Public perception of the history of minimalist and conceptual art is dominated by male artists working out of New York City: Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, and so on. A recent 2014 show of neon “drawings” by the German-American artist Monika Wulfers at the Elmhurst Art Museum (outside of Chicago) suggests that this paradigm is not the last word on the genealogy of minimalism.
Wulfers, who was born in Berlin in 1942, was one of several minimalist conceptual artists born during World War II, including the South African Ian Wilson (b. 1940), Dan Graham (b. 1942), and Fred Sandback (b. 1943)—all of whom Wulfers knew and interacted with in New York or Chicago. Although she has exhibited sporadically in major museums in the United States, England, Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, her work has not received the attention it deserves.
Unlike most of the canonical figures associated with minimalism or conceptualism, Wulfers made her art in Chicago (in addition to a sixteen-year residency on a remote island in Lake Michigan). Wulfers migrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1963 and settled in Chicago after a brief stint in New York City, where she has visited and maintained friendships over the years. In Chicago, she studied with Ray Yoshida and Stan Brakhage at the School of the Art Institute. She was also one of the founders of the formative–and still vital–Chicago women’s art collective, ARC.
Wulfers’s art, which occurs in a variety of media, uses lines and blocks of numbers to work through a rigorous abstraction of visual forms. Abstract components of space are re-inscribed three-dimensionally, as in her sculpture “FOUR EQUAL SIDES, not a square” (2010), which features four argon tubes hanging from the ceiling in a diamond-like configuration, eliminating arbitrary gesture and subjective design.
Placement, scale, and mathematical concepts as they relate to space-defining objects are important elements of her work. Numbers are used to calculate the linear representation of points on a grid; her “Random” series, for example, are monochromatic paintings composed mainly of diagonally-oriented lines that employ titles such as “Random 1345 1346” (2008). In the broadest sense, her work is concerned less with linear progression than with connectivity and continuities between points (or poles of interpretation).
Wulfers’s work demands that the early history of minimalist art take into account the role of the computer—and its use by women in particular. Between 1975 and 1982, she produced most of her work by using the mainframe computer at the Argonne National Laboratory—some of the earliest computational art—where her work with light and lines was first recorded on computer-generated slides and films. In addition, her approach to producing computer-generated images anticipated an orientation toward digital media that is common today. Specifically, she viewed computer art as a medium that needs to be defined by its unique attributes, rather than simply creating images with the aid of a computer using mathematical formulas or equations.
Wulfers created and occupied the position of Artist-in-Residence at the Argonne National Laboratory (the top-secret lab affiliated with the University of Chicago) between 1975 and 1983. Working at night with a security clearance, she used the Argonne mainframe computer to lay the groundwork for her subsequent projects, ranging in media from painting and printmaking to sound work, neon, and installation. In 1982, she helped Dan Graham produce his first permanent public commission (“Argonne Pavilion”) and, in a nice turn of materialist wit, saw her work that year evolve from the Argonne computer to argon gas in neon forms, exhibited first mounted on a wall like paintings and later suspended in space.
Her “number visuals” also caught the attention of the legendary Hudson, who exhibited her work in a show called “The Non-Spiritual in Art” at the original Feature gallery in Chicago in 1987.
Working nearly contemporaneously with the German conceptualist Hanne Darboven (a year younger than Wulfers, whose work with numbers and writing began to appear in New York in the late 1960s), Wulfers cleared the ground for her paradigm of line and number-based models with a series of all-white paintings produced in 1972-73 after seeing the 1972 Robert Ryman show at the Guggenheim. In contrast to Ryman’s variable repeating brushstrokes, Wulfers used scumbling — daubing the surface with a nearly dry brush — to apply paint to the unprimed canvas (parts of which she left unpainted). Whereas Ryman’s brushstrokes were applied side by side, she used a circular brush motion. These lines of ‘light’ overlapped and created a moiré effect, which reversed when looking at the work from different angles. The surface of these paintings (one of them is 12 feet by 5 feet with 20 layers of gesso) looks like pure white marble. These paintings were exhibited in a Mies van der Rohe building in downtown Chicago in 1975.
In the early 1970s, Wulfers’s white paintings yielded a series of blank, trapezoidal canvases, which in turn yielded a programmatic impulse to draw linear connections between given points of outlines (which were assigned numbers: A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.). As a result, she began to simply list the numbers as text, or to read them aloud as “sound work” (an approach influenced in part by the writing of Gertrude Stein). With conceptualist Ian Wilson, whom she had first befriended while attending North Central College in 1964, she shared a methodology of logically working through all possibilities within a given set of options, even as, by the early 1970s, she disagreed with his rejection of the physical object (ultimately retaining the spare registration of lines characteristic of her work).
