– Autumn/Winter 2008

From Painting to Sculpture and Back Again (And Again, and Again): On Imi Knoebel’s Raum 19

Wouter Davidts

The artist appears in a photograph. Dressed in black and wearing white sneakers, he balances on a ladder in Buster Keaton like fashion while hanging a painting stretcher high up on the wall. Two other blank stretchers already adorn the surface of the wall, and behind the ladder six large brownish Masonite plates lean against it. Another with rounded edges lies on the floor.

The space in the photograph is immaculately clean, apart from the left corner around the sink, which is crammed with diverse tools and debris. The artist depicted is Imi Knoebel, in the midst of working on the sculptural installation Raum 19 (Room 19, 1968) with which he graduated from the Düsseldorf Art Academy that same year. The space portrayed in the photograph is studio number 19 at the Academy, which Knoebel occupied with the artist Imi Giese, and which is next door to the infamous studio of their teacher and mentor Joseph Beuys.1

Raum 19, a seminal work within the artist's oeuvre, has not remained within its original studio space. Over the past forty years, Knoebel has reinstalled and reconfigured the piece about ten times for public exhibitions in as many locations.2 Although the successive versions of Raum 19 have expanded in size, acquiring an ever wider range of shapes and parts, the work essentially consists of differently sized Masonite panels, Masonite objects and wooden picture stretchers, all variously stacked against the wall, on the floor, attached to the wall or resting against each other. Depending on the site in which they are installed, these elements are put into different configurations, relating in diverse manners to each

  1. Imi Knoebel left the Werkkunstschule in Darmstadt in 1964 and moved to Düsseldorf together with his friend and companion Imi Giese. Both young artists were highly intrigued by the figure of Joseph Beuys, then the Chair of 'Monumental Art' at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Initially, the two Imis shared the studio with the painters Blinky Palermo and Jörg Immendorff, but soon afterwards had sole use.

  2. Ibid., p.58.

  3. 'I wasn't able to start like my fellow students who attended the academy because they were talented. Everybody attended the academy just because they were able to paint nicely. But Imi and I couldn't do this.' Ibid., p.51.

  4. Imi Knoebel, quoted in Johannes Stüttgen, 'Imi Knoebel 1966-1996: A Progress Report', in Imi Knoebel. Works 1968-1996, op. cit., p.23.

  5. Bruce Nauman, 'Interview with Elizabeth Béar & Willoughby Sharp', Avalanche, no.2, Winter 1971. Reprinted in Bruce Nauman, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman's Words, Writings and Interviews (ed. Janet Kraynak), Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2005, p.153.

  6. Bruce Nauman, quoted in Coosje van Bruggen, Bruce Nauman, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1988, p.14. In an interview with Ian Wallace and Russel Keziere (in Vanguard 8, no.1, February 1979, pp.15-18, reprinted in B. Nauman, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman's Words. Writings and Interviews, op. cit., pp.185-96) Nauman formulates the problem in a similar manner: 'That left me alone in the studio; this in turn raises the fundamental question of what an artist does when left alone in the studio. My conclusion was that I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. And what I was doing in fact was drinking coffee and pacing the floor.'

  7. In this context, Knoebel discarded his Line Paintings as a mere 'pathetic beginning'. Imi Knoebel, 'Excerpts from a conversation with Johannes Stüttgen in Düsseldorf on April 2, 1993', op. cit., p.51.

  8. For a more elaborate critique of the post-studio discourse, see Wouter Davidts, 'The Myth of the Post-Studio Era', Stedelijk Museum Bulletin, no.2, 2006, pp.55-59.

  9. Raum 19 was shown for the first time in the Kunsthaus Hamburg in 1968, and later in several variations, such as in 1979 in the Gallery Friedrich in Köln, in 1982 in the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, in 1983 in the Kunstmuseum Wintherthur and the Kunstmuseum Bonn, in 1987 in the Dia Center for the Arts on 22nd Street in Chelsea, New York. It is currently on view in Dia:Beacon. A second version of the work was installed in 1992 in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, in 2006 in the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, and a third time at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds in 2006.

  10. Cornelia Lauf, 'Beuys, Knoebel and Palermo: Changing the Guard at Dia', Arts Magazine, vol.62, May 1988, p.72.

  11. Jean Leymarie, 'The Painting of Matisse', in Jean Leymarie, Herbert Read and William S. Lieberman (eds.), Henri Matisse, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, p.14.

  12. John Elderfield (ed.), Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, p.184.

  13. 'There is no space between the wall and the floor,' Carl Andre objected. 'Well, there is now,' Stella allegedly replied. This anecdote is recounted in Patricia Norvell, 'Interview with Carl Andre' (1969), quoted in James Meyer, Minimalism. Art and Polemics in the Sixties, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001, p.113.

  14. In this respect the title of the show at the Henry Moore Institute, 'Imi Knoebel: Primary Structures 1966-2006', was slightly misleading since it inevitably recalled the notorious exhibition in the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966, widely regarded as one of the first major shows of the work of a group of artists that was later to become canonised as Minimalism or Minimal art.

  15. Max Wechsler, 'Expeditions in the Realm of Painting, Sculpture and Beyond', in Imi Knoebel: Works 1968-1996 (exh. cat), Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1996, pp.11-18.

  16. Imi Knoebel, 'Excerpts from a conversation with Johannes Stüttgen in Düsseldorf on April 2, 1993. Imi Knoebel talks about how he became a painter', Imi Knoebel: Werke von 1966 bis 2006 (exh. cat.), Ludwigshafen am Rhein and Bielefeld: Wilhelm Hack Museum and Kerber Verlag, 2006, pp.57.