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Thoughts on the Coronation of Otto Kunzli

In the spring of 2013, I attended the opening of Otto Kunzli’s retrospective at the Neue Sammlung in Munich. Since the museum itself was closed, they built a large temporary pavilion on the museum grounds for the show. Some 1500 people attended the opening ceremony. The museum atrium was jammed. The amount of expense and attention devoted to the Kunzli exhibit would be unimaginable in the United States. In Munich, the guy is practically a god.

The exhibit has examples from all periods of his work. One thing is clear: in the 1980s, Otto Kunzli was the smartest guy in the room. Period. Whoever was second smartest was a long way behind.

At the opening, the President of the Kunstakademie made some interesting remarks. He noted that Kunzli was known for saying “NO.” NO to precious materials and gems, no to the fetishization of craftsmanship, NO to the ordinary conventions of jewelry, no to all the familiar meanings. NO, even, to good design. And he was right. Kunzli was the guy who rejected all the ordinary devices and tropes of contemporary jewelry. Nobody else was so thorough, or went so far.

What Kunzli did was to put jewelry through a process of radical reduction. The reductivist project was initiated by the first minimalist artists in the 1960s, largely in New York. (Think Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, and that gang.) It was a logical outgrowth of Clement Greenberg’s reasoning in “Modernist Painting” (1963), which queried painting in terms of its unique competency. Greenberg, emulating Kant, sought the particular capacity of painting that was not shared by any other discipline. It could not be color or design or thematic content or theatricality. All those properties were shared by other fields. Greenberg decided that the unique competency of painting was flatness, and nothing else. It was a profoundly influential theory, and it dominated painting for more than a decade. It also influenced the way cutting-edge artists thought about themselves. They all started thinking about the essence of their particular fields. What was the essence of dance? Of theater? Of sculpture? What happens when you reduce things so far that nothing else can be removed?

In the visual arts, the two artists who carried the reductivist project the furthest were Ad Reinhardt and Tony Smith. Reinhardt boiled painting down until all that remained was black: a painting divided into a cruciform of slightly different shades of black. The least amount of color possible, only the slightest nod to composition, no line, no content, no pleasure. Just absolute, rigid, Calvinist black. Reinhardt thought he had discovered the pure essence of painting, and he became something of a nazi about it.

Tony Smith, in a parallel exercise, reduced sculpture to its most basic form – a cube – in the most appropriate scale – neither miniature nor building, but human-sized, about six feet tall. Absolute, pure sculpture. His most reductivist sculpture was “Die,” a simple six-foot steel cube from 1962. Both artists were supreme believers in the power of “No.”

By the early 1970s, the reductivist project was well-known, and was beginning to be supplanted by Post-minimalism. (The heroine of the moment was Eva Hesse.) Reinhardt kept at his black paintings until he died in 1967, not budging an inch from his final position. All those late Reinhardts look exactly the same. For him, progress ended with his last refusal. The thing about hard-ass reductivism is that those ultimate refusals don’t need to be done twice. Once the gesture is made, you either move on or you repeat yourself. Most of the minimalists moved on. Smith explored more complex geometric shapes; Serra embraced giganticism and a restrained type of experiential entertainment; Donald Judd made plain unvarnished furniture. None of those projects were strictly reductivist. After a period of “No,” all these artists embraced some kind of “Yes.” The “Yes” was necessary for their continued artistic development.

Before 1968, the reductivist scheme had not been applied to the crafts. The first jewelers to start reducing things were Emmy van Leersum and Gijs Bakker in Holland. Van Leersum boiled jewelry down to a single strip of metal with two folds in it; Bakker to a wire wrapped around the arm, tightened and then cut off, leaving only a linear dent in the skin. But really, the van Leersum/Bakker project was dedicated to doing more with less. Visual interest was still on the agenda. If you think about it, visual interest is not truly essential to jewelry. It can be discarded. Otto Kunzli was the one to do it.

Kunzli asked, “What is the essence of jewelry?” Because jewelry is a multifaceted thing, he came up with a number of different answers, and his project lasted 15 years.

His first reductivist work was a series of photographs taken in a photo booth. Each series explored a simple application to Kunzli’s shirt: adhesive tape, stick-on dots, string or wire in lines, rows, X’s and curves. (“Automatenfotos,” 1976) Kunzli asked: if jewelry is decoration applied to the body, then what is the least degree possible? A few years later, he gets it down to almost nothing at all: his ingenious “Drawing pin brooches” (1980). These are just thumbtacks and a little circle of rubber that acts as a clutch. You push the tack through your clothing, secure it with the rubber, and voila: jewelry reduced to its simplest terms. No craft, no design, no high-falutin’ materials, no symbolism, no content. Just a dot on the body. No more is needed to make the point.

But then Kunzli thought, jewelry has other purposes than being mounted on the body. Most of the reductive jewelers of the day got no further, but Kunzli continued.

