Isa Genzken: (Actors) (detail), 2013, mannequins, clothes, shoes, fabric, and paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin. © Isa Genzken. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.


American audiences may never have seen Isa Genzken's work look as convincing as it does in the upcoming survey "Isa Genzken: Retrospective" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Though the German artist, 65, has been included in modest U.S. solo and group shows, sometimes alongside artists a generation or so younger, she remains much better known in Europe.

Now, a curatorial team from MoMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Dallas Museum of Art has made a strong case for Genzken's inclusion in the art historical canon. Spanning nearly 40 years and including 150 objects, many on view in the U.S. for the first time, the show (Nov. 23, 2013-Mar. 10, 2014) fleshes out a career devoted to sculpture, assemblage and, less successfully, painting.

Though deeply influenced by her studies at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1970s, Genzken made a significant break from that scene when she decamped to freewheeling mid-1990s Berlin and embarked on the mature assemblage work that fills the later half of this show. At MoMA, we meet an artist eager to tear down her artistic elders—most all of them men. These elders were exceedingly influential in her early years, as witness the exhibition's first few rooms.

Here, a sampling of her impeccable 1970s and early '80s wood sculptures pledge allegiance to Minimalism; a 1975 color study recalls Gerhard Richter, her teacher and former husband; and a readymade called World Receiver (1982), consisting of a portable radio placed on a pedestal, owes its existence to Dada. Yet in among these works sits the wry, abject plaster sculpture My Brain (1984), an uneven mound of painted plaster with a twisted wire pushing, antenna-like, out the top—and hinting at a less derivative sensibility.

Growing up in post-World War II Germany, Genzken knew both destruction and rebuilding. Though her early minimal objects seemingly renounce chaos, her move toward architectural forms betrays those early experiences. A suite of works featuring apertures, some based on the windows of vernacular German apartment houses, are to be both seen and seen through. The over-17-foot-tall resin, steel and concrete sculpture Window (1992) towers like an architectural ruin. Concrete had become an important material for Genzken by the late 1980s, when the artist also experimented with new forms of display—both moves presaging her later strategies of using everyday materials placed in eye-level dioramas to rich narrative effect.

In these early rooms, Genzken's forays into painting are also on view. Some panels look like photorealistic abstractions. Others have the quality of photograms. All employ a subdued palette. But the works come off as side projects—interesting experiments in two dimensions but not fully realized efforts.

After these somber beginnings, the show's mood shifts. Here we meet the mature Genzken, very much her own artist. One need only read the title of a suite of six plywood assemblages—"Fuck the Bauhaus" (2000)—to see that rebellion has replaced reverence. The 1990s and 2000s mark a major move toward found object assemblage—cheap plastic stuff culled from dollar stores, such as eagles or toy soldiers, or soap dishes and gadgets from hardware stores—that becomes the stuff of narrative work addressing terrorism, capitalist consumption and human frailty. Genzken's youthful obsession with film (she applied to Berlin's German Film and Television Academy as a young adult, but was rejected) reappears, now manifest in the narrative inclinations of her great sculptural dioramas and architectural assemblages of the 1990s and 2000s.

At MoMA, there is much work made in or about New York, a city Genzken has visited often since childhood. One of the five dioramas from the "Empire/Vampire" (2003-2004) series is framed by a vintage photo of the entrance to the World Trade Center's South Tower; in front, as if on a miniature stage, three outsized plastic cups nesting one within the next call to mind the telescopes of war. Tiny figures are scattered and slathered in pigment, as if caught in amber—or covered in ash. Genzken was visiting New York at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, and her major suite of eight assemblages from the series "Ground Zero" close the exhibition. Presented on low, wheeled plinths, these works are Genzken's cheeky response to Studio Daniel Libeskind's master plan for the site. One is called Disco Soon (Ground Zero), 2008, another Osama Fashion Store (Ground Zero), 2008. In these and all of her recent works, Genzken transforms cheap, readily available materials into substantive, energetic artworks.

Nowhere are Genzken's transformative powers more visible than in Actors (2013), the gaggle of mannequins that greet visitors at the show's entrance and which were made especially for the exhibition. Though whimsical and uncanny, these clothing-store dummies, clad in a dime store's worth of goods (cowboy hats, masks, packing tape), give off enough energy to pass for body heat. When you enter the show, they're nearly too much to take. Better to savor them at the show's end, when it's hard to say goodbye.