German artist Franz Erhard Walther’s interactive sculptures, made using primarily cloth, do not merely restrict bodily movement. They also direct users’ attention to the way their bodies relate to objects and how rapport develops between multiple participants. Curated by Power Plant director Gaëtane Verna, Walther’s recent exhibition at the institution, “Call to Action,” spanned two floors and encompassed eight multipart projects from the late 1950s to the mid-2000s, many of which have participatory aspects.
Illustrating the complexity of Walther’s oeuvre, “1. Werksatz” (First Work Set), 1963–69, comprises fifty-eight objects and could be experienced in several different ways in this show. It was displayed as a complete set arranged on a low pedestal in the center of The Power Plant’s largest room. Neatly folded piles of dark green, reddish brown, navy blue, and off-white cloth, along with freestanding fabric-covered foam objects, vaguely recalled retail store displays of clothing, furnishings, or camping supplies. Viewers could also experience this project by watching videos on a row of ten monitors built directly into the wall. The videos—made between 1995 and 1998, some shot indoors and others in the countryside—show people wearing and using each of the components. A more hands-on context for activating the works was available on a stretch of gray carpet. Sixteen thin canvas copies could be used according to the artist’s written instructions and gallery attendants’ guidance. One of these—a copy of Approach Sideways Steps (1968)—consisted of a long fold of canvas into which two individuals could insert their toes. They were told to position themselves at opposite ends of the strip, and then to take small steps toward each other until they met in the middle, at which point they would move outward again. The videos playing on the monitors do not fully convey how specific situations can enliven the work; a romantic couple activating the aforementioned piece, for example, might see it as a metaphor for their relationship.
Another project featured in the show was “Das Neue Alphabet” (The New Alphabet), 1990–96. The presentation of this body of work began with a triptych of drawings showing Walther’s plans for constructing the letters of the Latin alphabet in cloth, foam, and wood. Sculptures of “E,” “S,” “L,” and “W” hung on the wall, while Das Neue Alphabet Form G (1993) was on the floor. The latter consists of two foam “G”s connected by a red cloth tube, resembling an enormous sock or deflated balloon. In the corresponding drawing, by contrast, the piece has a solid cylindrical shape, a theoretical hardness, which relaxes with the actual sculpture. Without a participatory aspect at The Power Plant, the letter sculptures could be seen as depicting language in a “resting” state, its characters taking a brief pause before social activation reanimates them.
T.S. Eliot wrote that “no artist . . . has his complete meaning alone”: an artwork is activated by its relation to its contemporary and historical context. Since the early 1960s when, instead of painting, Franz Erhard Walther would deconstruct painting’s support, highlighting the absence of the work being framed, the German artist has created sculptures that assume the condition of negative space, defined by their use and context. But conversely, his work is also a collection of objects that can stand as an essence of basic sculptural form.
KOW presented four groups of Walther’s recent fabric-covered foam sculptures in conjunction with 16 parts of the earlier 24 Yellow Columns (1982). Offset by the minimal showcase of a contemporary art gallery, Walther’s art has the self-deprecating, even apologetic air of objects placed in the position of claiming the undivided attention normally granted to work that professes a less partial autonomy. The 10 elements of Body Shapes Bordeaux Red (2013) resemble geometric minimalist sculpture, but softened up, their edges beveled, with sections removed from their rectangular shapes. Cylindrical incisions and variations in form deny the set the symmetry a Donald Judd installation would aspire to, suggesting that these might be pieces of a puzzle that fit together by some logic yet to be determined. Indeed, many of Walther’s multipart works are designed—with a modestly pragmatic, ecological intent—to be arranged into a single, space-saving form for storage between exhibitions.
If Minimal art comprehended a phenomenological engagement between viewer and artwork, Walther goes further, casting his sculptures as incomplete without physical interaction. Their soft, curved forms are intended to submit, at least in principle, to the viewer’s body, or to other elements of the work. His early sculptures were presented outdoors in the Hochrhön region around his native city of Fulda, extending context to take in the German landscape itself. Documentary photographs exist that show people engaging with the sculptures against a natural backdrop, which creates an uninflected foil for the work’s geometries. But those empty fields also charge the sculptures with associations and implications, as do the barren terrains against which many of Samuel Beckett novels play out. There is an implicitly theatrical dimension to Walther’s art, which would have been anathema to Minimalists such as Judd.
The modesty of the “Body Shapes” is their authority, in keeping with a philosophy for which modernist art’s embodiment of a singular subjectivity is naive. Walther conforms to post-structuralist theory of the 1960s and ’70s (when he was emerging as an artist), according to which the artist is a facilitator rather than a creator, synthesizing existing culture into new strains. Adjuncts to the human body as well as autonomous abstract artworks, Walther’s sculptures might be described as passive-aggressive: succumbing to their context, they dominate it as much as they are defined by it. The two parts of Body Shapes Dark Grey (2006) form a single, biomorphic shape, abutting along a straight vertical: an ideal, internal coherence, self-reflexively formalistic, that is contradicted by the implicit appeal of its curved outer edges to be “completed” by messy, unpredictable human engagement.
In KOW’s basement, 24 Yellow Columns hung across one high wall. Here, context is art historical as well as art institutional. The columns invoke functional objects, but they are made of cotton duck canvas, Walther’s staple material but also the customary ground of high modernist American painting. The fabric cylinders hang like bats, collapsed ghosts of their former classical selves, ready to be folded away until they are next exhibited, encompassing an institutional future as well as an antique and modernist past—a temporal as well as a spatial context.