Jewelry can be a repository of wealth, right? So Kunzli took a chocolate box shaped like a bar of gold bullion, and pinned it on a male model in a tuxedo: the perfect satire of all the pretentions of precious jewelry. (“Die Deutsch Mark,” performance, 1983.) Jewelry (in the form of an engagement ring) can be a symbol of personal, mutual commitment, right? Kunzli made it literal: two rings linked by a length of rod, so not only are two people connected but they cannot escape each other. (“Ring für zwei Personen,” 1980) It’s like Linda Montano’s 1984 performance piece, in which she tied herself to Tehching Hsieh for an entire year. But Kunzli’s version is done entirely in the imagination. Such economy!

And so Kunzli continued commenting on various essences for years. Decorative codes, notions of beauty, the semiotics of jewelry, sentimentality, jewelry as badges of identity, and kitsch all came under his scrutiny. To my thinking, the final piece in his reductive project was the “Oh, say” brooch from 1991. This piece is a conflation of different, contradictory aspects of American culture: a star, a heart, Mickey Mouse, a cross, and a skull. It’s a study of how jewelry can be recruited for the service of ideology, but it’s conflicted and confounded. “Oh, say” is one of Kunzli’s best and most provocative works. No wonder it was used in the graphics for his exhibition.

It is widely agreed that Kunzli is a conceptual jewleler, one of the earliest and most significant. I agree. But my point here is that his conceptual agenda was strictly reductivist, and this reductivism is the single most important aspect of his early work. It’s all about saying “NO” to different aspects of traditional jewelry.

But after 1991, Kunzli’s search for the essences of jewelry came to a halt. There was nothing else for him to say “NO” to. He’d been through the whole menu. The reductive project concerning jewelry’s essences was complete. After saying “NO” for fifteen years, what was next? It turns out that Kunzli isn’t quite as good at “Yes.”

His work since the early 90s has a non-committal, drifting quality. He moves from one idea to the next. There are friendly caricatures, pared-down geometries, experiments with restrained luxury, a record of a trip to Australia in the form of discs strung into a necklace. But there’s no overriding idea guiding his investigations. The bite and fierce intelligence of the early work is gone. It’s almost tragic.

Take one of his most recent series, the three “Nare” pendants from 2008-2011. These are rectangular pieces of gold that have been lacquered in red by the Japanese master Murose Kazumi., and hung from a silk thread. The lacquer, twelve layers deep, is exquisite. “Nare,” the Japanese title, refers to the quality of having been worn down by years of handling, and is thus associated with the sweat and grime of the hand. There is no sweat or grime here, though, just purity. The piece is simply a presentation of beautiful lacquer and the knowedge of the underlying gold. That’s it. None of the intelligence, the questioning, the criticality, or even the humor of Kunzli’s early work. “Nare” is strangely flat-footed. If there is poetry, it resides completely in the material and the process. We are supposed to believe that Kunzli is the master poet here, but I’m not convinced. In fact, this fetishization of luxurious surface is exactly the kind of thing Kunzli used to satirize. Where’s his edge? Where’s his searching quality? I can’t find them anywhere.

All his mature life, Kunzli was guided by a single metaphor: reduction. To move forward, he had to find a second productive metaphor. He never did. He needed to say “Yes” to something else, whole-heartedly. All his intelligence, all his mental toughness, couldn’t help him find another metaphor he could believe in. And without that second metaphor, he is lost.

I think Kunzli is ultimately a Calvinist. Calvinism is perfectly suited for the reductivist program, because it’s all about refusal and denial. It’s Ad Reinhardt’s stance. The problem with the Calvinist impulse is that it’s deeply suspicious of all the manifestations of pleasure. Wild color, unsystematic elaboration, out-of-control complexity, and extreme emotion are all anathema, and pleasure especially so. If you think about it, pleasure is one of the essences of jewelry. Pleasure in all its forms: visual pleasure, sexual pleasure, semiotic play, fun of any kind. Kunzli, while he has a sharp sense of humor, is simply not capable of taking pleasure seriously. His loss. Our loss, too.

Donna Schneier tells a story about bringing Kunzli on a visit to William Harper’s studio in New York City. It was a disaster. Harper is the king of over-the-top, rampant visual pleasure. Kunzli was appalled. He could barely think of Harper’s work as jewelry. What he did was get totally plastered, and that was that.

And so it is with Kunzli’s later career. All the work since his reductive period has been slight and unfocussed. He still avoids pleasure scrupulously. But, actually it could be a new metaphor that he is searching for.

Kunzli is undoubtably the most powerful figure in German jewelry today, wielding influence that reaches far beyond the doors of the Kunstacademie.. How else could you get 1500 people to show up at his opening to pay homage? I was there, and I don’t even know the guy. Certainly he has been a seminal teacher, and many of the best young jewelers in the world have studied under him. But his lasting impact has to be measured in his work as an artist, not so much in his teaching. I must admit that his work was brilliant and hugely important. The trouble is that I have to use the past tense: “was.” Not “is.”

(Thanks to Sondra Sherman for important information regarding the Kunstakademie President’s speech at Kunzli’s opening, and for vetting this article most carefully.)

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