During this exploratory period of her career, Wulfers elaborated her experimentation with lines and numbers (sequentially titled “One Line at a Time,” “Two Lines at a Time,” and so on, up to “Nine Lines at a Time”) by producing silkscreened templates that were placed in acrylic trays and fitted into a custom box that opened like a book. The number/line paradigm then became the basis of her work on the Argonne computer beginning in 1975, and of her search for a “faster pencil,” which could conceive (and “draw”) all of the coordinates and lines at once. Through the use of blocks of numbers to define and interpret space, Wulfers’s early work articulated its enduring ambition to do and “see” something that is implied rather than visible. It is in this respect that her work shares a close correspondence with the space-defining yarn sculptures of Fred Sandback.
In 1975, while working on the Argonne computer, she developed a template that she called “Random 1111 8888,” which would become the foundation of later work in various media (from print to painting to neon). During the same period, she met Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, and Hans Haacke in New York.
Wulfers worked on a Tektronix terminal at Argonne, with access to a computer-activated box camera (FR 80) similar to, though larger than, hand-operated devices used by photographers. With these tools, she produced computer-generated images on slides and film, as well as thermo-copies that were bound into books. This work was first exhibited publicly in a solo show at the Goethe Institute of Chicago in 1979. In addition, Wulfers documented her “sound work” (reciting letters and numerals of linear possibilities) with a recording produced at the Argonne Lab in 1977. That same year, she participated in early colloquia on computer-based art at the ACM/Siggraph Computer Software Conference in Seattle and at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California.
In 1978, Lucy Lippard attended Wulfers’s presentation on computer art for the Women’s Caucus at Oxbow, Michigan, curious to see how Wulfers would draw a line with a computer, one at a time in real time. Wulfers established a live connection to Argonne National Laboratory using a 12-party line and outlets embedded in the floor. Every time someone else at the conference made a telephone call, however, or stepped too hard on the floor in what is now the quaint summer camp for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the lines were disconnected. Despite the pitfalls, this event brought the new world of technology to life for some fifty women artists who attended the presentation.
Influenced by Dan Flavin’s fluorescent “Monuments to Tatlin,” Wulfers produced her first “Random Neon Sculpture” (based on the computer template of “Random 1111 8888”) in 1986. An early example of her neon “drawings” was exhibited (along with work by Duchamp, John Cage, Dick Higgins, and others) in a show entitled “Chance World: Method and System in the Art of the Twentieth Century,” held in Ludwigshafen, Germany in 1992. In her latest neon work (exhibited at the Elmhurst Art Museum in 2014), white light-tubes of equal length are connected by soft gas-tube sign cable (the circuit closed by a transformer) and suspended by monofilament from the ceiling in geometrical configurations. These floating sculptures, like her paintings, present lines as objective units of visual reality, which are not found in nature and, as a result of their particular configuration, generate subjective (and illusory) experience in the viewer.
The neon pieces in her recent show, each called “Five Equal Lines, but not a pentagon,” are variable sculptures through which the spectator can stroll. These works rigorously define space, but they also envelop the viewer. While all the tubes are the same length (7 feet each), they are not seen as such because of the phenomenon of foreshortening. Depending on a viewer’s location and angle of vision, everyone sees these forms differently, though the forms themselves are constant. What one sees is thus different from the physical reality of the work. The actuality of the object is invisible, as viewers perceive their own altered reality.
Monika Wulfers’s art seeks to define space, but also to cultivate the viewer’s experience and awareness of space. The twentieth-century spatial device of the grid organizes her work, yet Renaissance perspective reemerges through the grid, as in the foreshortening implied in her recent light sculptures. Archaic and modern configurations of space thus coincide in the subjective dimension of her work. Her neon sculptures are at once objects and ambient experiences; they confront the viewer, inducing reflections about space but also inviting the viewer to engage by literally entering the work. Nearly 40 years ago, Wulfers’s pioneering work with computers allowed her to discover a way to enhance repetition by generating a simultaneous modality of iteration–without losing unique, singular, and individual forms. As she sees it, these repetitive structures can function as abstract images of the self’s assertion and absorption in contemporary mass culture.
SpotLight took place at the Elmhurst Art Museum (150 S Cottage Hill Ave, Elmhurst) from January 18 to April 27.
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