Thomas Schütte - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 10, 2012 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, Japan
    Private Collection

  • Catalogue Essay

    So as far as meanings are concerned, I would rather talk with my hands and through forms and let these creatures live their own lives and tell their own stories.


    (Thomas Schütte in conversation with James Lingwood, in Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 22).

    With his virtuosic handling of traditional media, Thomas Schütte has emerged as one of the most seminal sculptors of this generation. His figurative works from the United Enemies series, composed of polymer clay, fabric, wood, and PVC-pipe, confront the viewer with a pair of contemporary grotesques. The clay is kneaded and molded into miniature portraits of monstrous subjects from a supernatural world. The contenders in Untitled (United Enemies), 1995, are rendered with pallid, hairless, and distorted grimaces. One figure is draped in a lustrous red silk robe, the other in a soft brown one; the two are bound together and encased in a glass bell jar. While barely three feet tall, their features explore a powerful range of human emotions and sensations. What is most uncanny about the pair is their maintained claim on humanity. Despite their hideously distorted visage, the fleshiness and uncanny realism captured in their portraits exudes the fragility of human existence.

    From the life-sized ceramic figures in 1992s Die Fremden (The Strangers), to miniaturized monuments cast in bronze in Grosser Respekt, 1993-94, Schütte has manipulated and exploited scale and materials to great effect throughout his career. The human figure has continuously featured in Schütte’s oeuvre, however, his mastery of countenance is most exemplified in the series United Enemies. Here the clay is manipulated, stretched, shrunken, pushed, pulled and twisted to form the portraits of two beastly enemies; their extended eyebrows create hoods over their shrunken eyes, their upper lips droop below their jawless chins, and veins and bruises protrude and pulse from their flesh, as if a heart pumps blood beneath the sack of skin. The painstaking details of the human form captured are the result of the artist’s long-held fascination with the expressive power of the human body and face.

    The figures in Untitled (United Enemies), 1995, stand in stark contrast to the sculptural series which recall Etruscan funerary sculpture and Northern medieval portico figures of Schütte’s earlier works. Later series, Grosse Geister, 1996, would go on to explore the expressive powers of the human body through monumental poses and movements. But in Untitled Enemies, Schütte was determined to disturb our understanding of human psychology through meticulous detail. Upon exhibiting the series, he hung detailed photographs of the subject’s grimaces around the gallery walls, challenging his audience to face the disturbing and unsettling emotions derived from the bombardment of gruesome faces. The images further dramatized the expressive visages, blown up to reveal every detail which comprised the portraits.

    The figurines that comprise the United Enemies series were in part the result of time that Schütte spent in Rome in 1992. There, he was influenced by the Greek and Roman busts and figures that filled the streets and lined the galleries and halls of the eternal city. He was deeply impressed by the many Bernini fountains gracing the city and it was here that he began working on a series of sculptures in Fimo clay and cloth. He had explored the material briefly a few years earlier and had finished two works: Teppichmann (Carpet Man) and Mohr’s Life. Both provided opportunities for the artist to fully explore the immediacy and continuum of clay to express a full range of facial expressions. By eliminating the process of fabrication, Schütte was able to instantaneously convey emotion through his fingers. This intimacy with the materials is further expounded by his use of his own clothes to drape the figure.

    In Mohr’s Life Schütte had explored single figures engaged in narratives from his own life as an artist; however, United Enemies departs from the autobiographical. Composed of two male figures bound together with string and enclosed under a glass bell jar each figure’s destiny is entwined with his antagonist’s. Sometimes facing each other and sometimes looking in opposite directions, their wizened expressions range from sly to disdainful to foolish. In Untitled (United Enemies), 1995, the figure cloaked in a brown robe stares directly at the viewer with an ascetic gaze, while the other looks away, perhaps in defiance. Schütte sees these figures as enjoyable, not threatening and says, "I didn’t find them cruel, I just found them funny.” Here, Schütte has used the act of restraint in United Enemies to conflate the formal concerns of draping with tragicomic sentiment. The artist refers to the figures as puppets, not as the diminutive dolls of children’s theater. Herein, the puppets become pawns,
    not on a stage, but of larger machinations.

    While the figures evoke raw emotion, their grimacing faces are deeply rooted in the political climate of Rome in the 1990s. At the time of the series’ inception, the city of Rome was embroiled in the “Clean Hands” investigation, which brought to light an entrenched system of bribery and corruption throughout Italian politics. All the major parties, right and left, had played along with this system and profited from it. A generational shift was occurring and there was a widespread feeling of disgust at the ageing politicians and businessmen who had ruled Italy since the second World War. While Schütte’s are not caricatures of individual politicians, United Enemies can be seen as the condemnation of public duplicity, offering an image of life as a grotesque theater of masks and effigies. The faces are morphed and distorted, expressing shrewd and unpleasant, but ultimately comic natures of aged leaders.

    Despite the severe intensity of this forever-bound pair, as we closely examine their faces and become accustomed to their supposed vulgarity, we slowly realize the ridiculousness inherit in their expressions. The two are understandably upset by their forced proximity and bound positions. The direct gaze of one figure is now perhaps a plea to free him from his unbearable cohort. There is some jarring comic relief in this drama of modern politics and power that transcends their embittered faces, strange dressing gowns, and unfortunate circumstances. As the beasts transform into puppets of modernity, encased in a glass prison, we realize that the scene before is precisely a theatrical play, a scaled down vision of the inherent comedy between the cantankerous and disgruntled.


Untitled (United Enemies)

Fimo, fabric, wood, brass wire, PVC-pipe and glass dome
figures: 13 1/4 x 5 1/8 x 7 1/8 in. (33.5 x 13 x 18 cm)
overall: 73 7/8 x 10 x 10 in. (187.5 x 25.5 x 25.5 cm)

Signed and dated “Th. Schütte 1995” twice on the underside of the wood base.

$800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $962,500

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

10 May 2012
New York