Saturday, May 24, 2008
Reflections by Martha Keller on her artist exchange visit toTubingen, AANews, 10.10.89
Tubingen, in an aerial photograph on the full-color poster I brought back, resembles an abstract painting. The red tile rooftops, nestled in the hills of the Neckar River Valley, look like brushstrokes, the green trees are like a flow of paint.
Granted, my painter’s eye, if I don’t watch it, will turn everything into painting. But, living in Tubingen for three weeks as the third Ann Arbor-Tubingen exchange artist allowed me to compare notes with artists on art - an activity I regard as the ultimate in cultural exchange. I saw uncanny similarities between the artworlds of Tubingen and Ann Arbor but the differences make all the difference.
Tubingen’s heritage goes farther back than ours, way back to evidence of Neolithic and Mesolithic settlements, though the town’s name first appeared in a document in 1078 and the current town hall was built on the market place, an area comparable to our Farmer’s Market, in 1435. (With its spacious meeting rooms for large groups of people, the town hall is more functional in the late 20th Century than our own city hall is today.
For me, Tubingen exudes a special visual charm that depends on this heritage but doesn’t sleep on it. I imagine that it’s had a boost - or a boot - from its former inhabitants - from the introspective poet, Holderin, or the philosopher, Hegel, with his broad-ranging view of art and culture, toying with ideas about the end of art and history. In 1790/91, Holderin, Hegel and the philosopher Schelling lived in the same room in the Protestant Seminary. The yellow Holderin house with its tower today remains an important landmark.
In my bedroom in the city-owned apartment above the Kunstlerbund, the art association, I woke up gazing at timber beams that were five centuries old. I looked out the window at the Collegium Illustre across the street, (now a Catholic Seminary), where the Protestant nobility had been educated. A landmark in the middle of my poster photo, the Collegium is easily recognizable by its large size, square inner court, and prominent towers. Today, a recent art-site work adorns the high thick walls as small squares of primary color placed so sympathetically that they look part of the original structure.
A canal, the Ammer, ran alongside and under my building and the Collegium. A Roman road (now a pedestrian walkway) once ran alongside it in the 1st century A. D.. In medieval times, the canal carried waste from the slaughterhouse that the Kunstlerbund building once was. Close by was a nun’s convent, now an apartment building. And now, too, you see kids climbing and sliding on a large white marble sculpture of a book, across the canal from a bookstore.
A shopping complex with an underground supermarket, and a cafe’ with colorful striped umbrellas shading its tables adds to the urban density, the urban renewal, of the canal area, but the single-storied building is human-scaled, so it doesn’t feel crowded or dense. At the Stadtfest, the city festival in late August, the canal area became a temporary visual funhouse, a dark tunnel of art with visual creepy crawlies and flashing lights.
You see teenagers wearing their hair in Mohawks or spiky sprays hanging out at the local McDonald’s, once an intrusion much resisted by some residents but recently redesigned. Now it’s the most pleasant McD I’ve seen anywhere.
If all this sounds like it borders on caricature - well, yes, there is that slight danger. But Tubingen won’t stand still long enough or rest on its aesthetic laurels; it reaches out culturally to nine cities in Europe and the U.S. through its active sister cities program. In fact, that’s partly what my poster (a gift from the cultural affairs office) says along with the words: TUBINGEN STADTFEST 1989: Wir feiren mit allen unseren Partnerstadten. (We celebrate with all our partner cities.)
Of these cities, 3 are in Switzerland (Aigle, Kilchberg, and Monthey): 2 in France (Aix-en-Provence) and Kingersheim, County Durham in England, Perugia in Italy, Ann Arbor in the U.S., and in the Soviet Union, for the first time, Petrosawodsk (still in process of becoming part of this circle of siblings.
No artist could have said it better than the Lord Mayor Dr. Schmidt in his greetings to the partner cities and the citizens of Tubingen, August 25th, at the City Hall: “...colorful diversity would be sought as an enrichment and not perceived as a threat.”
After his speech, representatives from the partner cities responded, including Dr. Richard Dieterle from Ann Arbor, one of the RFD Boys who, attending with their wives, brought a musical message of celebration. As an Ann Arbor artist, my exhibition at the Stadtbukerei (city library) was scheduled to open the night before the main festival started.
In the city hall celebration the next day, Tubingen high school students sang American music. “Let the Sunshine In” and “There’s a Place For Us”, songs that might sound cliche-like to me here took on international significance in that setting. they seemed anything but maudlin - the equivalent of the mayor’s words about “breaking down prejudice through human encounters.”
For a view of the art scene, I went to the opening of an exhibition that might as well have been at the Simsar Gallery so closely did the Hartl & Klier Gallerie resemble it in size, in style, in clientele. But this opening was on a Saturday afternoon from 3-6 p.m.- rather unusual hours for an opening here. On that rainy, misty September afternoon the artist, Fritz Klemm, a tall ascetic looking seventy-ish man with thinning white hair, sat in the center of the crowded gallery in rapt dialog with a young woman from the University radio station which was taping the interview.
Klemm’s work looked abstract and very restrained - earthy sepia washes on collaged paper in various surfaces from shiney to dull. Its restrained elegance seemed elegiac and very postwar German in its monochromatic darkness.
