Isa Genzken. Works from 1973 to 1983

The exhibition “Isa Genzken. Works from 1973 to 1983” is devoted to the early phase of Isa Genzken’s work. During this time, she lived in Düsseldorf, where she created some of her most important sculptures and works on paper. The exhibition begins with works she made while studying at the Düsseldorf Art Academy (1973–1977) and ends in 1983, when Genzken’s interests and themes began to change. These works include sculptures, computer prints, series of multiple drawings, photographs, and films.

Isa Genzken in her studio, Düsseldorf 1982


Susanne Gaensheimer talks about the artist and the two exhibitions

Isa Genzken and Düsseldorf

Genzken moved to Düsseldorf to study in 1973. After completing her studies, she continued to live in the city for two more years (until 1979). With the art academy and the art institutions as hubs, the city and surrounding area provided an inspiring environment for the up-and-coming young artist, who had her first successful exhibitions during this time.

Isa Genzken in front of the Düsseldorf telecommunication tower

Early Sculptures

A major part of the exhibition is devoted to Genzken’s Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos, which are oblong wooden sculptures based on sophisticated computer calculations. Although their aerodynamic form may seem to indicate industrial manufacturing, these unique works were made by hand and reflect Genzken’s exploration of the historical avant-garde and American minimalism.


Blau-grün-gelbes Ellipsoid “Joma,” 1981

In 1976, Genzken began working on freestanding, wood objects whose intrinsic corporeality juxtaposes with the exhibition space. These works, called Ellipsoids, are purely geometric objects based on an ellipse (an elongated circle) and seem to hover above the ground, touching it at only one point.

Isa Genzken in her studio, Düsseldorf 1982

After a long period in the 1960s and ’70s, when minimalist structures and approaches dominated the art world, younger artists began looking for more personal forms of expression. It was in this post-minimalist climate that the ellipsoids emerged.

Their precisely planned overall form, economic use of materials, and their impact on the surrounding space were a continuation of several ideas about art from the previous decades. Genzken replaced the grid structures often used in Minimal Art with an ellipsoid – a singular colorful object that is rich in associations, defines the space around it, and directs the audience’s movements.

“It was exactly this ‘content’ that I wanted to bring back into the ellipsoids so that people would say ‘It looks like a spear,’ or toothpick, or a boat. This associative aspect was there from the very beginning and was also intentional, but from the viewpoint of Minimal art it was absolutely out of the question and simply not modern.”
Isa Genzken in an interview with Diedrich Diederichsen

Rot-schwarz-gelbes Ellipsoid “S.L. Popova,” 1981

Rot-schwarz-gelbes Ellipsoid “S.L. Popova,” , 1981 (Detail)

This work is one of the most complicated objects in the Ellipsoid series in terms of form. It is the first ellipsoid in which Genzken cut ridges in the upper half to create elongated, flat, diagonal and curvy segments.

One flat, slightly concave element extends over the edge of the ellipsoid. This creates an artful play with contours and rounded surfaces in which elliptical and hyperbolic elements are juxtaposed. The differently colored surfaces refer to a theme that also occupied Suprematist painters between 1910 and 1920: namely, color on flat and rounded surfaces.

Genzken pays homage to the Russian Constructivist Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova (1889–1924) in the title and in her sculptural exploration of Popova’s suprematist interpretation of abstraction.


This group of sculptures called Hyperbolos consists of three-dimensional versions of hyperbolas (curves consisting of two symmetrical branches). She began to create these forms in 1979 as a kind of complementary shape to the ellipsoids. While the ellipsoids are based on the closed curve of an ellipse, the hyperbolos are tube-like sculptures that are wider at their ends. If we look at them from the side, we can recognize their shapes as hyperbolas and identify the two points where the sculpture touches the ground.

Grau-grünes Hyperbolo “Jülich,” 1979

This object from 1979 was the first work in the Hyperbolos series. Seen from the side, its contours form the typical curves of a hyperbola.

In this sculpture, the cross section of one half is circular, while for the other it is oval. A quarter segment has been removed along more than half of the gray outer shell of the tube, exposing the bright green color inside and overbalancing the impression of a symmetrical construction with a complex perception of forms and colors.
The play between the closed outer shell and the view of an opened space is a variation on the principles of traditional sculpture and invokes associations in terms of content. This work was also the first time the artist added a name to the title, thus evoking associations. “Jülich” is a small city between Cologne and Aachen where a much-debated nuclear research center was built.

In 1982, Genzken decided to no longer place the hyperbolos on the floor. Instead, she stood them upright, letting us perceive them more as traditional sculptures or figures. For her work Meister Gerhard, she even added a kind of head. The title refers to the first master builder of the Cologne Cathedral who drew the floor plan of the Gothic choir.

Nineteenth-century renditions of Master Gerhard (c. 1210/1215–1271) always show him wearing a particular hat, which may have inspired the segmented “head” of Genzken’s sculpture.

