Whatever you are doing right now, there is a good chance that Günther Uecker is hammering. Now almost 90 years old (he was born in 1930) the German artist still works seven days a week, up to six hours a day. He would otherwise go mad, he says. Other people retire or take vacations. He pounds nails.
When Uecker first began working this way, in the early 1960s, it meant a certain thing. He was, along with Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, a core member of the ZERO Group, which pursued austere, materially intense abstraction. They had connections to like-minded Italians, such as Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni, and to Barnett Newman in New York. Uecker saw what they were doing in terms of existentialism: each of his nails marked an irreducible point in time and space, like Newman’s famous ‘zips’.
As art moved on, Uecker kept to his own devices. His nail-covered paintings and sculptures were reinterpreted as the time suited: first as Op Art, their shadow-patterns shifting with one’s viewing angle, then as the products of performances, their meaning derived from Uecker’s sheer endurance and physicality. Uecker accepts these various interpretations, to a point. Yet his primary concerns have always been elsewhere, in a domain that deserves the name of religion. It’s possible to think of his work as Christian allegory – the stigmata of Jesus’s crucifixion, arrows piercing Saint Sebastian – but inadequate. Uecker is after something less dogmatic and more transcendent than that: ultimately, he wants to escape not just art history, but history itself.
This ambition comes across powerfully in Uecker’s current exhibition at Lévy Gorvy, which for the first time juxtaposes his nail paintings – those on view all completed in the past six months – and watercolour landscapes, rendered on his far-flung travels. It’s quite a contrast. The nail paintings are big, dense, seismic, with Twombly-like graphite scrawls nearly obscured by twisting gyres of metal. They ache with the force of incessant labour; you can almost hear them bang. The watercolours, on the other hand, are quiet and slight in the extreme. Uecker declares them something other than finished works: ‘notations’, fleeting impressions of the natural world.
Yet the two bodies of work have much in common. Uecker’s watercolours are extremely repetitive, with each composition used over and over, perhaps hundreds of times. They manifest the combined struggle and joy that is the essence of meditative practice. It is as if the artist were a human radio antenna, trying to tune into forces beyond human reckoning. He describes one series, inspired by the deserts of Israel, as an attempt to ‘wrestle with the Leviathan.’ At another moment, standing in front of some of his lyrical, painterly abstractions, he mentions the old adage: ‘When an angel passes, you do not see it. You only feel its wings.’
There is absolutely nothing fashionable about Günther Uecker. His idea of art as a cosmic practice may feel like something from the past, when artist-heroes grappled with essential truths on our behalf. Yet there is profound humility in the way he steps into his studio each day with the tools of a carpenter, and little else. He often says that he thinks of himself as a ‘medium’ rather than a messenger, so it would be wrong to relegate him to a certain movement or moment. It was Nietzsche who proposed the idea of ‘philosophizing with a hammer’. But it was Uecker who turned to me, in the middle of touring me through his exhibition, and said this: ‘time, you know, is a mistake.’
‘Günther Uecker: Notations’ continues at Lévy Gorvy, New York, USA, until 25 January 2020.