Communicating in Stainless Steel

Communicating in Stainless Steel

Gabriela von Habsburg’s Pictorial Eloquence

by Manfred Schneckenburger

In the early 1960s, the American sculptor Carl Andre, with positively breathtaking boldness, summarized the history of sculpture 1 in the preceding eighty years as follows: ‘Whereas sculptors were once interested in the hilt of the Statue of Liberty’s sword, they eventually took an interest in Eiffel’s structural support that holds up the statue, and finally came to be interested in Bedloe’s Island itself.’ Bedloe’s Island is the island (now officially Liberty Island) off Manhattan on which the Statue of Liberty stands. Andre summed up nearly a century of art history from precise naturalism down to the last detail in the later nineteenth century, via the Constructivist upheaval, all the way to the beginnings of Land Art and Horizontal Sculpture.

Can the work of Gabriela von Habsburg be placed any- where along this line, indeed anywhere at all? If so, then without a doubt on the multiple thread that has its roots in the Constructivist legacy. For this extensive complex within modernism, as long as it does not fall prey to some modishly tarted-up neo-reprise, has a long way to go before it reaches the end of the road. It lives as a branching shoot, constantly renewing itself. The fact that the sculptor, in some of her works, is already touching on the next stage of development, oriented towards landscape and the environment, makes her work permeable for more recent trends too. At the same time, the misunderstood myth that modernism is tantamount to permanent revolution has long since had its day. The founding fathers of the classical modern movement, the now departed grandfathers and ever more distant ancestors, threw up many questions, but provided no answers. They thus ferment three-dimensional art to this day. Expansion, development, individual characteristics and a substantial idiosyncratic œuvre continue to fall on fertile ground.

The work of steel sculptor Gabriela von Habsburg is one of the confident witnesses to this position, as powerful as it is subtle. It stands against the horizon of a sculpture that has, since about 1910, provided a basis first for works in bronze, and then primarily in ferrous metals. The archaic iron tends in this process towards an if anything timeless, pre-industrial view of the world, while steel and in particular polished stainless steel often give expression to a technologically utopian feeling for life.

A beginning was made by certain eastern European sculptors in Paris: Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz, Vladimir Tatlin, the brothers Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo. But the Italian Futurists too, as well as Picasso in 1912 and around 1930, together with Julio González, explored the ubiquitous renunciation of the closed volume. They penetrated, perforated, intertwined volumes with the surrounding space, Archipenko, Lipchitz, Picasso emancipated hollows and cavities, giving the void its own importance. González bracketed and surrounded space as though it were a new material, on a par with iron. In the next generation, von Habsburg’s teacher Robert Jacobsen combined the old material, iron, with the new material, space, in precise relations. These vibrate together as smoothly as they abut sharply. Overlapping arches, aggressively acute angles, a perforated connecting piece: all restructure space and cut it up. But also Brancusi’s immaculately polished high-gloss metallic surfaces, which seem to abolish gravity, appear to have had an influence on von Hapsburg’s stainless steel shine. Norbert Kricke, whose “Raumplastiken” (“space sculptures”) trans- late weight and volume into sheer dynamism, emphasized this aspect of Brancusi’s work especially. He himself, in turn, conveys to von Habsburg, without influencing her directly, standards for overcoming static earthboundness.

Am I digging out excessively broad roots? Gabriela von Habsburg’s œuvre represents an important link with one of the main currents of modern sculpture. As long ago as 1937, Carola Giedion-Welcker, in her far-sighted book on modern sculpture, proclaimed its polar orientation to the dissection of the “plastic spatial form” à la Naum Gabo all the way to the spatial crystal. 2 Only against the background of these fundamental innovations does it become clear wherein von Habsburg’s specific contribution to one of the great themes of sculpture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries consists: she invents new and additional grammar and syntax. She leaves the classical Constructivist line behind and takes off into a freedom full of possibilities and diversions. She does not hold “a plumb-line in [her] hand, [her] eyes fixed as precisely as a ruler”; she precisely does not construct “as the engineer constructs his bridges, as the mathematician his formula”,3 but steps back from the predictable conclusions of logic and formulates her compositions with an exhilarating fluency that derives entirely from making, correcting, considering and balancing.

