In the years following the Second World War, forward-thinking, progressive artists in Europe disavowed anything that smacked of prewar bourgeois values. The feeling was that traditional standards of good taste and aesthetic refinement were politically suspect, as they belonged to a cultural milieu responsible for the corruption, devastation, and deprivation of the war period. Many young artists sought to start anew, to refresh art as a valid means of expression by returning to basics—rudimentary forms, mundane materials, simple color arrangements, and quiet visual statements.
Among the artists in Germany seeking to reinvent the notion of art, Herbert Zangs (1924–2003) was an isolated figure. Although he reached his mature style in the early 1950s, he shunned the art world for much of his life and rarely showed his work until the 1990s. His minimalist paintings, reliefs, and sculptures anticipated works by the like-minded artists of the ZERO group, as well as Arte Povera, but Zangs consistently discounted any relationship to those artists, and remained a loner. This exhibition, which included twenty-three works he made between the 1950s and 1970s, was the first Zangs show in New York in fifty years.
In 1945, at the war’s end, Zangs enrolled in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he met Joseph Beuys on the first day of classes. The two became friends, having had similar wartime experiences—both were drafted into the air force in their teens, and both barely survived plane crashes. Due to a mechanical malfunction, Zangs’s plane crashed in a snowbound Scandinavian landscape. Rescuers found him buried in snow, wrapped in his parachute. He regarded this episode as having brought about both a personal renewal in his life and a preference for white monochrome in his art. His first important works belong to a series called “Whitenings,” which he began in 1952—the year after Robert Rauschenberg produced his “White Paintings” in New York—and which consists of paintings made in grayish white and sculptures and reliefs painted that same hue.
Although Zangs worked in series, those series share characteristics and tend to overlap. (Often, the works belong to subsets of the “Whitenings.”) He incorporated found materials, such as scraps of plywood, cardboard, paper bags, and bits of broken furniture, into his works, and favored gridded compositions of simple shapes—frequently, plus, minus, multiplication, and equal signs, which he used for formal rather than symbolic reasons. The exhibition, titled “Plus Minus,” featured an array of pieces displaying this imagery. Among them was a relief, Collages (ca. 1970), in which wood cutouts of the mathematical symbols in shifting hues are attached to a vertical wood panel in rows, the composition topped with a grid of staples.
In a framed 1952 piece from a series titled “Objects,” Zangs left aside his preference for the grid and affixed a white-painted assemblage to the center of a white ground. The assemblage is a wooden newspaper-rack dowel bearing some newspaper with curvilinear cuts in it and clothespins clipped to the sliced portions’ edges. The pattern of elements on the paper conjures a kind of strange insignia, the object suggesting a nautical flag, perhaps for a ghost ship. Despite the monochrome, the work departs from the deliberately vacant look of most of Zangs’s compositions and has an almost baroque intricacy.
For an Objects from around 1978—the largest piece in the show—Zangs tied wooden wedges in pairs to a fourteen-foot-long expanse of black industrial felt. The resulting composition has a certain textural and optical appeal, with the wedges forming a kind of wonky grid and hovering in front of the felt, their hard raw wood contrasting with the inky, fuzzy ground. Despite Zangs’s homely materials and reductive aesthetic, he managed in such works to produce austere compositions that appear elegant rather than forlorn, demonstrating a refinement that, given his anti-aesthetic aims, may have been unintentional.
This article appears under the title “Herbert Zangs” in the October 2019 issue, p. 83.