By Mason Riddle
What happens when a near legendary American artist and an acclaimed Spanish engineer-architect decide to play nicely in an iconic modernist art museum in Germany? “Stella & Calatrava: The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain,” a bold, stylistically unconventional mixed media work installed in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie designed by Mies Van der Rohe.
Part painting, part sculpture, part architectural engineering, “Kohlhaas Curtain” is suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. Hovering in the expansive space, it impressively commands and counters Mies’ visually austere upper pavilion of steel and glass.
The work consists of a 30m mural from 2008 painted by Stella on sheets of tarpaulin that have been shaped into a circular ring and set within a lattice steel framework by Calatrava called a torus. The result is a vast panoramic, unobstructed viewing experience of form, color, pattern and shifting spatial orientation.
Stella, who has long been deeply interested in German culture, named the complex work in tribute to Heinrich von Kleist’s book Michael Kohlhaas: A Tale from the Old Chronicle, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the author’s death. It is said that Kohlhaas led an adventurous life in Renaissance Saxony that included the expropriation of his horses and ended with his execution. If details are lost on the unfamiliar viewer, a sense of Kleist’s narrative is conveyed through vivid color and dynamic forms.
Calatrava has been quoted as saying, “The beauty of this installation is that it plays with the human scale, incorporating the spectator into the painting as well as into the sculpture… By putting the canvas inside of the sculptural ring and enclosing it, you almost get an infinite dimension because there is no beginning and no end.” Indeed, one has the sense of watching a merry-go-round outfitted with abstract and dynamic creatures except, instead of assuming a passive position, the viewer must actively circumnavigate the circular construction.
Admirers of each other’s aesthetic practice, Calatrava initially approached Stella about working together on a project that would reflect their multidisciplinary approach to creating art and architecture. Stella’s painting, which became increasingly 3-D by the 1980s and beyond, has achieved a fully, sculpture-in-the-round presence. Similarly, Calatrava’s all but transparent cocoon has merged with Stella’s work to become a compelling hybrid of painting and sculpture.
Neue Nationalgalerie organized “Stella & Calatrava: The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain” in conjunction with the Museo Pablo Serrano, Zaragossa, Spain, where it will travel after closing in Berlin on Aug. 14.