The artist restricts herself to a manageable formal vocabulary, albeit one with which she deals with great flexibility, remaining open to deviations of many kinds. Although triangle, circle, semicircle, segment and just a few other geometric forms determine the airy arrangements, she avoids predictable connections, combinations that just slot in, and rhythms that tend to symmetry. There is no place for pre- scribed formulae and schemata. There are, as Hans-Joachim Müller observes, neither radial rays nor prismatic joins, 4 while corners or edges reject any crystalline regularity. Rectangular structures serve, almost always, to stabilize a float- ing balance. Asymmetries dominate everywhere.

Every single work creates, encloses, expands and contra- dicts its own space, which in turn rejects the predictability of Euclidean, and the pre-stabilized harmonies of Pythagorean space. The angles and curved elements do not come straight from any standard inventory, but follow only the artist’s sense of gravitation and balance, including deliberate disturbances to the latter, always under careful visual control. As a result, our perception is integrated into a deft up-and-down of directions, aborted turns of the compasses, inchoate developments. Every composition reaches out from a loosely gathered-up hub, rounds itself or comes to a point. It sits securely on the ground, often only grazing its support, only to curve back in or change course abruptly while rising steeply. Sometimes the formal elements are dislocated into bold balancing acts. In this way, each sculpture behaves individually and takes on features of an airy capriccio, an unpredictable fan structure of heterogeneous movement impulses.

And yet all the sculptures share a basic feeling. No form stands alone, they all keep contact with the other forms either materially (by touch), or visually (through congruence, crossing over, or geometric configuration). All the formal elements, whether flat, concave or convex, rounded to form an arc, or fitted together into a triangle, raised on rods or kinked to mimic a lightning flash – all the formal elements enclose space, draw space into their own dynamics, bridge space and transport space. Where concave or convex surfaces come together complementarily as the front or rear side, what counts is not the area, but the volume. Where triangles impinge arrow-like on such volumes, or interpenetrate, this comes across not as a violation, as in Giacometti’s works of the 1930s, but remains conditioned by the form, without any psychological overtones.

All the sculptures share a high degree of accessibility. They are without exception ensembles in the best sense. They set an agenda, implement it in action and reaction, play and interplay, like a more or less adversarial conversation. Their inmost being lies in the lively mutual communication of all the parts, in their intonation, which is as exhilarating as it is decisive. Or can we say here: their fluent eloquence? When Elmar Zorn talks of “speaking sculptures”, is he referring to this central quality?

This comes across most unambiguously when two opposite registers meet. In numerous sculptures, we find a combination of a sharp, sometimes aggressive, formal language with pliant curves; vehement triangles encounter softly rounded hollows, cross them, or direct pointed ends at a rounded dent. But pliantly rounded plateaus can also taper to a dangerous thorn, so that a certain “arms balance” prevails be- tween the forms and the arguments. I do not wish to push this analogy with an argument too far, for after all sculptures such as Lebensspirale (“Spiral of Life”, 2005) fuse both registers in a single torsion. Ultimately, we are dealing with an opposition that knows neither winners nor losers.

A different type uses mainly rods with an axis slightly out of kilter, which serves as a central support and also as a component of a bundle of forces, composed of diagonals, that provide each other with support. A precarious balance appears to hold several uplifted verticals and preserve them from collapse (but the potential danger is only visual, not actual!). Flashes twitch into one another, triangles connect perforated intermediate elements. The size and texture demand an exterior setting with a lawn. To use the conversation analogy one last time: in this type, what we have is not so much a dialogue of two temperaments as a dialogue with lively gesticulation and uncertain location.

