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Ergänzungen (Complements)

A Matter of Ambivalence


As she conceived the first of her series of objects she would later call “Integrations” Vera Röhm—at the outset of her development as a sculptress—found herself exploring the imaginary realm between nature and culture. Unrestrained by preconceived theories she followed only her instinct for dean “industrial” shapes and their interaction with space. Her visual vocabulary grew from a straight line geometry of architectural poise, its clarity from smooth finish and austerity of construction. She chose the squat outline of the cube, the outright horizontality of rectangular plates, the unequivocal verticality of traverse-section beams. This geometrical consistency seemed to indicate a Constructivist stance—a code of rationalized relationships she felt no affinity to, though. She proceeded to undermine what would have been the uncompromising statics of definite form: curves and striations cut with calculated sinuosity into the parallelepiped masses disrupted the angular order of the whole: blocks and bars were split, introducing drama and chance amidst predetermined geometry. This polarity of the finite and the open-ended is further underscored in Vera Röhm’s use of contrasting materials: she combines Plexiglas with wood, stone with metal, transparency with opaqueness, the vitreous with the mineral—or, as Gaston Bachelard might have said, “the earth-seeking imagination” with that which would encapsulate the aerial within the solid.
The generic term of “Integration” itself reflects this elaborate complementarity at all its levels, from the technical to that of the articulated message. The german title “Ergänzung” implies both completion and supplement and aptly describes the binary rhythm of alternate elements juxtaposed to restore the initial wholeness of the block or plate while highlighting the traces of its processes of destruction/reconstruction. A concentrated energy is already perceptible in the stereotomic model so tersely executed. There is violence in the way these structures pierce space, a violence that culminates in the spectacular implosions within the material—a cathartic event in the midst of the work.
The orthodox Constructivists themselves have dramatized the abstraction of autonomous geometric structures, while creating a vocabulary for their sense of non-mimetic shapes. Vera Röhm has never considered symbolism for her work, but the interpretative imagination cannot refrain from perceiving meaningful associations. Thus, in an ideological train of thought, we might assign “industrial” connotations to Plexiglas while wood or granite would stand for “the natural”—just as the transparency of acrylic might convey present notions of high-tech while metal or stone bear impressions of weight and call to mind geological archetypes. A psychologically-minded approach might reveal the dialectics of fracture and integration as the natural correspondent of the existential conflict between annihilating and restorative gestures: a trauma-and-recovery scenario in its own right. A more abstract grid of interpretation could put the same drama of shock and reconstitution in the more precise terms of entropy. Beyond any interpretations that run the risk of overlooking the very sensuous primal power of an oeuvre which makes instinctive use of immediate experience, Vera Röhm’s sculpture will touch us through the directness of purely visual language.
In the 1950s Western art often played on disassembly processes. For Vera Röhm, they are first-hand experience rather than cultural assimilation, from which she would distance herself. In “Integrations” the texture of a break is no less an agent of form than the geometrical element: the aesthetic motivation prevails over the expressive. As the collision of dissimilar elements is now preserved in vitro, captured in the glassy material, it acquires the status of a museum showpiece.
It is above all as environment that these formal entities fuse their characteristic oppositions into a cogent whole. A certain architectural latency typical of Constructivist work manifests itself in these outdoor constellations. They betray the urban spirit behind them. The town-dweller’s senses will be open to both “sophisticated” and “brute” information—and the integration of the two is what defines this work. The Romantic’s cliché of the antagonism of “savage” and “civilized” is long outdated. Herbert Read’s concept of “vitalism” in contemporary art could be applied here: marked by technology though they are, it is with the vital energy of a dive into the sea that “Integrations” soar into the urban space.
The shape referents of Vera Röhm’s work can be rediscovered in the townscape, just as the aseptic look of the faultlessly finished surface suggests civilized matter. The rhythms of “Integrations”, their verticality, their angular flexion, the cadences of their volumes and the tense network of their lines of force, all have antecedents in the essential townscape. It is of course an aesthetic concept, not a sociological reality that is referred to; the artist intuitively follows the visual discourse of the skyline, heeding the subliminal influence of its elementary shapes. Thus, Vera Röhm seems to resume some of the principles of the Bauhaus, whose successors exploit the language of purely formal relationships to be found in all material things. In fact, she is not a disciple. She belongs to the same generation as the American Minimalists, who are equally pervaded by the presence of the city and communicate their sense of involvement with it. The Minimalists succeeded by formalizing elements—which eventually became emblematic, turned into a hallmark and denied their own proclaimed ideal of collective anonymity. Vera Röhm herself is represented through the formal unit she calls “Integration”: it assumes the objectivity of a signature and bears as much psychic relevance. Spontaneous decision, the selection of shapes from the three-dimensional repertoire, the characteristics that result remind us that, in an art ruled by geometry, geometry itself is ruled by individual temperament.

Anca Arghir, May 1987

in: Vera Röhm. Ergänzungen/Integration, Galerie 44, Kaarst. 1987

© Copyright Vera Röhm