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Last week, the Thomas Schütte retrospective opened at the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland, on view through February 2, 2014. Encompassing over 30 years of work in a wide range of media, the exhibition includes sculpture, watercolors, self-portraiture, as well as pieces that have never before been exhibited. One of Germany’s most established conceptual artists, Schütte’s career draws from a tradition of figurative sculpture, elevating it from an emotive experience to a platform of social consciousness where open endings of interpretation are allowed and encouraged.
Schütte’s deformed figures are grotesque in depiction, with fiendish features rendered in soft focus. Using technical skill and contrasting dimensions, pairing action-figure-sized sculpture with monumental statues, Schütte is able to employ form as a method of differentiation.
The work “United Enemies” shows two men draped in elaborate robes reminiscent of imperial Germany, statesmanship, and war. Bound arms and amorphous torsos leave the conjoined figures immobile, standing on a tripod of thin poles bound by rope. The rope that binds their bodies is well defined, whereas the faces have a pulpy quality, as if fading in both definition and personality.
Other works include reclining nudes and melting bodies, and in adhering to his German roots, allow Schütte to explore the power dynamics that revolve around will, force, and opposition and ways to subvert those representations. Rather than simply historicizing political will and structural violence, the work exists within a present moment of self-reflection. It allows the viewer to see the past in a relevant context, through the form of mythic and imagined bodies.
In keeping with Schütte’s practice of exhibiting large-scale works outdoors, the exhibition at Fondation Beyeler includes both indoor and outdoor works. The museum, which opened its doors in 1997, was initially a project conceived by art dealers Ernst Beyeler and Hilda Kunz for housing their private collection. The space currently includes 200 works of classic modernism, including 23 Picassos, as well as tribal art, and a separate space for special exhibitions. As an institution, it has continued to expand its acquisition of work by modern artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Wolfgang Tillmans. The museum’s mission of collecting work that reflects the modern image of humanity will continue with this very noteworthy exhibition of Schütte’s substantial body of work.
Active in Düsseldorf, the German sculptor and draftsman Thomas Schütte (b. 1954) studied from 1973 to 1981 at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, first in the class of Fritz Schwegler, then with Gerhard Richter. Schütte had his first one-man show at Konrad Fischer in 1981. In the early 1980s, Schütte became known for his architectural-looking models and objects, shown at exhibitions yet seldom translated into actual structures. Alongside his model-like constructions, Schütte had begun to develop a sculptural oeuvre centered around the human figure. In time, an impressive figurative oeuvre emerged, whose radicality and innovative traits seemed hardly imaginable any more in this field.
Schütte has logically and successfully pursued his work in both areas. Presenting himself on the one hand as a builder of utopian and actual architectural models, on the other he shows new groups of figures and heads. The two activities are linked by drawings, which trace a recognizable path through the artist’s entire oeuvre.