Lothar Baumgarten, one of the most politically engaged German artists to have emerged during the 1970s as part of an activist-oriented conceptualist movement, has died in Berlin at age 74. Marian Goodman Gallery, which has long represented the artist, confirmed the news in a newsletter sent today.
In a statement, the gallery said, “In a career spanning four decades, Lothar drew wide acclaim and respect for a singularly powerful and diverse body of work, from photography to 16mm films, slide projections, recordings, drawings, prints, artist books, short stories, as well as site-specific works, wall drawings, and architecture-related interventions. . . . We will remember him always and the impact he has had on our lives will live on in his work.”
Like many artists of his generation, Baumgarten was concerned with systems and the translation of ideas across cultures and time. But unlike many of his colleagues, Baumgarten was explicit about his political concerns. He thoughtfully and repeatedly engaged one of the most complex subjects in Western history: the exploitation of indigenous cultures and lands.
In 1993, for one of the most dramatic transformations of the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York to date, Baumgarten covered parts of the institution’s architecture with the names of various Native American tribes, such as Osage, Apache, and Kiowa. At the bottom of the installation, which was titled America: Invention, the phrase “borrowed land for sale” was printed on the floor of the museum’s atrium.
To back up his inquiries into the ongoing legacies of colonialism, Baumgarten spent extensive periods of time with indigenous peoples. “You cannot reflect your own society, unless you know a society that is remote from it,” he told critic John Russell in 1988. “To know that society, you don’t want to walk into it, get a Ph.D. and turn the page. You have to jump into the bushes, almost naked, as I did.”
From 1978–79, Baumgarten researched the Yanomami people based in region near the border between Venezuela and Brazil. Working with people he met during that trip, he produced collaborative works, some of which were shown at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, in 2011.
Often Baumgarten’s research-based work took the form of sprawling installations that incorporated objects produced in a variety of mediums, including film, text, audio, and drawing. Among his most extensively shown works in America is Carbon (1989), first produced for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles as an epic that explores the role that railroads have played in colonizing the American landscape, much of which has been taken away from Native Americans.
But Baumgarten has created less politically inflamed works as well. One of his most known works is Kultur-Nature (1971), a feather hidden beneath a board in a parquet floor in a poetic statement about the architecture of institutions and about how nature and art are at odds.
Baumgarten was born in 1944 in Rheinsburg, Germany. Formative to his art education was his time as a student of Joseph Beuys, with whom he studied between 1969 and 1971 when he was at the Kunstakedemie Dusseldorf in Germany.
During his lifetime, Baumgarten garnered widespread acclaim. He won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion in 1984, and participated in four editions of Documenta, in 1972, 1982, 1992, and 1997.
One of Baumgarten’s final major projects was the sound work The ship is going under, the ice is breaking through, which premiered at the Reina Sofia in Madrid in 2016. The work consisted mainly of recordings of the noises produced by ice breaking on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. Played in the Palacio de Cristal, a glass structure originally built in the 19th century as the site for an exhibition about the Philippines, Spain’s last colony, the work alluded to long-forgotten histories coming to light—of material kept hidden beneath the surface finally coming to the top.