experiences, and dreams as well as the history, myths, and fairy tales of her native Germany in search of archetypal or clichéd images from consumer culture that transcend autobiography. At once familiar and uncanny, her often darkly subversive subjects reside in a strange and melancholy world, the nature of which is subliminal and difficult to articulate. “At the moment viewers come into the space, the important thing is that they are drawn into something that perhaps does not seem so ‘clean’ at first,” Fritsch explained in 1996, prior to mounting a major retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The fact that you perceive something, that you are astonished about something before you can identify its name or concept—these experiences are outside language.”2

Formal clarity, strict order, purposeful repetition, and multiplication of forms have also been guiding impulses that at times have led to a protracted and labor-intensive artistic process. For Fritsch, scale, dimension, proportion, and color must coalesce perfectly or the sculpture is rejected, and the process of conceptualizing begins again. Gary Garrels, curator of the 1996 retrospective, aptly explains that for this extremely exacting artist, “locating a point of tension in form and proportion that corresponds to a personal and intuitive sense of rightness is critical. She has described this search as finding a standard, a specificity of scale and material, so that an object is transformed and removed from its ordinary function or association, existing apart from its normal circumstances.”3

In 1979, Fritsch moved from her parents’ house in Münster to Düsseldorf in order to study with Fritz Schwegler at the highly competitive Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, made famous by such artists as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. Although she was admitted to the program as a painter, Fritsch soon began exploring model-making. Some of these early handmade pieces include miniature architectural structures reminiscent of those found in the cities of Essen and Langenberg, where she spent her early years—a tapered, cylindrical brick chimney; a tunnel constructed out of wax; and a gray plastic mill building complete with gabled roof and water wheel. The heterogeneity of these forms is due to their varied sources in the artist’s childhood memories.4

Fritsch brought these works and several others together for her first public exhibition at the Kunstakademie in 1980.5 Having learned and processed the lessons of the Minimalist artists who eschewed the use of pedestals (which she negatively associates with monuments) in favor of placing sculpture directly on the floor, Fritsch distinguished herself with a somewhat radical next step. Instead of opting to present a single, floor-bound sculpture, she brought several together and placed them on top of a simple, utilitarian table. The self-conscious placement of seemingly unrelated and emotionally inflected objects in space would become integral to Fritsch’s mature artistic practice, which has taken many forms, including ephemeral performative and sound pieces, landscape architectural drawings, and large-scale installations. She has also elevated the multiple (three-dimensional editioned objects) to a position of central importance in her oeuvre.

Throughout her career, Fritsch has reused motifs by altering their size and presenting them singly or in groups. For instance, in 1982 she created Madonnenfigur (Madonna Figure), an unlimited-edition multiple and replica of a devotional figurine commemorating the 1858 miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France. Cast by hand in plaster and painted a matte finish of garish, fluorescent yellow, this former idol, intended to bolster religious fervor once the pilgrim is back home, becomes a different kind of icon. In Fritsch’s hands it is transformed into a toy and rendered banal, even ridiculous. Color itself becomes a leveler and an irritant, signaling the viewer to stop and reconsider the subject in its altered state. By also multiplying the number of possible figures infinitely, Fritsch concurrently extinguishes the aura of the source image, while maintaining what she has referred to as “a spiritual structure.”6

Two years later, this multiple became a component in a multipart piece entitled Warengestell (Display Stand) (1979–1984). Composed of five glass shelves installed with eleven other multiples by the artist—including Anturien (Anthurium) (1980), Grünes Seidentuch (Green Silk Scarf) (1982/1989), Schafe und Weisser Pappkarton (Sheep and White Cardboard Box) (1982/1990), and Fischring und Stern (Fish Ring and Star) (1983/1994), each also in the Walker Art Center’s collection—this work foregrounded her interest in the thin line between high art and kitsch, and served as a not-so-subtle critique of the commodification of art. In 1987, Fritsch turned again to the Madonnenfigur, this time for her notorious public installation of the life-size Virgin in a pedestrian area in Münster, located between a Karstadt department store and a Dominican church. Still another reinterpretation of the multiple appeared the same year as Warengestell mit Madonnen (Display Stand with Madonnas), in which two hundred eighty-eight of the objects were installed on nine round, aluminum shelves. This fluidity of purpose and context suggests the potency of her chosen subject and her achievement at finding the essence and rightness of things.

  1. See Susanne Bieber, interview with Katharina Fritsch, “Thinking in Pictures,” in Iwona Blazwick, ed., Katharina Fritsch, exh. cat. (London: Tate Publishing, 2002), 98.

  2. “Matthias Winzen in conversation with Katharina Fritsch,” in Gary Garrels and Theodora Vischer, eds., Katharina Fritsch, exh. cat. (Basel: Museum für Gegenwartskunst; San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 72, 78.

  3. Gary Garrels, “Katharina Fritsch: An Introduction,” in Katharina Fritsch (Basel, San Francisco), 18.

  4. Ibid., 16.

  5. The other objects exhibited were all created in 1979: Besen (Broom); Sträusse in Vasen (Bouquets in Vases); Schwarz-weisses Auto (Black and White Car); Grünes Futteral (Green Case); and Topfdeckel (Pan Lids).

  6. Winzen interview, 80. It is also worth noting that while many of her multiples are industrially mass-produced, the Madonnenfigur was handmade in the artist’s studio.

Carpenter, Elizabeth. “Katharina Fritsch.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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