Charlotte Posenenske, German, 1930-1985.
Charlotte Posenenske, German, 1930-1985.
Charlotte Posenenske, German, 1930-1985.

Posenenske concluded that art was inadequate as a tool to effect social change. Her choice of materials, form, and presentation was directly related to her interest in the rights of factory workers and their autonomy. Once she decided to leave the art world, in 1968, she would not visit any exhibitions, nor show her work. At 37, she re-trained as a sociologist, becoming involved in employment and industrial working practices.

It’s not that she wasn’t doing all right. She was. By all accounts, like Agnes Martin and Laurie Parsons, she seems to have been quite successful, and serious recognition arrived three years before she quit. But as often/sometimes (?) happens, someone will resurrect your work and you will re-enter the art world posthumously with flying colours.

What Posenenske’s late work looks like (in pictures at least):

  • impersonal/cold
  • industrial
  • lacking the artist’s hand and therefore individuality (influenced by Soviet Constructivism)
  • imposing

(Social Constructivism: “Constructivist art aimed to reflect modern industrial society and urban space…[and was] in favour of art for propaganda and social purposes.”–wikipedia)

Concepts within her late work:

(See for example Square Tubes Series and Work in Progress (1967) comprised of fabricated steel and corrugated pasteboard)

  • the work pushes against traditional ideas of authorship (more below)
  • the work is not one-of-a-kind; instructions are part of the work and they give permission to the buyer to re-arrange the work as desired; part of the intention behind this idea is to work against the art market’s construct of the artist as genius
  • the work “lack[s] a use value and make[s] a claim to be art”
  • the work is sold at cost; working against the art market’s valorization of the object
  • the work needs the audience to complete the work; in one of her last projects, the audience is a participant in the work, e.g. they can open and close hinged panels, thus interacting with the work, albeit, in a very limited way
  • the work is not produced in isolation, a whole number of individuals are coauthors (ideas of collectivism)
  • the work’s coauthors are: collectors, promoters, steel workers, transporters, installers, and “spiritual and financial supporters”
  • the work uses standard industrial materials but works against standardization by inviting re-arrangement

Her contemporaries were minimalists and conceptual:

  • Hanne Darboven
  • Donald Judd
  • Sol LeWitt

Her art work informed her work as a sociologist:

  • against industrial standardization in the workplace
  • supported industry workers as independent, autonomous individuals

I don’t think Posenenske was able to achieve an end result with her art practice that satisfied her need to meaningfully contribute to society. If anything, her art practice made evident the limits of art, at least as she practiced it. But shortly before she died, she returned! Twenty years after leaving, she agreed to show her work again, selectively choosing which of her stored works was to survive and which to be smashed with a hammer (my version would be to burn work). Perhaps, once an artist, is always an artist (I wonder if Laurie Parsons would agree with this statement). Distance is great for seeing things in a new light, to make peace with the limitations of art, but it might not take long to revert to…nothing has changed.

But would Posenenske have liked her first posthumous, institutional solo show in the US (as Herbert Martin also wondered)? In 2010, her work was installed at New York’s Artists Space, a beautiful, large, vintage space with tall windows. Every two weeks an artist was invited to re-configure the work: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ei Arakawa, and “Staff” of Artists Space (possibly mostly artists) were chosen. The two artists were obviously selected for their work with audiences in gallery settings—performing relational works. While these artists built on Posenenske’s ideas of audience participation, their very selection, nevertheless, highlights a privilege that is afforded to those who operate successfully within the art market.

While the work is in a gallery, it can hardly escape the insular audience to whom it panders. I don’t think this solo show would have appealed to Posenenske, as it refocuses attention to the artist, the author, thereby re-establishing authorship as an important facet of the work. To work against authorship would mean to invite the general public to re-arrange the work, perhaps security guards should have had the privilege to interact with the work to borrow an idea from Laurie Parsons.

art is theory
sociology is practice
the unreal versus the real

Inspiration for this Research Note came, once again, from Martin Herbert’s book Tell Them I Said No (2016) with further research from the Dia Art Foundation’s and Artists Space websites, and of course Wikipedia.