Around this time, Genzken also grew increasingly less interested in developing her sculptures exclusively according to geometric principles and processes. The narrow, vertical incisions are therefore not based on geometric principles, but were added for compositional or associative reasons.

Meister Gerhard, 1983

Isa Genzken in her studio


In addition to sculptures, the exhibition also focuses on the large computer drawings that Genzken began creating parallel to the Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos in 1975. These drawings demonstrate how the artist innovatively plays with algorithmic figures and the technological possibilities of the time. Her early works also represent how she blends conceptual approaches with personal themes.

JOB E142 RZEGKKST 25/07/77 15.30.23, 1977

Before constructing the ellipsoids and hyperbolos, Genzken would draw sketches that were used to make exact calculations and drawings on a computer.

The computer drawings were then given to a cabinet maker, who produced the sculptures in obeche wood.

The computer drawings on continuous printing paper are fascinating because of their size, precision, and perfect lines. Her decision to remove all traces of the artist’s hand and to separate the conception from the realization of the works followed the principles of Minimal and Conceptual Art.

Untitled (Hyperbolos beidseitig), 1979

Technical Innovation

Genzken developed her computer drawings in collaboration with the physicist Ralph Krotz, who was pursuing his doctorate at the University of Cologne at the time. He helped her to calculate the ellipsoids and hyperbolos from 1976 to 1983. When these construction drawings were made, it was still a very novel thing to use a computer while preparing the production of artworks.

The physicist Ralph Krotz talks about working with Isa Genzken on the computer drawings

Works on Paper

Isa Genzken’s early mathematical and geometric works on paper have a serial quality and feature structural schemes with varying forms.

They play with the possibilities of geometric abstraction and Concrete Art, while also referring to various types of art based on grid structures and permutations. The latter emerged in the late 1950s in opposition to the subjective languages of forms in Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism and was a development Genzken was familiar with from discussions at the art academies in Hamburg and Düsseldorf.

Parallelogramme, 1975

This work is based on the principle of the grid and variations, both of which featured in Genzken’s work from 1973 on.

Tuning into the World

Isa Genzken emphatically stresses the reference of her works to reality. This becomes especially apparent in the subjects of her photographs and in her sound recordings. Images of ears and a radio with a broad range of frequencies also imply active contact and tuning into the outside world.

Photographs of Genzken’s travels in the US (detail), 1977


Photographs of Genzken’s travels in the US (detail), 1977

Genzken took this series of 113 photographs of buildings, landscapes, transportation infrastructure, empty lots and advertisements on a trip to the US.

World Receiver

Weltempfänger, 1982

In an exhibition in 1982, Genzken presented a radio on a white plinth as a readymade. As the title indicates, the radio is a so-called world receiver – in other words, a radio with a range of frequencies that enables listeners to tune in to stations from all over the world. Portable world receivers have been around since 1939.


Tri-Star, 1979

Engine sounds of Tri-Star airplanes, which Isa Genzken recorded at the Düsseldorf airport, play from a vinyl record. The small record, a so-called single, was a common format used for distributing popular music titles in the late 1970s.

Installation view in the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld 1979

In her first comprehensive exhibition (in an art institution) at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld in 1979, Genzken showed sculptures and drawings, along with a photographic series of advertisements for the latest models of high quality hi-fi equipment.

“When I was photographing the hi-fi adverts I thought to myself, everyone has one of these towers at home. It’s the latest thing, the most modern equipment available. So a sculpture must be at least as modern and must stand up to it. Then I hung the pictures on the wall and put an Ellipsoid on the floor and thought, the Ellipsoid must be at least as good as this advert. At least as good. That’s how good a modern sculpture has to be.”
Isa Genzken in an interview with Wolfgang Tillmans

Narrative Architecture

The artist Josef Strau worked as Genzken’s assistant in the 1980s. In 2002, his new Galerie Meerrettich in the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin opened with one of her installations. He also wrote about his time working with Genzken and her ideas about architecture.

The artist Josef Strau talks about Isa Genzken

A new Phase

Around 1984, Genzken went from making elegant and geometric wooden sculptures to creating sculptural works made of plaster, concrete, and epoxy resins. By focusing on these new materials and motifs, she distanced herself from the perfectly precise constructions and geometric bodies of the ellipsoids and hyperbolos, with their immaculate surfaces. Instead, she took a new approach to techniques, materials, and reality. Her sculptures in the late 1980s and the 1990s resemble architectural models, and several were realized as public art projects. In the following years, Genzken began to utilize construction materials from hardware and department stores, while also increasingly integrating simple decorative fittings. Since 2004, she has been building cinematic sets with reflective foil and decorative items bought in discount stores. In her more recent works, she employs mannequins as sculptures, sometimes dressing them in her own clothes and adorning them with cheap decorative accessories. These materials create direct references to the reality of life today while posing questions about the condition of our society.

Isa Genzken

Works from 1973 to 1983

Isa Genzken
May 8 – September 5, 2021

Here and Now

Untitled (Schauspieler), 2012

Isa Genzken. Here and Now

The exhibition “Here and Now” focuses on recent works by Isa Genzken, who lives in Berlin. The installations, sculptures, and wall works reflect the artist’s unapologetically honest view on the state of the world today. As snapshots of late capitalist society, they shine light on the crises, fears, and taboos that characterize this time.


