Günther Uecker (German, born 1930) Oval 1958
Lot 5AR
Günther Uecker
(German, born 1930)
Oval
1958
Sold for £557,000 (US$ 715,239) inc. premium

Lot Details
Günther Uecker (German, born 1930) Oval 1958
Günther Uecker (German, born 1930)
Oval
1958

signed and dated 58; signed, titled and dated 1958 on the reverse of the panel
nails on burlap laid on board mounted on panel

87 by 88.7 by 10.5 cm.
34 1/4 by 34 15/16 by 4 1/8 in.

Footnotes

  • This work is accompanied by a photo-certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

    This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.

    Provenance
    Collection of the Artist, Düsseldorf
    Private Collection, Germany (gift from the above)
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner



    Appearing on the open market for the first time since its creation over half a century ago, Oval 1958, is one of the very first works by the towering artist Günther Uecker to feature his signature standing nails. Furthermore lots 5 and 6 by Günther Uecker offer an unrivalled insight into two crucial periods of his artistic development. As rare and important early artworks by this highly influential artist, they also transport us back to a key moment in the development of the European avant-garde of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Here we see the early manifestations of Uecker's signature style, the obsession with materiality and process which have defined his practice ever since. These were, and continue to be, works of the future, produced at a time of intense ambition and optimism, when artists truly believed that they could change the world: as Uecker himself wrote in 1961, "the intentions of today are the realities of tomorrow" (the artist in: Zero International, Nice 1998, n.p.).

    Utilising the most unexpected of materials, most importantly the humble nail, Uecker was in effect challenging the very notions of what art could or should be, forging a bold new aesthetic for a modern world in the process. Modestly entitled Oval and Vogel ("Bird") these stunning, large-scale pieces may at first appear almost austere in their stark simplicity; in fact they are layered with meaning, bearing witness to Uecker's own startling approaches to materiality and the creative process, each work breaking boundaries both physical and philosophical.

    Born in Wendorf, Germany in 1930, many of Günther Uecker's earliest and most powerful memories relate to the events of the Second World War. He describes this period of his life with great clarity, and recalls the intense struggle that he and his family faced with mixed emotion. These extreme experiences, with the associated feelings of wonder and drama, fear and uncertainty were, he believes, fundamental to the later development of his artistic career: "Yes, an existential feeling of life that has been tested on the self, that you have survived, is a form of wise presence on this planet. From this something is revealed. That is what makes art." ("Ja, ein existentielles Lebensgefühl, das an einem selbst erprobt ist, das man überlebt hat. Überlebt zu haben ist eine Form von weiser Gegenwart auf diesem Planeten. Daraus offenbart sich etwas. Das ist das, was Kunst ausmacht.") (the artist in an interview with Rose-Maria Gropp and Jürgen Kaube, 'Sie sprachen vom 8. Mai – was ist denn das?', faz.net, 9 May 2015).

    In the Post-War years Uecker began his formal study of art, but found that traditional techniques such as drawing and painting were unsuited to his vision of the world. Only when he arrived at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1955, where he studied under Otto Pankok, a noted political activist and anti-Fascist, did he begin to develop a new direction, wrestling with ideas of representation and focusing as much on the creative process as the finished object: "the Düsseldorf Academy was where I finally came to understand the problematics of depiction versus visible reality" (the artist in: Bódi Kinga and Borus Judit Eds., Material Becomes Picture, Budapest 2012, p. 70). Now at last he found an art which could encapsulate the artist's true experiences: his life, his struggles, and the complex history of his nation.

    Today, Uecker is perhaps best known as one of the founding members (alongside fellow Germans Heinz Mack and Otto Peine) of the ZERO Group, an affiliation of like-minded artists formed in 1957 which came to influence many later art movements. Often seen as a response to the painterly Abstract Expressionism which was then so admired across the Atlantic, ZERO proposed a new purity, a new silence, so different from the frantic, noisy gesturalism of American art of the period. Publishing a series of Manifestoes and organising many impromptu exhibitions, sometimes taking place in the artists' own studios, as well as 'Happenings' in gallery spaces like Alfred Schmela, Düsseldorf, ZERO quickly expanded, leading to collaborations and exhibitions with an impressive list of many of the greatest artists of the period: Yves Klein and Arman from France, Henk Peeters and Jan Schoonhoven from the Netherlands, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Enrico Castellani and Agostino Bonalumi from Italy, Arnulf Rainer from Austria and Antoni Tàpies from Spain to name just a few. Each brought their own unique ideas to the table, sharing a similar ambition to shatter established ideas of representation and artistic practice, collaborating on individual works, installations, texts, exhibitions and events in the process. That there was cross-fertilisation of ideas amongst this astounding roll call of European geniuses can be demonstrated by the similarities between the two present works and the work of Italians such as Lucio Fontana (whose later Fine di Dio canvasses surely echo the forms that we find in Oval) and Enrico Castellani (who also employed nails to develop form and volume in his distinctive shaped canvasses started in 1959). The importance of this shared ideology was clear to Uecker, who wrote in the manifesto ZERO 3 that "Immediate experience comes only when we ourselves participate. To obtain widest participation, the production of art must cease to be limited to the individual, as it has been until now" (the artist in: Blair Asbury Brooks, 'How the Zero Group Became One of Art History's Most Viral Movements', artspace.com, 5 November 2014). Influencing, and being influenced by other members of this iconic group, Uecker's role in ZERO was certainly crucial to his own artistic evolution.

