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Reading Rämistrasse #94: Aoife Rosenmeyer on Abstrakt Gedacht at Atelier Hermann Haller

In the 1920s, Hermann Haller’s (1880-1950) renown was such that the authorities in Zürich gifted him a site in a prime location to ensure he remained in the city. Photographs from the SIK archive show a shortish, bearded man at work inside the bright, wooden studio building he built there: besuited, he stands to model a lump of clay; sans jacket he creates a facial likeness of a glamorous young model; and he relaxes reading in a deckchair. The studio is lined with shelves on which are placed countless small clay works; larger-than-life sculpted figures stand in the room. The scene was of its time – and more than 70 years since Haller’s death it remains thus. By the time Haller’s descendants gifted the studio and the works in it to the city in 1982, the artistic significance of a figurative, modernist sculptor whose oeuvre largely consisted of lumpy female nudes was harder to argue; for contemporary viewers it is even more so.

Since 2013 the awkward inheritance has been dealt with through summer exhibitions in which younger works are in dialogue with Haller’s, but dialogue is difficult when his works resonate so loudly in the space built to accommodate them. The latest, Abstrakt gedacht, is a group show curated by Irene Grillo and Maren Brauner. Their premise is to consider abstraction and figuration as coexisting phenomena, given that Haller worked figuratively alongside colleagues firmly in the abstract field – like artists do today, though the opposing camps seem, in hindsight at least, to have been more entrenched back then.

Abstrakt gedacht, Atelier Hermann Haller, 2022

Foto: Sebastian Schaub

Atelier Hermann Haller will always be Atelier Hermann Haller. While there’s no chance of mistaking the space for a white cube, pointed asides can land effectively. Clare Goodwin’s tile-like ceramic elements are placed, with the exception of a few individual pieces hiding elsewhere, on the floor around the bases of standing Haller figures. The medium allows her the liberty to arrange the approximately hand-sized monochrome pieces at will, and the liberated colours make carpets, or dance floors, on which the Haller women might express themselves rather than cultural archetypes. Kyra Tabea Balderer’s response to the context was – literally – to determine a new framing device. She has constructed two scaffold-like wall sections out of wooden batons on which to hang photographs; amongst the maquettes and objects that feature in these still un-life arrangements she has co-opted and re-cast a Haller leg. Intensely-hued, the photographs are an odd note of gothic melodrama in the dry context.

Abstrakt gedacht, Atelier Hermann Haller, 2022

Foto: Sebastian Schaub

Hanging in a row just above one wall-length shelf, Shannon Zwicker’s watercolour and ink works on paper are intimate in scale and content. Titles such as Tickling tongue or Wandering eyes (both 2021) are sensual; the soft-edged colours suggest self-confident revelation. Haller’s objectified, idealised nudes are anachronistic today; one appealing contemporary ideal is body positivity practiced by an active subject, and Zwicker expresses embodiment on her own terms. The drawing gestures in Sabine Schlatter’s works, meanwhile, have often been determined by the limits of her arm’s reach, though in three oil on canvas works made in 2021 that gesture is less marked than previously, while one’s focus is drawn to the forms within that teeter on the edge of figuration. Presiding quietly over the ensemble, Sonia Kacem’s corset-like form Prototype 2, 2016, surveys the Atelier from its interior balcony. Thus elevated, it is almost at eye level with Haller’s largest work present, the Mädchen mit erhobenen Armen, (Landifigur), 1936. The fine curves of Kacem’s sculpture are made possible by tension maintained between its wooden and metal parts, though the title indicates an experimental construction. Does the prototype represent a desirable outcome, or is it an iteration that should be rejected? Is the tension acceptable, is the aesthetic achieved worth the strain?

Abstrakt gedacht, Atelier Hermann Haller, 2022

Foto: Sebastian Schaub

Preserving an artist’s studio is an odd endeavour – compare Haller’s to Francis Bacon’s reconstructed studio, which can only be observed through glass like hallowed ground inside the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Instead, Haller’s domain is continually pierced by interlopers, each of whom have to negotiate their position there. The six female artists who exhibit there this summer do so with greater and lesser diplomacy: some are utterly engaged, others distant, others make light of the situation. Somehow – and I’m well aware of the irony – it seems to boil down to manners.

Abstrakt gedacht, with Kyra Tabea Balderer, Clare Goodwin, Hermann Haller, Sonia Kacem, Sabine Schlatter and Shannon Zwicker, Atelier Hermann Haller, 3 June–2 October 2022

Reading Rämistrasse

Geht der Raum für Kunstkritik verloren, müssen wir handeln. Deswegen schaffen wir diesen Ort für Kritik – Reading Rämistrasse – auf der Webseite der Kunsthalle Zürich und veröffentlichen Rezensionen zu aktuellen Ausstellungen. Diese geben nicht die Meinung der Kunsthalle Zürich wieder, denn Kritik muss unabhängig sein.

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