Historical Journal


George Herold: Uncertain Relationships

November 11, 1990
Stephen Ellis

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George Herold’s work expresses a bitingly sardonic sense of humor in elegantly spare, almost hermetic formal conundra. While the irony in sculptures made by stretching underwear over a pyramid-shaped armature or in paintings made of bricks glued to canvas is often hilarious, its point is a serious one. Yet, because his imagery and language are intensely German, for Americans the nature of the jokes sometimes requires translation.
Herold’s skeptical wit surfaces in such early, rudimentary works as a small, untitled map of the world from 1982. In this simple brush drawing, executed with careless ease, each country is assigned a brief ironic motto: Germany, “nothing seen, nothing heard;” Russia, “nothing learned;” United States, ” criminals;” France, “know everything;” Israel, very good.” Nebenlatte (Beside Lath, 1983), another rather early piece, is a terse and pointed assault on the compulsory subordination of the individual to the will of the group. The piece consists of nothing more than a short, rough scrap of wood scrawled with the motto “together we are assholes.” Herold’s intensity of feeling on the subject undoubtedly owes something to the fact that he was imprisoned for six months by the East German government for an escape attempt, and was only allowed to emigrate to the West in 1973 at the age of twenty-six.
As the above examples illustrate, the point of Herold’s jokes is often political. Such humor has a special edge in Germany, since as a German observed to me, “humor isn’t the first characteristic you associate with my country.” Nor, in a larger context, is it associated with authoritarianism in any form. A joke has a unique and valuable limitation: it can only deflate a stuffed shirt- especially those in uniform-whether black, brown or olive drab-never inflate one.
Yet, if Herold’s work is political, his approach is quite different than that of American artists such as Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger, all of whom have attempted in different ways to alter the political consciousness of the public by crossing over from the art world to wider channels of mass communication. For Herold, “if one wants to attain something politically, then one should become a terrorist or a politician. Political art is a coquetry of the artist who needs an alibi and a moral justification. Naturally, I do the same, but I coquette consciously with politics by making jokes.”‘ However, in rejecting an instrumental role for art and opting for “coquetry,” Herold is not declaring himself apolitical, he’s rejecting a political tactic he views with the deepest suspicion, since in his experience, the manipulation of mass consciousness, even for a “constructive” purpose, smacks of authoritarianism.
For the use of visual humor, Herold had an excellent mentor in Sigmar Polke, with whom he studied in Hamburg from 1977 to 1981. Both Polke’s use of humor as a social scalpel and the skill with which he weaves his comedy into deft formal structures left their mark on the younger artist. As Herold’s work has developed this second, formal aspect has become increasingly subtle and sophisticated, revealing an abstract cast of mind less obvious in the earlier work. As a young man studying mathematics, Herold encountered Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a quantum particle simultaneously. So fascinated was he with the paradox stated in the principle, he used it for the title of a catalogue, Unschirferelationen, which he translates as “Uncertain Relationships.” But Herold is no scholar or mathematician; the way he uses “Heisenberg” is broadly metaphorical, not technical. For him, it’s an emblem of the provisional nature of understanding.
This adaptation of an idea from physics to his own metaphorical purpose is characteristic of his scavenging of forms and ideas from other areas as well, for example, from politics, language or art. He juxtaposes ideas from different realms so that one’s awareness of their points of correspondence and divergence is sharpened. A.J. Greimas, quoted by Fredric Jameson in The Prison-House of Language, offers a description of this conceptual operation in a different idiom: “Signification is thus nothing but … such transposition from one level of language to another, from one language to a different language, and meaning is nothing but the possibility of such transcoding.” Jameson himself calls the result of this operation the “truth -effect”- a term that also suits Herold’s sense of the uncertain character of perception. Transcoding underlies the stylistic juxtapositions ubiquitous in postmodernism; what distinguishes Herold’s version is his idiosyncratic feeling for materials and his ability to manifest his ideas in pungently witty objects.
In Hologram, a piece from 1986, two heavy, battered bricks, stuffed into the legs of a pair of torn panty hose, form a kind of bridge: the bricks are the “piers” and the nylon stretched between them the “span.” The dark, diamond-shaped crotchpiece centered between the bricks seems to hover in the evanescent lighter nylon, as a hologram image is suspended in its beam of light. The piece is one of Herold’s most succinct. There is an odd beauty in the contrast between the opacity of clay and the translucence of nylon. The elastic pulling against its moorings, has an unexpected force given the smallness of the object; at the same time there is something clownish about the common-law marriage of the lumpish bricks and the dainty, faintly risqué panty hose.
Although Herold isn’t always so frugal with his means as the lath pieces and Hologram would indicate, economy is essential for him. He admires the complexity of expression, achieved in Oriental art with the fewest strokes: the intellectual discipline that leads to a quick, sure realization of the idea. Jahresgabe (Donation of the Year, 1986) is a kind of visual equivalent of a Zen koan in its ellipticality, love of paradox and formal austerity. Two bulbs project out of holes cut side by side in the tip of a roughly crafted waist-high table. The one on the right is a working light bulb, that on the left, a bulb-shaped cactus of identical size. Through a slot in the front edge of the tabletop, the electrical connection for the bulb and the flowerpot holding the cactus are visible. The careful articulation of the piece-the proportion of the table and its simple carpentry, the “window” of the slot, the holes through which the bulbs peek, the contrast between the smooth, bright glass and the prickly, dark plant as well as the rhyming of their size and shape-impresses the object on the viewer’s mind, despite its refusal to make “common” sense, just as the precision of the koan’s image does.
Herold selects his materials from the most commonplace things: wood lath, common wire, bricks, socks, buttons, paper scraps. This aspect of his work has sometimes been associated with Arte Povera, but the comparison is a misunderstanding of his lineage. Whatever traces of that school-or of Fluxus-there may be, have been filtered through the pervasive influence of Joseph Beuys. In pieces of Beuys’ like Jason (1961), a metal washtub hanging on a piece of wood lath, the precedent for Herolds practice becomes clear.
In order to escape from the dominating influence of Beuys, Herold adopted Polke’s strategy: the transubstantiation of the older Meisters mythopoeic tragedy into comedy. Then, by returning to the object, a form rarely employed by Polke, Herold also distanced himself from this second influence and discovered his own territory. Once that territory was established, Herold was able to return to painting without sacrificing his independence. In various series he has glued bricks, sewn buttons, smeared caviar and attached pieces of electronic circuitry to canvas, seamlessly transposing the kind of thinking he developed in his objects to his pictures.
As with Beuys and Polke, the game Herold plays is all or nothing; he aims for a combination of conceptual elusiveness and visual concision that is perversely demanding. In his best work, there is so little wasted motion that if the relationships between elements are off by a hairsbreadth, the pieces run the risk of disappearing. That’s their kick. In saying, “there are no intermediate levels between art and nothing, 112 Herold clearly takes the risk with his eyes open.
Stephen Ellis
1 “Atlantisches Bbndnis: eine Gespr5chsrunde mit Georg
Herold, Jeff Koons und Isabelle Graw,” Wolkenkratzer
Art Journal, January-February, 1988, p. 38. Translated by Stephen Ellis
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