    It is, of course, the nail which is the most essential element of Günther Uecker's greatest works. Although his output over the decades has demonstrated his adaptability and his versatility, it is the nails for which he is best-known. The idea of nailing into and onto a pictorial plane, thus effectively smashing out of two dimensions and creating works which blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, first came to Uecker around 1956, inspired by his interest in the phenomenon of structure, his fascination for aspects of Eastern spiritualism, as well as his admiration for the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. His earliest experiments using the medium placed the nails flat on the work, making them parallel to, rather than infiltrating the third dimension. The experimentation into piercing the work with nails, as seen in the present works, began to develop by 1957, making Oval (1958) one of the earliest works of this type.

    For him, this most un-artistic of media is important both for the visual impact that it creates, and also the physical process which is involved in its use. In both of the present works, the nail creates depth and a sense of movement. Constantly shifting, the shadows thrown by the nails lengthening and shortening as they react to different viewpoints and changing lighting, the works pulse with an internal vitality. Uecker relishes the very act of hammering a nail into a surface, in this case a board, but later also a broad range of everyday objects including logs, chairs, tables and even a television set, relating its rhythmical repetitions to religious ritual. Indeed, he sees the nail as nothing less than a continuation of his own physical self: "The nail is basically an elongation I hold in my hand, an extension of my finger" (the artist in: Bódi Kinga and Borus Judit Eds., Material Becomes Picture, Budapest 2012, p. 72).

    With such an attitude, it is hardly surprising that the nail is transformed in Uecker's work from something lifeless, hard and industrial into something soft, poetic and beautiful, an impression which has also expressed by other artists influenced by his output as artist Ahmed Alsoudani stated: "The nail is transformed from a rigid, threatening object to a part of a seemingly flowing surface. The nail becomes almost peaceful" (Ahmed Alsoudani, 'Günther Uecker', bombmagazine.org, Winter 2013 edition). In the hands of other artists, most notably Man Ray in his famous Cadeau from 1921, the nail is presented as destructive, sharp and cold, constrained in a tight, regulated row but ready to slash and rip. When employed by Uecker, however, crowds of these nails become more fluid and creative, a mass shifting together and bringing space, volume and form where previously there was none.

    As three-dimensional works which hang on the wall, whether lot 5 and lot 6 should be classified as painting or sculpture is debatable, but perhaps ultimately irrelevant: Scottish artist and gallerist Richard Demarco wrote in 1990 of what he calls the 'Nailworks': "Their iconic nature called into question all unnecessary aesthetic considerations which would separate sculpture from painting" (Richard Demarco, Günther Uecker: Pictlandgarden, Edinburgh 1990, p. 7). Here we see the nail as a metaphor for the new; the most basic element of the creative process elevated and celebrated, art taken back to its roots in a way that epitomises the objectives of ZERO, but which remains utterly timeless and universal.

    But there is more to these two works than just Uecker's trademark nails. The modest nature of the other materials used in Oval and Vogel materials which expose the artist's interest in texture and colour, is also striking. In employing burlap, a thick hessian with a rough, fibrous weave, and unpainted industrial panels, the artist is brazenly exposing the complex materiality of the media. There is no artifice to these works, no attempt at disguise or pretence; instead, Uecker explores the visual potential of the base substances in all their raw beauty, working with, never against, their essential nature.

    Wood has long been crucial to his output, bringing us closer to the basic elements of life. His oft-cited passion for the natural world has undoubtedly influenced these two works, both created largely from wood and metal, and both evoking thoughts of natural symbolism, not least in their titles. The circular form of Oval also surely references nature, as does its very materiality; the nails arranged in an organic, instinctive undulation. Vogel, meanwhile, appears more industrial, while two small holes in the central grey panel suggest that it may be related to the artist's kinetic spinning works of this period. The importance of such imagery for Uecker and his fellow members of the ZERO Group was demonstrated in a poem written in 1963 and published that same year in a leaflet entitled Der neue Idealismus, poetisches Manifest ("The new Idealism, a poetical Manifesto"): "Zero is silence. Zero is the beginning. Zero is round. Zero spins. Zero is the moon. The sun is Zero...". And yet the addition of the nails here adds a vital new dimension to these works, both literally and metaphysically. The nails bring with them a sense of depth, of light and shadow, and, most crucially perhaps, that sense of intense motion referenced in the poem quoted above.

    The importance of these two works by Günther Uecker is manifest. Oval of 1958 is one of the earliest examples of his celebrated nail assemblages, dating from a time when the artist was exploring the new direction which was to define the rest of this career. Like Constantin Brancusï's iconic Bird in Space of 1923-1924, the exquisite Vogel of 1962 is a static object which manages nevertheless to convey the dramatic dynamism of a creature in motion; it was produced when the ZERO Group was at its most creative and influential, a period when Uecker's oeuvre was becoming recognised on a global scale. Since that time, his reputation has only grown, continually enhanced by a series of solo shows and retrospectives around the world, his work also regularly included in exhibitions dedicated to the output and impact of the ZERO Group, such as ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow held at New York's Guggenheim in 2014. In addition, his works are held in the collection of some of the world's greatest public institutions, including the Tate Modern, London, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MoMA, New York, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. These two works ably demonstrate the powerful artistic vision which has established the artist's international reputation. Individually, each of these stunning works expresses its own unique character, proposing approaches both similar and diverse. Together, they recall the mood of the moment, challenging all that had come before, daring to be shockingly different, surprising and new. Uecker creates objects which spill out of the artistic plane and into the world; as the artist himself stated in 1963, "Art is not restricted to the surface of the picture. By setting nails around the boundary of the pictures, structures that fill the field of a picture are driven to spread over the frame, over the walls, over the furniture and other objects that surround us every day. Art invades the everyday world we live in" (the artist in: Adachiara Zevi, Enrico Castellani, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Günther Uecker, London 2009, p. 38). These are works of art without limit, without boundaries. Undoubted icons of Uecker's practice, both Oval and Vogel exemplify the genius of an artist who is now widely recognised as one of the greatest innovators of the modern age.
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