Klemm, a long-time teacher at an art academy in a nearby city, Karlsruhe, commanded admiration among the viewers I talked with - especially from Gerhard Feuchter, the Tubingen artist who exhibited at the Art Center here last year. Gerhard had complaints about other exhibitions in the city such as the student exhibition at the Kunsthalle or at the artist’s book exhibition at the bookstore equivalent of Borders - but only praise for Klemm.
Gerhard introduced me to one of the gallery directors as the Ann Arbor exchange artist who had an exhibition in the Stadtbukerei. She said, “I’m too busy in the gallery to get out to see other shows. I can believe it; I’ve heard gallery directors here say exactly the same words.
Admittedly, like Klemm’s, Gerhardt’s own work has an earthy tonality and intensity and tends toward the mystically minimal. Seeing his early and current work in his studio when I had dinner with his family in their wonderfully renovated 16th century farmhouse in a nearby village vastly increased my appreciation of it. Not to mention the pleasant surprise of learning that perhaps the best painting I saw in Tubingen, spot -it in the apartment of a Tubingen bookseller, was Gerhard’s.
About 30 people came to the opening of my own exhibition on a Thursday evening. Gerhard talked about my work - in German, of course, so I didn’t quite know what he said, except from a quick summary in translation afterwards from Martin Bernklau, the reviewer from the newspaper equivalent of the News.
In his review, Bernklau said my work was “a fascinating document of the shifting from the sensual to a formal impression” and that the exhibition was “a difficult but rewarding visual adventure.” But translation is a problem. What I’ve referred to in my work as “body metaphor,” Gerhard and Martin referred to with the English “bodying.”
Giving background information on the artist at an opening is not unusual - it’s why the reviewer comes, perhaps. There may be more than one speaker and sometimes the artist adds remarks (as I did, showing slides of my studio here in Ann Arbor). I heard four such speakers at the three openings I attended - one was an actor who gave a performance that, judging from audience response was witty as well as dramatic. Live music also is common.
The Kunstlerbund in Tubingen occupies a smaller building than the Art Center here and has less outreach to the community, especially in education. A core organization of artists votes on new members; some of the younger artists complained about this exclusivity. Printmaking is such an important activity that the Kunstlerbund is almost a printmakers’ guild
Peering through the window one evening, I saw several printmakers intently inspecting a print under a pool of light - like a happy band of printmakers left over from the Renaissance.
A grassy yard borders the window-wall of the building and there an ensemble played for the opening of a painting exhibition, the work of a teacher from a local academy. People with their beer and wine and finger food spilled out of the building into the yard, enjoying the music on that summer’s night. (A student I met that night, now at Antioch college, has already visited me in my studio here.)
Ann Arbor has nothing quite comparable to the Kunsthalle, the city art gallery. It has exhibited work by the Kunstlerbund and has exhibited drawings by Joseph Beuys and Cezanne and paintings by Morandi. It is located too far from the town center; I got lost trying to find it. An exhibition of work by graduating students from the art academy in Nurnberg, equal to the work of graduate students at U.S. art schools in my view, filled two huge skylighted galleries. Square towers six feet high displayed paintings in dynamic monochromatic brushwork on all four sides and stood at staggered intervals on the broad staircase leading to the main galleries.
Among artists I met were:
Egon Bauer, a member of the Kunstlerbund, who keeps two birds in a large cage in his sculpture studio. Unsurprisingly, his best sculpture (looking a bit like Moore and Marini) and his best prints are of birds. He said he found one of his birds, the water chicken, as a half-dead young chick near the river and revived it by warning it in his pocket, The other, a song-bird, flies through the high reaches of the studio, up near the bas-relief by his sculptor father. Egon drives a new station wagon at breakneck speed, has sailed from Landsend in England (his daughter attends Oxford) to the Greek Islands, and has traveled in Thailand. Like most artists everywhere, in order to do his art, and to support his lifestyle, he does some he doesn’t particularly care for - in his case, it’s carving tombstones.
Sigrid Perthen, a wood sculptor of boomerang-like shapes and Ulrike Weiss, a printmaker, who share a studio in the nearby Village of Reusten. The studio occupies one end of a window-walled industrial building with sheep grazing on grassy banks nearby. In this remote, idyllic setting, these two artists produce sophisticated, exciting work. Yet they struggle with problems and issues common to American artists, particularly women - issues of marriage and family and abortion. Sigrid, married, has three children; Ulrike teaches at the design school in Stuttgart.
Robin Broadfoot, an American ex-G.I. from Florida, married a German woman and lives in Tubingen as an artist producing wall and floor lamps. These extremely well-designed art deco lamps cast delicate shadows and subtle color along the thick plaster walls in their renovated centuries-old building.
Comparing notes from this Tubingen visit and our current Ann Arbor art scene gave me a stereo view - perhaps a better sense of how art relates to culture, to people and to particular places. Given my non-competitive neutrality there, I felt I could see the art and artists of Tubingen with objectivity and dispassion.
I felt an oddly similar preview of objectivity on my flight to Tubingen as my Northwest DC-10 flew over England. Dawn was just breaking in a narrow blaze of yellow-orange on the horizon, Out of the total surround of darkness, the towns below emitted clusters of lights exactly the same color looking all of a piece, as though sky-dust had blown willy-nilly onto a black mirror.
To my painter’s eye, it looked like a painting.