Installation view of Franz Erhard Walther: Migration of Form 1956–2006 (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Nicholas Knight Studio, New York)

Franz Erhard Walther, who was born in 1939 in Fulda, Germany, is a key figure in participatory art. For more than five decades, he has created a language all his own. He has challenged the definition of art objects — mainly sculpture and drawing — and insists that an artwork is completed through the viewer’s imagination. Migration of Forms 1956–2006 at Peter Freeman, Inc., organized by curators Erik Verhagen and Susanne Walther, is the artist’s first retrospective in New York City.

Walther conceives of his sculptures, or “workpieces,” as places for the body — inhabitable spaces that can be modified in their appearance and significance by multiple arrangements or display solutions, and also by actions, or “activations,” suggested by the artist and the pieces themselves. The time, space, and energy involved in the manipulation of the works become the main themes, requiring the viewer’s participation to complete the aesthetic experience. Other artists from his generation, such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, shared with Walther an interest in the participatory potential of an artwork, where the interaction is not a performance but more about an individual’s particular experience.

Franz Erhard Walther, “Body Shapes (Bordeaux Red, Six Elements),” 2006 and “Stille Sprache (Silent Language) [Ensemble of Trial Sewings],” 1984-1994 (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Nicholas Knight Studio, New York)

The first room in Migration of Forms showcases a selection of Walther’s malleable sculptures made of sewn canvas, which can be activated as well as disassembled and unfolded. These geometric sculptures take on various arrangements in the artist’s corresponding drawings. “Body Shapes (Bordeaux Red, Six Elements)” (2006) consists of four blocks and two irregular forms made of foam and covered with sewn and dyed canvas; it’s presented next to a watercolor-and-graphite drawing that proposes an activation of the sculpture: “Set up in front of a wall and in the center of the room/ appearance of the set up: stage and walk at the same time/ do not exaggerate/ dimension in relation to the proportion of the given space.”

Franz Erhard Walther activating “Handling Book II” (1969) at the gallery (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Shy Adelman)

The second room juxtaposes works on paper with sculptures spanning Walther’s career. These feature seven elements from the emblematic “First Work Set” (1963–69): 58 monochrome items made of heavy cotton sailcloth. Possible modes of display include: folded inside a cotton cover, placed over the cover, installed in vitrines or on pedestals, laid on the floor, worn, pressed, or anything else that could be considered an “activation,” according to Walther’s definition.

In a conversation with Walther, he explained that over the years the titles of the elements have changed based on their reception at the time. The titles were intended sometimes as a game and sometimes a description, but they were never meant as interpretations. For example, “No.22” in the First Work Set was originally called “Piece to drop” (1969), then “Case piece” (1974), and, finally, “Falling Piece 2 x 15” (1991). Although you can’t touch the works in this exhibition because of conservation reasons, Walther activated his malleable sculptures during the opening by using his whole body to press, fold, and unfold them. When I asked him which was his favorite form of activation, he answered, “I prefer improvisation.”

Franz Erhard Walther, “Form T/ The New Alphabet” (1994), sewn dyed cotton, foam, and wood, 129 x 80 5/16 x 15 in. (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Nicholas Knight Studio, New York)

Drawing has been fundamental for Walther since the beginning of his career. In our conversation, he explained that drawing goes back to the origins of his work: “I started with the ‘Outline Drawings’ (1956) — there are four in our show. The idea was that the spectator should develop the ‘Outline Drawings’ into an object by imagination. That means taking part, to act.”

Franz Erhard Walther, “Werkzeichnung, #32” (1968-1971), watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper, 10 7/8 x 8 ½ in. (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Nicholas Knight Studio, New York)

There are also 15 “Line Drawings” (1963), each a piece of paper with a vertical line in the center. According to Walther, the work is inspired by “Line 1000 Meters Long” (1958) by Italian artist Piero Manzoni, which consists of a 1,000-meter-long paper with a line of ink along its length, rolled up and hidden in a metal drum. “I had always espoused the view that a work can only exist in the imagination,” Walther said.

As a student in the College of Art and Design in Frankfurt, Walther developed more than 200 “Word Pictures” (1958), monochrome words painted in gouache on paper that point to the participatory nature of words: “I was walking in school … and I found a class about lettering. Not handwriting, not calligraphy, but constructing letters; for me it was some kind of architecture. It was fascinating!” With this series, he developed a strategy he still uses today of drawings words as well as concepts related to each word that show what you can develop with these tools: new experiences, ideas, conceptions. During our conversation, he used the word tempo” as an example, explaining, “The spectator should develop this term to imagine that also means taking part. … When you develop the term you take part in the work. It is not only reception but participation.”

Franz Erhard Walther, “Werkzeichnung, #29” (1968-1971), watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper, 10 7/8 x 8 ½ in. (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Nicholas Knight Studio, New York)

It’s no coincidence that the work displayed at the entrance of the gallery is the letter “T,” as in tempo, from the series “The New Alphabet” (1990–96). Made of two vertical orange panels of sewn canvas hanging on the wall, with a small space in between them, it recalls Barnett Newman’s large color-field paintings, the picture plane divided by Newman’s “zips.” In 1968, Walther saw Newman’s work at Documenta 4 and was immediately inspired. They met a year later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Walther was showing his work as part of the exhibition Spaces. He remembers that Newman “was interested in the terms I used to describe my work: ‘field,’ ‘field of expansion in acting,’ ‘distance you have to the work’ — also a theme in his work. ‘The presence of the person,’ also applied to him.”

It has been almost 10 years since the exhibition Work as Action at Dia Beacon (2010–11), Walther’s last solo exhibition in New York. Migration of Forms 1956–2006 is a fantastic look at his expansive career, but given the relevance of the artist, he is due for a bigger show in New York or elsewhere in the United States. His contribution to the development of participatory art in the second half of the 20th century is foundational and will continue to serve as a source of inspiration for generations of artists to come.

Franz Erhard Walther, “Gouache Drawings,” (1961), paper, cardboard, fabric, gouache, lacquer, ball point pen, glue, adhesive tape, 254 parts in 16 groups, dimensions variable (courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., photo by Nicholas Knight Studio, New York)

Franz Erhard Walther: Migration of Form 1956–2006 continues at Peter Freeman, Inc. (140 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 26.

Silvia Benedetti is a New York-based independent art historian, curator, and writer. Her research focuses on opportunities to critically reassess and contextualize the work of peripheral creators in a...