Not Making a Decision between Duchamp and Mondrian, Ad!

Claudia Büttner: Not Making a Decision between Duchamp and Mondrian, Ad! –The works of Katrin von Maltzahn. In: Be Magazin (Oktober 1996). P. 128-129

Katrin von Maltzahn works with pictures. Although she temporarily gave up monochrome painting in 1992 to examine the circumstances under which her art originates and to make them the subject of her works, the Berlin artist has remained committed to visual thought.

For Katrin von Maltzahn, the most important correlation in terms of origination and presentation is the archiving and documentation of art. For that reason, in addition to her older works in oil on canvas, she presented in 1993 with Users/ KvM/Oil on Canvas the photograph of a computer monitor on which the recorded inventory data of the panel painting could be seen as well as a photograph of how each work of art was hung in the private rooms of the collectors. In doing so, von Maltzahn availed herself of a classic process of Conceptual art, which Joseph Kosuth had developed in 1965 with One and Three Chairs. In placing a chair alongside its photographic depiction and the text with its lexical definition, Kosuth exemplified the difference between signifier and the signified. In addition to art's reflection of linguistic logic, von Maltzahn was concerned with the cultural and social conditions of her own art. The picture, the picture archive and the viewer's situation became references of the various ways of dealing with art and the different ways that the meaning of art is received. In 1995, the artist created the Hyperpaintings, thus extending the process of Conceptual art. She enlarged bibliographic details from library catalogues and borrowing slips from books about Duchamp, Malevich, Mondrian and Reinhardt- artists stylized as fathers of modern art. By making the secondary preoccupation with art - the texts on art or the indexical reference to them - the theme of the picture, the artist sharpened her view of the way art was currently dealt with in her own way. In her view, it was no longer the visual aspects of the artistic works of the above mentioned artists which were being quoted and transformed; it was rather the information and the theoretical knowledge that determined their art historical reception. In spite of these critical glances at the reduction of art to texts about art, of painting to Hyperpaintings, Katrin von Maltzahn was concerned in her Conceptual works also with visual qualities.

The artist used her studio stay at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien to experiment with and extend her pictorial techniques. Color screen prints were created in the print workshop of the Künstlerhaus around a thematic complex which she had researched and worked out beforehand, by using photography, video and text. Von Maltzahn dealt with the relation of language and signs in intercultural exchange, not least of all the one of ideology. On the basis of the GDR language program "English for you", with its television features and textbooks which also marked her childhood, she devoted herself to the themes and iconographic motifs of imparting cultures as well as the visual patterns in which this is imparted and its forms of learning.

The themes of the lessons are treated in a series of works. Textbook pages with photographic depictions and texts with dialogue show English everyday life on the basis of workers who discuss wages or prepare for demonstrations. In the scenes acted out, young visitors are informed about the Leipzig Trade Fair, the Marx Memorial in London, the economic changes revolving around the London Docklands or compare Dresden's destruction with that of Coventry's. Opened book pages are reproduced in the screen prints of the series English for you l; the pages are affixed with neon yellow post-it stickers which refer not only to the themes of the lessons with respect to content by way of indexical key words like job or demo, but also simultaneously to the artist herself as an individual who reads and classifies.

Like stocktaking, illustrations or visual signs like lesson numbers, arrows and graphic structural elements are presented in other works without connection through content (How do you do 1). As if to confirm this working hypothesis, they appear in another series in new semantic connections so that they lose the original connotations completely. The single fragments of words and illustrations, severed from the meaningful didactic program through gaps, missing text and lost contexts, must be first brought into new semantic contexts by the viewer. By showing isolated illustrations of, for example, a curly blond female head or reaccentuating with color an outstretched arm with a branch in the screen print series How do you do 3 & How do you do 4, opportunities arise for a new understanding. The illustrations are combined with English definitions and sentences which also belong to them in the textbook, integrating the isolated words grammatically and at the same time serving as definitions, as for example stick and a small piece of wood out of a tree. Nevertheless, the curly blond head of Brigitte Bardot, the Lesson number 1 which appears in the illustration, the word curly and the sentence she has curly hair remain oddly strange as picture-text supplementations. It becomes clear very quickly that not only the ideologically conditioned selection of themes for language learning, but also the offered translations from text into picture are subject to differing, and to some extent, quite arbitrary patterns. For if the choice of a female head with curly hair in the illustration for curly can still be explained by traditional ideas about femininity, the question with regard to why the term curly is explained here and not blond remains unanswered. Rather, it makes clear the cultural preconceptions, the necessity that the reader open himself to a predisposed way of thinking.

In a further series entitled Traces, von Maltzahn refers also to the receiver and his or her way of dealing with the material submitted. By reproducing textbook illustrations with found commentaries and paintings by pupils, she enters not only into an inevitably one-sided interpretation of pictures through texts, but also into the possibility of independent, subversive ways of learning.

With a single action, she goes beyond commenting and recombination by providing the pictures with a new story. She combines pictures of scenes from the language program with her own photos of their main actors, now older, in interview situations and articles written by herself in feuilleton style as mementoes of the actors (English for you 2). Here it becomes clear that the preoccupation with the theme, despite some works laid out like contributions to theoretical linguistics discourse, also concerns the concrete cultural problematic of imparting language, especially that of English in the GDR. Without an experience of one's own and an interest in this forgotten theme of intercultural exchange and its protagonists with their ideological exigencies and personal stories, this examination cannot be understood. But it also cannot be seen without von Maltzahn's eye for dealing with pictures, for the visual qualities of the reduced picture elements. The various series are indebted to this eye; they range from screen prints with small pictograms on large white surfaces to large icons of striking motifs which the artist, completely independent of theme and subject, has reworked with vivid colors and turned into independent pictures.

Katrin von Maltzahn does not let the warning of the honorable Ad Reinhardt hold her back, who exacted that one must decide between Duchamp and Mondrian. Von Maltzahn does not do that. She remains a visual artist who, nonetheless, constantly rehearses the general set-up, the possibilities of interpretation and the modalities of dealing with a theme as well as with her own works. This is also how the catalogue for the exhibition of her works at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien is to be understood - a catalogue which Katrin von Maltzahn herself conceived and designed. Based on the pattern of the inventory key designated on the title page (title, year. series, material, color, format, edition, source, description), von Maltzahn has compiled here a meticulously detailed inventory catalogue of all her works and preparatory works from 1994 to 1996. Exact specifications and descriptions are not only supplements to the black and white illustrations of the works, but also the reverse: the information necessary for an understanding takes up a larger space than the reproductions which are only intimated. By taking up a conventional system of archiving art and even compiling this large-scale, almost exaggeratedly precise documentation, she goes into the underlying situations of the art works on the one hand and can, on the other hand, disclose her interventions and thus, as an artist, maintain control over the information density of the reveivers of her work.

Translation: William A. Mickens

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