At the same time, the larger format and the exterior placement form the transition to a group of works whose scale far exceeds the table-wall-plinth sculpture. These large sculptures also consist, with few exceptions, of stainless steel. They differ from the small and medium-size ones, however, above all in the fact that they were created for a particular occasion. These commissioned works convey their message through the conviction carried by a metaphor, which is as powerful as it is precise. While the smaller works created on the artist’s own initiative have titles that are mostly chosen after completion, at first sight fairly obvious and deriving from ancient mythology or other sources, the names given to these thoroughly thought-through messages where responsibility is involved awaken concrete political events or hopes. In other words, they continue a tradition of monuments, of memorial art, albeit without prolonging the obsolete pathos or ideological indoctrination of the latter. Anyone who has ever sat on a jury to select art for the public space will know how difficult, indeed problematic, the deployment of such bearers of meaning has become in our age. As symbols in the political field have largely lost their binding commitment and their innocence alike, success here depends on the stylistic or interpretative safety of the proposal in question. Many competitions have ended without a result. By contrast, Gabriela von Habsburg seems to navigate around the rocks of non-commitment or of embarrassment without difficult. Her commissioned works for the public space remain a safe sup- port alongside the freely chosen themes. For this reason, I will sketch out four more examples of “public” sculpture. Without this digression, the overview would ignore not only an important block of works, but also a perspective of the sculptures described.

The Memorial to the Opening of the Border, erected in 1996 near Sopron (Hungary) is a masterpiece of political art. A speaking monument of memory that needs no commentary. A protest against the dominion and terror of barbed wire. Here, it keeps people neither in nor out. Like a collection of signposts, the barbs point in all four directions. One could not turn a symbol of cruel captivity on its head more concisely or tellingly. The Epigonorakel at the point where three countries (Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic) meet testifies to a rare, very rare confidence in the approach to the immediate environment, an ability, as if it were a matter of course, to integrate the topography and the immediate surroundings and at the same time to use the perspective to bring expanse and distance into the purview of sculpture. A European counterpart to American “site sculpture”? The ascending wooden posts and steel steles pointing to each other like arrows become an echo of the pitched roofs. Two corresponding crosses on the church tower and the highest pole, the coherent contrast between archaic wood and industrial steel, their allocation to a bare tree trunk and the metallic sheeting of a cemetery wall, even the characteristic “accent” of the Austro-Hungarian ruling family come together in a unity of plurality beneath the cross.

A very direct occasion to conceptualize a theme concretely has been offered since 2007 by the Rose Memorial in Mziuri-Park in Tbilisi (Georgia). It is far removed from the accustomed typology and morphology of a memorial. Its basic concept is geared to signposting, square, garden, land art, the political horizon: participation and civil society. In addition, it leads the individual design by Gabriela von Habsburg the artist into a communal project by Gabriela von Habsburg the professor together with students at the academy of art in Tbilisi.

So what is it all about? It is a poetically transformed public square commemorating the bloodless revolution by young people in 2003. In a rondel with a diameter of 18 metres, about fifty different stones, from a lumpy boulder via quarried pieces to stones cut to size and shape for seating, are distributed over the ground plan of a stylized rose. However all the stones provide some opportunity to sit down. Before the memorial took shape, discussions were held under the guidance of the professor, and a joint project was worked out: each stone represents its region of origin, each is dedicated to a personality from Georgian history or the Georgian present. The stones were each worked by a different young artist and given a name. Watercourses like the veins of leaves underscore the underlying floral ornament of the rockery. As all the stones invite people to sit on them, the “Rose” quickly became a place of lively exchange of opinion concerning ways straight and meandering to a freer Georgia: a place as a metaphor, which not only depicts democracy in practice but embodies it as it is used and as it takes shape.