Susanne Gaensheimer talks about the artist and the two exhibitions

Wolfgang Tillmans, Isa Genzken, 2007

Isa Genzken and Her Works from the Past 15 Years

Genzken’s artistic practice from the past 15 years reveals a strong reference to reality that is emphasized by her use of different materials. In these works, she not only explores new forms of expression; she also questions the traditional understanding of sculpture, while often incorporating autobiographical elements. Film and architecture, which were important in her early works, also play a prominent role.

New Materials

Genzken has been using simple, mass produced objects and cheap, everyday decorative materials since the early 2000s. Since 2004, she has been building cinematic sets with reflective foil and decorative items bought in discount stores. In her more recent works, she employs mannequins as sculptures, sometimes dressing them in her own clothes and adorning them with cheap decorative accessories. These materials create direct references to the reality of life today while posing questions about the condition of our society. By drawing inspiration from her immediate surroundings, she refers to the omnipresence and short life of objects, materials, and fads in a world driven by consumerism.




Adhesive tape



Spray paint

Airplane parts

Everyday objects

Decorative materials

“Radical Attitude”

Fashion designer Raf Simons (Prada, Raf Simons) regards contemporary art as a source of inspiration, also for his creative work, and is a long-time connoisseur and admirer of Genzken’s art.

The fashion designer Raf Simons talks about Isa Genzken

Schauspieler (Actors)

Genzken has been working on her Schauspieler (Actors) series featuring mannequins commonly found in department store windows since 2012. The artist’s ongoing interest in the human body, which can already be seen in several of her early sculptures and drawings, is expressed here in clearly anthropomorphic figures.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Isa Genzken, 2007


The curator Nicolaus Schafhausen, who has organized many exhibitions of Genzken’s work, asked her to take part in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The piece she created for the pavilion, called Oil, featured mannequins and is a predecessor of her Schauspieler (Actors) series.

Nicolaus Schafhausen talks about Isa Genzken

Film Set, 2015

The title of this work refers to Genzken’s long-term, ongoing interest in cinema. She originally wanted to study film in Berlin but was not accepted to the film studies program, so she enrolled in visual arts instead. She has nevertheless always taken a cinematic approach to her artistic practice, which is especially visible in several of her works. She has also written several screenplays and has directed films.

“[I want] to make sculptures that represent a film scene, that have the quality of a model, not sculptures in the traditional sense, but in a flow of figures and perspective.”
Isa Genzken

Schauspieler II, 5, 2014

Genzken’s works in the Schauspieler (Actors) series often refer to her personal life. Several of the mannequins in her installations are even dressed in her clothing. Compared to her early sculptures, these figures generate strong narratives among themselves.


Genzken refers to and works with reality in her art. Her works are always grounded in the real world. This can especially be seen in her latest works, which explore themes such as life in society.

The Poverty, 2009

In The Poverty, Genzken assembles various everyday objects and decorative materials to create a temporary scenario that conveys the brutal living conditions of people on the margins of society. In this way, she makes poverty and homelessness visible as unjust byproducts of capitalism.

“[Sculpture] must have a certain relation to reality. I mean, not airy-fairy, let alone fabricated, so aloof and polite. […] A sculpture is really a photo – although it can be shifted, it must still always have an aspect that reality has too.”
Isa Genzken in an interview with Wolfgang Tillmans

Untitled, 2014

This work features an aluminum panel and two windows from retired airplanes. Windows are a recurrent motif in art history, and they play a large role in Genzken’s art as well.

Inspiration for Artists

Isa Genzken’s unique approach to sculpture has inspired many other artists, including Monica Bonvicini, who talks about Genzken’s influence in an interview.


The artist Monica Bonvicini talks about Isa Genzken

Architecture and the City

Isa Genzken has been interested in architecture since the 1970s. She is fascinated by the landscapes of big cities, with all their contradictions, their living environments, and their beauty. She is especially interested in the reflective walls and exteriors of buildings and how they blur and deconstruct the categories of picture, sculpture, and architecture.

Untitled, 2017

Untitled, 2017

Untitled, 2017

This work belongs to a series of wall works consisting of various kinds of adhesive tape that are applied like brushstrokes to the aluminum support.

Untitled (Studio), 2012

This two-part work covers four walls and is a cross between panel painting, sculpture, and installation. The panels re-create the architectural situation of Genzken’s studio in Berlin.

In the Here and Now with Isa Genzken

Isa Genzken is a seismograph of our time. She not only observes the crises of today’s world; she also discovers its hidden beauty. Her intense, multilayered images capture this paradox. In this film, Genzken’s close friend and ally, Daniel Buchholz, talks about what characterizes her perspective and her approach to the world.

Daniel Buchholz talks about Isa Genzken

Wolfgang Tillmans, Isa Genzken, 2007