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Tracing the Grid: The Grid in Art after 1945 on view at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart
Roy Lichtenstein, Modern Painting with Wedge, 1967. 87 x 125 cm. Photo: Kunsthalle Weishaupt, Ulm. ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2012.

STUTTGART.- The grid defines art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries like no other structure. For the avant-garde, for Piet Mondrian and the Bauhaus movement this has been extensively researched; however, the importance of the grid in art since 1945 has never been presented in an overview. The special exhibition »Tracing the Grid. The Grid in Art after 1945«, which is being shown in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart from May 5 to October 7, 2012, fills this gap with exponents by fifty artists. On 2,500 square meters of exhibition space works by Sigmar Polke, Chuck Close, and Roy Lichtenstein investigate the subject of the grid. Works by younger artists such as Esther Stocker, Sarah Morris, Michiel Ceulers, and Tim Stapel also make the immense artistic potential of the grid structure clear. For this special exhibition, generously sponsored of by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes as well as the Stiftung Froehlich and HUGO BOSS, seven large room and wall pieces have been realized.

The pictorial theme of the grid emerged for the first time in the work of Piet Mondrian, who spanned a consistent grid over a picture surface in 1918 and filled the individual fields with different colors. In the 1920s he painted grid pictures for which he is now famous. Since Mondrian—according to the thesis of American art historian Rosalind E. Krauss in her 1978 essay on the subject, which remains the central writing on the theme—the grid has become a defining subject in art. It is thus remarkable that to date it has not been more intensively examined and that specifically the grid in art since 1945 has never been represented in an exhibition.

Proceeding from Mondrian, Concrete and Constructivist Art developed a great interest in the grid. For artists like François Morellet and Manfred Mohr it served as a formal structure that was declined in mathematical and logical series. Important for this artistic trend is the rational traceability of all visual phenomena. The issue of the distribution of color within the measured structure also pre-occupied many artists and inspired, for instance, Gerhard Richter in the late 1960s to begin his series of color-grid pieces, which he has pursued up to the present-day.

The first chapter of the exhibition under the motto »Fitting into the Grid«, pursues this formal approach to the grid through the decades: it determined not only Concrete Art, but also the internationally known ZERO art group. At the same time in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, an influential trend, fuelled by artists like Günther Uecker, Gianni Colombo, or Jan Schoonhoven, emerged that used the grid to set the picture surface in motion. But also in the United States, Minimal Art represents an art movement that was interested in the issue of the sequence.

Questions of visual perception led to the emergence of a trend that used the grid in an entirely different manner: Pop Art. The mass reproducibility of images prompted artists to elevate the printing grid to an aesthetic feature. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein developed their life’s work from the principle of the dot screen. For artists in Germany like Thomas Bayrle, the grid’s picture-generating function was a crucial point of departure. Here the grid is no longer approached in a formal manner, but refers to social themes of modernity. The second chapter »The Grid as Medium« represents this aspect with prominent works such as Polke’s »Großer Mann« and »Kleiner Mann«.

As early as the Renaissance the grid has been used as a technical aid for transferring space perspectively onto a surface. Artists like Agnes Martin, Frank Badur, and Fiene Scharp reflect this long tradition of the grid in drawing in their own applications and transpositions. Katharina Hinsberg has built for the exhibition an accessible grid of laces with red beads, which begin to swing when visitors walk through the piece. The consistent coordinate system of the grid, familiar to us through maps, spreadsheets, and data-processing systems, is thereby set into motion and destroyed.

The disruption of the grid is the subject of the third chapter, »Falling through the Grid«: breaking up the systematics, discovering the defect and the asymmetrical sequence are issues that fascinate a younger generation of artists in particular (Esther Stocker, DAG, Tim Stapel, and Michiel Ceulers). Using different techniques and posing various questions they are concerned with the ›flaw in the system‹. Katharina Gaenssler, for instance, developed for the exhibition a new wall piece, for which she photographed the combined residence and studio of Hanne Darboven over several weeks. Darboven, from whom a drawing series is on view in another part of the exhibition, uses her own mathematical method to capture temporal courses of action in strictly ordered sketches. That precisely this artist pursues the opposite to this ordered systematics in her residence is visualized in a special way in Gaenssler’s multi-perspectival wall piece—and with it the limits of all order.

The open architecture of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart repeatedly allows the works presented on the ground and basement floors to be related to one another. As such, the floor piece by Tim Stapel and that by Carl Andre can be viewed simultaneously. Tim Stapel juxtaposes Andre’s chessboard situated in the basement with a broken grid. Developed in strict logic, Stapel’s piece virtually folds together the ground plan of the lower level of the Kunstmuseum and at the same time destroys its orderliness.

At the lower level, a barrier tape by Eva Grubinger forces the visitor into a predetermined single file. Here begins the chapter »The Pattern Investigation«, which is not concerned with the search for terrorists of the 1970s, but with the collection of data and forced conformity of a society for the purpose of exercising control. Indeed, today we are experiencing—apart from various political motives and systems—a virtual pattern investigation of a previously unknown magnitude. As a sound artist, Christina Kubisch is concerned with the electromagnetic rays in public space, which she makes audible and by which we can experience a network of security check points in places like airports and department stores.

Michael Klier, by contrast, has been developing since 1983 a collage of films from public surveillance cameras. William Betts recently painted pixelated exposures from such cameras and thus revealed not only the media grids of image generation but also the close-meshed grid of contemporary public surveillance. In democratic societies, this surveillance serves to protect against thieves, or in extreme cases, against terrorists; in dictatorships, regimes protect themselves against their citizens.

The ambivalent structure of the grid in the area of politics is also found in architecture. At the end of the exhibition, the ambiguity of grid architecture is illustrated, which extends from the idealistic ideas of Bauhaus architecture and the socialist Plattenbau (buildings made with precast concrete slabs) to capitalist architecture demonstrating power. Sarah Morris investigates, for example, the aesthetic grids in Western metropolises depicted in films and paintings: the grid can be experienced as an open, liberal structure or as repressive and confining.

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