All of these large-scale sculptures expand into an imaginary distance. They reach a whole country, build bridges into three countries, or remind a country such as Hungary of borders in order to overcome them. These are not dinosaurs of a political art that spreads all over the place and impresses by sheer mass. Gabriela von Habsburg maintains, indeed sets her own standards, which humanize access and broaden our perceptions instead of restricting and subjecting them. Her sculpture is open to all sides and with its trans- parent essence represents the diametric opposite of the tradition of grandiose national monuments with their burden of pathos. Thematically, she is precise, but without ideological rigidity, accessible, but not ingratiating, formally strong, but not formalistic.

Our question concerned the theme of precision and metaphor, which for Gabriela von Habsburg extends to very different fields. In place of politics and human rights, and about as far removed as can be imagined, we might have consumerism, commercial dynamics and corporate publicity. For the company Franke, a manufacturer of expensive coffee makers in the Swiss town of Aarburg, she designed a series of steel sculptures in an unambiguously commercial context, a sculpture, in other words, of the kind firmly established in the USA as “corporation art”. The artist approaches her commission to advertise for coffee makers and coffee consumption with as good as no deviation from her remit – but without prejudice to the claim of autonomous art. While her motif “coffee bean” is, with a weight of 23 tons and a height of about 10 metres, gigantically enlarged, the elongated oval nevertheless unmistakably suggests a coffee bean. The dis- section into 26 slices evokes the “opening up, the release of the aromas” (G. v. H.) resulting from the processes within the machine. Not even Claes Oldenburg could have come closer to a solution between image and disguised volume. In place of the subversive irony of the grand master, however, Gabriela von Habsburg chooses, in addition to the grotesque contrast between the tiny original and the giant surrogate, an unusual formal strategy: “The division into slices gives increased significance to the spaces in between. The content becomes important and co-equal in the exterior form.” (G. v. H.). Quod erat demonstrandum – and the sculptor derives a new variety for the concept of sculpture in the public space. Does the aroma from the spaces in between not rise literally into the nose? Those who will can also associatively fuse the gentle rotation and the gliding waves of the light.

The range from the Epigonorakel via the Memorial in Sopron and the Rose Memorial in Tbilisi to the Coffee Bean in Aarburg, and from here to the multitude of smaller works is enormous. But throughout, we have autonomous sculptures in active balance with the space that plays the role of an equal partner with the steel. Gabriela von Habsburg may not be a pioneer of portentous border breakthroughs, but by succeeding in every single work process, every single formal decision, every single piece of steel, she takes her own contemporary path to an authentic work. Among the artists of her generation, no one extracts so much individual expression and so much communicative density at such a high formal level from seductive stainless steel.

1. [Translator’s note: this footnote has been amended to take account of linguistic differences between German and English] Since the later twentieth-century, the term ‘sculpture’ can no longer be said to correspond one-to-one with three-dimensional visual art. The construction of space from surfaces, the introduction of the Readymade by Duchamp, the expansion of art into landscape and architecture, its strong fermentation by Conceptualism – none of this fits the traditional definition (adding/ taking away). In German, a distinction was traditionally made between ‘Plastik’ (works formed by modelling, moulding or otherwise adding material) and ‘Skulptur’ (works formed by carving, i.e. taking material away), but this has become inadequate and academic, in fact obsolete. For this reason, I make no such distinction [and likewise no attempt has been made to distinguish the two concepts in the English text, where ‘sculpture’ is used throughout]. The term ‘Bildhauer’ [lit. ‘picture carver’, i.e. sculptor] is usually no longer literally true [and likewise the English term ‘sculptor’]. However, since many artists, even though their tools may be soldering irons and flame cutters, or scissors to cut fabric to size, still cling to the old term, and evidently like to hear it, I have used it.
2. Carola Giedion-Welcker, Moderne Plastik, Zürich 1937.
3. Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner: Realist Manifesto, Moscow 1922. English translation here quoted from Louis Arnaud Reid, Meaning in the Arts, London & New York 1969, p. 120
4. Hans-Joachim Müller, ‘The visible and the invisible that it conceals’, in: Gabriela von Habsburg, Stainless steel sculptures for Franke, Aarburg 2007.