Best of 2015

Best of 2015 – Margret: Chronicle of an Affair at White Columns

For today’s installment of our Best of 2015 series, regular contributor Ashley Stull Meyers writes, “To exhibit art by little-known or purposefully anonymous artists holds a cultish allure over the contemporary art world. In the curious case of Gunther K. and his mistress Margaret, a nearly fifty-year-old abandoned suitcase held archival ephemera too arresting for its maker’s obscurity to be institutionally relevant. Reading the review of Chronicle of an Affair, we become privy to secrets so invasive that the particular brand of observation that comes with exhibition is difficult to reconcile. Lia Wilson carefully frames these difficulties within the fringe movements of art history we all love to discover. The inscrutable impulse behind collecting fingernail clippings and discarded items a lover once idly put to their mouth is both vaguely romantic and horrifyingly compulsive. Interestingly, that general sentiment can be said of most momentous artwork. Wilson’s recognition and assessment of ‘Outsider Art’ in this capacity is most certainly worth revisiting.” This review was originally published on April 15, 2015.

3.Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, 2015; detail. Courtesy of White Columns / Delmes & Zander.

Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, 2015 (detail). Courtesy of White Columns/Delmes & Zander.

Sometimes the most unassuming artworks can question the relevance of art history’s categories. Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, currently on view at White Columns, exhibits a personal archive of obsession, one presumably never intended for public view. Over a seven-month period between 1969 and 1970, a Cologne businessman named Gunther K. meticulously recorded his affair with his secretary, Margret S. During that time, he took hundreds of photos of Margret; he collected her fingernails, hair, and empty birth-control-pill packets; he organized receipts logging where they traveled and what they ate; and he wrote detailed notes of their sex life, recording the frequency, duration, and specifics of each act. Nearly three decades later, when this entire cache was unwittingly discovered in a briefcase in an abandoned German apartment, it set off a series of events that led to the collection being represented by the Cologne gallery Delmes & Zander, an institution focused on outsider art and art brut.

Gunther K. could certainly be considered an amateur photographer, and his identity has remained protected, allowing this work to fit easily within outsider art’s mandate for the self-taught and its penchant for the anonymous. However, the precision and depth of Gunther’s project contains intriguing formal and conceptual ties to many practices within mainstream contemporary art, including the memory-laden installations of photographs and ephemera by Sophie Calle and the found-photographic interventions of Hans Peter-Feldman and Erik Kessels. Moreover, found photography is a subgenre that has straddled the insider/outsider divide for some time, albeit with very different interpretations. Found photographs of freak-show participants, medical anomalies, and incarcerated individuals were featured in the 2015 Outsider Art Fair, for example, their inclusion based less on the unique virtues of each work and more on their uneasy documentation of cultural outsiders.

Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, 2015; installation view, White Columns, New York. Courtesy of White Columns / Delmes & Zander.

Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, 2015; installation view, White Columns, New York. Courtesy of White Columns/Delmes & Zander.

Delmes & Zander’s collaboration with White Columns, a venue primarily exhibiting mainstream contemporary art, not only enables broader engagement and understanding of the Margret archive but also adeptly dismisses any obligation to categorize it. Art-historical borders cease to have validity if they stand in the way of new theoretical connections and investigations. The Margret exhibition reveals an amateur collection of great intimacy and infatuation, one that offers viewers much to contemplate. Its complete state—covering the beginning, middle, and end of the affair—makes it a fascinating record of the sexual mores of the time, and Gunther’s typewritten notes are a narrative of one man’s desperate egotism and possessiveness during an era of upheaval for gender and sexual politics in the West. Beyond this historical merit, the exhibition also affords viewers a provocative encounter with their own voyeurism and judgments, and acts as a nearly five-decade-old touchstone with which to compare our present usage of digital photography for personal validation, documentation, and compulsion.

Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, 2015; detail. Courtesy of White Columns / Delmes & Zander.

Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, 2015 (detail). Courtesy of White Columns/Delmes & Zander.

Delmes & Zander also organized a concurrent show at David Zwirner in New York, titled System and Vision, featuring the work of twelve outsider artists who shared “artistic strategies with ‘official’ art of the 1960s and 1970s”.[1] Some of these self-taught artists also used photography to document events, and, like Gunther K., their intentions were not primarily the creation of art for art’s sake. Both exhibitions frame their artists’ practices as a means to some other end: art as a focused and systematic approach to track, test, and archive the objects of their obsession.

Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970 was on view at White Columns through April 18, 2015.

 

[1] “Group show, System and Vision, February 28–April 18, 2015,” David Zwirner, http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibition/system-and-vision/?view=press-release.

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