Günther Uecker - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “My objects are spatial realities, zones of light. I use mechanical means in order to overcome the subjective gesture, to objectify it, and to create the situation of freedom.”
    —Günther Uecker

    German artist Günther Uecker is best known for non-traditional materials, such as nails, in his work. By hammering these man-made, industrial objects directly into the canvas, he radically broke with the confines of the two-dimensional picture plane, irreversibly merging the practices of painting and sculpture. To Uecker, who had grown up during the Great Depression, lived through World War II, and then found himself split by the unmovable concrete of the Berlin Wall, the nail offered a new means to explore identity and collective experience. As ‘the ideal object with which to model light and shadow’, it offered a poetic way to confront the dualities of creation and destruction, order and chaos, which characterised 20th century geopolitics.i


    United by their shared experience of Germany during World War II, Uecker joined fellow countrymen Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in their recently established ZERO Group in 1961 – a movement championing new forms of art more closely aligned with the ethos of the modern age. Rejecting the more prevalent art informel style of the 1950s and 1960s, which the group believed to be corrupted by the very same culture that had led to war, ZERO sought a clean slate for visual art, and focused on light, technology, and a departure from the flat picture plan – all qualities inherent to Uecker’s practice.


    Walter Mori, People at the German Pavilion of the 35th Venice Biennale, with sculpture by Günther Uecker and Heinz Mack, 1970. Image: Mondadori Portfolio / Bridgeman Images


    Created in 1989, Ohne Titel demonstrates the visual philosophy of the ZERO movement whilst showcasing core aspects of Uecker’s personal practice at the height of his career, notably the mediative practice of hammering in alignment with the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism. Tightly arranged towards the top of the canvas and transitioning into a looser formation as the eye traverses the surface, the hammered nails create a dramatic interplay between blank canvas, object, and shadow. In contrast to his more clinical early works which were concerned with geometrical regimentation, the more organic arrangement seen here correlates to the introduction of more kinetic elements into Uecker’s practice during the 1960s at the height of his involvement with the ZERO group. 


    However, in the more gestural markings of white paint we can also track the more performative elements that would come to define his work after the movement’s dissolution in the mid-60s. More expressive, these marks highlight a reincorporation of painterly concerns into his more mechanically sculpted gesture. As the dense arrangement of nails becomes looser and more sparse, Uecker’s brushstrokes become thicker and more prevalent, culminating in a spectacular exchange between the free nature of human action and the rigidity of man-made technology.


    Multilayered too in its meaning, the relief meditates between abstraction and figuration, offering multiple interpretations. Perhaps the close-up of a flower, grass blowing in the wind, or scattered debris from a recently dropped bomb, Ohne Titel is a prime example of Uecker’s phenomenological approach to art and how an art form can tap into the subconscious.


    [Left] Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale #2, 1960, Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Image: Buffalo AKG Art Museum/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2023
    [Right] Heinz Mack, Silver Dynamo, 1964, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © DACS 2023


    Uecker’s work draws on an illuminating dialogue with other artists working in the ZERO movement. The use of metal to manipulate light alludes to the work of Heinz Mack, whilst Uecker’s breaching of the flat picture plane recalls Lucio Fontana’s lacerated canvases. There are more painterly art historical traditions evoked too, the contrast of light and dark recalling the chiaroscuro effects used to such dramatic effect in the work of Renaissance and Baroque artists. Deeply rooted in Christian iconography, Uecker’s incorporation of nails carries a weight of cultural and art historical significance, while also touching on the artist’s own childhood memories of nailing planks of wood, barricading the windows of his family home during the bombardments of World War II. Turning the flat surface of the canvas into a tactile, animated, and multidimensional surface, Uecker’s reliefs challenge our understanding of the limitations of perception, time, and space, blending art, philosophy, and history in these deeply human works.


    Collector’s Digest

    • The subject of major retrospectives at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1983; Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 1990; and the Staatliches Museum Schwerin; among others, Günther Uecker participated in Documenta in 1964, 1968, and 1977 and represented Germany at the 35th Bienalle di Venezia in 1970.

    • Thanks to a recent revival of interest in the ZERO movement, Uecker’s work has also been included in major group retrospectives, most notably, ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2015 – a landmark show which marked the group’s first significant museum survey in the United States.

    • In 2000, he designed the Reflection and Prayer Room for the Reichstag Building in Berlin.

    • Comparative works to Ohne Titel can be found in permanent collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.



    i Günther Uecker, quoted in Alexander Tolnay, ed., Günther Uecker Twenty Chapters, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2006, p. 72.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Spain
      Ketterer Kunst, Munich, 13 June 2015, lot 861
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Property of an Important Private Swiss Collection


Ohne Titel

signed and dated 'Uecker 89' lower right; signed, inscribed and dated 'Uecker 89 Gestiftet am 2.9.1989 für Aktion Kinderherzherzklinik' on the reverse
nails and oil on canvas laid on panel
92 x 61 x 7.3 cm (36 1/4 x 24 x 2 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

£180,000 - 250,000 ‡♠

Sold for £241,300

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023