Franz Erhard Walther is internationally recognized for his five-decade-long
investigation into the spatial, sensorial, and temporal dimensions of forms—
preoccupations he shares with such contemporaries as Donald Judd, Walter
De Maria, Richard Serra, and Blinky Palermo. Since his first experiments during
the early 1960s, Walther’s work has occupied a unique position in the development
of post–World War II avant-garde practice, as he radically abandoned
conventional modes of painting and sculpture in order to examine the process of
art rather than its product. Walther’s distinctive approach to thinking through the
problems visual artists traditionally face—those of form, materials, space, and
subject—led him to conceiving objects and images that challenged the beholder
to act. In acknowledging the impact of viewers’ presence and actions in real
time and space, Walther attempts to suspend the sense of isolation and selfabsorption
that is often associated with viewing art.
The presentation “Work as Action” at Dia:Beacon features over two dozen works, including, in addition to various experiments on paper, Walther’s first sewn muslin pieces, known as Handlungsstücke (Action Pieces) from the early 1960s and examples of his Werkstücke (Work Pieces), in which he initially deployed physical action as a sculptural principle. Focusing on the activity of “doing,” he began to involve first hands and later the whole body in a series of activities, such as pressing, folding and unfolding, wrapping, gluing, cutting, and tearing malleable materials. An exemplary early work is Vier Faltdeckel (Four Pieces to Be Folded In), 1962/1963, one among a series of formal inquiries for which he turned to the weight of his hands to sculpt and to imprint the surfaces of paper—that is, he enlisted the specific physical attributes of a body part in the creation of a mark.
From early 1963 onward, Walther advanced through his work process an aesthetic discourse that resists the sole authority of the artist and the contemplative passivity of the viewer; he has defined his practice instead in terms of chance, since the work is dependent on the curiosity of the beholders and their willingness to participate. In Zwei Ovale mit Taschen (Two Ovals with Pockets) and Zwei Stoffrahmen, plastisch (Two Fabric Frames, Sculptural , both 1963), he appealed to spectators to engage tactically with the object, by placing their hands inside pockets in the case of the former and by resting their heads within the frame of the latter. These early invitations would expand through 1969 into a repertoire of fabric forms, which together make up 1. Werksatz (First Work Set), a vast work acquired for Dia’s collection in 1978.
Each of First Work Set’s fifty-eight fabric elements or “instruments for processes” are intended to be unfolded and used by viewers according to instructions concisely outlined in their individual titles. Walther’s First Work Set invites visitors to volunteer in a two-fold activity, to become both beholder and participant—subject and object—and to engage in actions as individuals and with others, forging a conceptual and formal circle of implications. In his model, art is experienced as ephemeral event. Beyond simple tasks related to everyday life, the activities the work generates refer to the rehearsal of a set of ideas, as he stated: “I kept trying to show that what I was offering was not real action relationships but rather demonstration situations. Practice situations.”1
Walther’s provocative meditations on art as temporal, subjective, and self-guided acts of doing have been foundational to a later generation of artists including his students at the Hochschule für bildende Kunste in Hamburg—Martin Kippenberger, John Bock, Christian Jankowski, Santiago Sierra, Jonathan Meese, among others—who call on viewers to participate in the development of their work, in effect to produce new and unpredicted realities. Walther contends that his undertaking is guided by a desire to integrate production and reception: “My early undertaking of seeking to step out of history, out of the seemingly inviolable contract that a work is an object produced by an artist, is still something to think about. I can provoke myself concerning the issue of the work and also attack the historically defined status of the beholder, according to which perception begins with the experience. In contrast, I started conceiving my work out of an action, out of an act.”2
In looking and using the works in this exhibition, it is worth considering the consequences and dimensions of Walther’s proposal to make "Work as Action"— consequences not only within art practice but also in social and political realms. Walther delineates action through form, which occasionally is mediated through his "instruments for processes"; however, the work is manifested only through its being activated—a modest proposal, perhaps, but a polemical one, as its potentiality rests with us, the beholders, and our inclination to participate in this uncontrolled, uncertain terrain.
Yasmil Raymond, Curator, Dia Art Foundation
1. Franz Erhard Walther, interview by Georg Jappe, Studio International, no. 192 (1976), p. 66.
2. Franz Erhard Walther (1998), "Resumé of Life and Work," in Franz Erhard Walther: Sites of Origin—Sites of Influence, Exhibitions 1962–2000 (Nordhorn, Germany: Städtische Galerie Nordhorn, 1999), pp. 22–23.