Isa Genzken may be the most famous artist American museum-goers have never heard of. The 65-year-old sculptor was the youngest female artist to have a solo show at Düsseldorf’s influential Konrad Fischer Galerie in 1976, she represented her native Germany at the 2007 Venice Biennale and she was the subject of a major solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009. Until this month, however, she has never had a retrospective at an American museum.
The Museum of Modern Art has corrected this with “Isa Genzken: Retrospective”, an exhibition of 150 objects in a variety of media co-organised with the Dallas Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition is not just Genzken’s first US survey but her largest retrospective to date.
What took so long? Some attribute the delay to Genzken’s lack of commercial representation in the US until 2004, when she joined David Zwirner. But Genzken also struggled to get out of the shadow of her former husband, Gerhard Richter, to whom she was married for a decade.
“Being a woman artist was never easy in Germany, especially coming up in a milieu that was dominated by Richter, Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz,” says Laura Hoptman, who co-organised the show. Intensely private, Genzken also rarely promotes herself: she seldom gives interviews and avoids the social trappings of the art world. “Some artists are businesspeople—she is an artist who lives in her own way,” Hoptman says.
To demonstrate the diversity of Genzken’s work, the museum devotes most of its sixth floor to the show. Portions of her sprawling Venice Biennale installation, Oil, 2007, which features bulbous silver astronauts and rolling suitcases, will be shown in the lobby.
“Hers is a career in which she is constantly reinventing herself, and yet she remains very focused on architectural forms,” Hoptman says. Raised in Berlin immediately after the Second World War, Genzken was fascinated by the destruction and construction of cities. “Her concrete sculptures look just like the rubble that was Berlin after 1945,” Hoptman says.
But Genzken’s work is not purely, or even primarily, autobiographical. It is also deeply engaged with art history. A series of torqued wooden floor sculptures from the 1970s, for example, put a European twist on New York Minimalism. (They are also among the first works of art ever made using a computer, according to Hoptman.)
Genzken’s best-known and most recent works, humorous assemblage sculptures that incorporate dining trays and flowerpots, underscore her ability to reinvent herself. “She emerged as a leading voice in the way artists reimagine collage and assemblage,” Hoptman says. First shown widely in the late 1990s and early 2000s alongside work by artists 20 years her junior, the assemblages were fresh enough to permanently distinguish her from her peers in the Düsseldorf School. “People assumed she was the same age as Elizabeth Peyton,” Hoptman says. “She was making work that was not part of her own generation.”
• Isa Genzken: Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York