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Likeness and Symbol: The Human Figure as a Sculptural Allegory

Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.
Constantin Brançusi

Hubertus von der Goltz has a background in classical sculpture. He graduated in 1977 from West Berlin s academy of fine arts, the Hochschule für bildende Künste, having studied in the master class of Joachim Schmettau. One of his teacher s best known works is the globe fountain in front of the Europa Center on Kurfürstendamm (1981-83), lovingly referred to by Berliners as the water meatball . As a figurative sculptor, Joachim Schmettau embodied an image of humankind that never wanted to limit itself to mere imitation of nature; instead, his works seek that in the image of the human figure that is existentially allegorical and exemplary of its time. The early works of Hubertus von der Goltz are best understood against the same backdrop. One example is the life-size cast iron portrait of his father entitled Alter (Age, 1983), which marks both the culmination and the cut-off point of this early period. Although it bears characteristic portrait-like traits, t he form and content of the work are focused in an exemplary message. The figure stands without a plinth on the paving cobbles outside a post office building: there is no separation, no elevation just a face-to-face encounter with the viewer. In retrospect, it might also be understood as an attempt to democratize art. #Art without pathos, without barriers, and without plinths, situated in an everyday context, as if it just happened to be standing there, but also structuring the site and the surrounding space. In sculptural terms, this is like achieving the impossible. In spite of the high degree of openness and although traditional forms of presentation are avoided, for the sculptor, the work and the place where it is installed remain an aesthetic unit requiring definition. Hubertus von der Goltz sees this place as a locus of social relations, as a meeting place in the context of everyday human coexistence. This means the work also has a narrative dimension that goes beyond a mere reproduction of reality.

Alter must also be considered against the background of a return of the figure to public space that began in the mid-1970s. The artist s path led out of the hallowed halls of the museum into the rough climate of urban landscapes. For sculptors in particular, this development offered completely new possibilities. New, open exhibition spaces that were no longer defined by the rectangularity of ordered volumes, but which were characterized by a multiplicity of natural and artificial axes.

Vertical axis and horizontal plane take the place of limiting surfaces as floor, walls and ceiling. To achieve a satisfactory interplay of creative figuration and urban situation, works installed outside rely on the order of far-reaching aesthetic systems. In the works Crossing and Jeder für sich , Hubertus von der Goltz explores the complex and complicated interplay of figure and space. The motif of balancing and the use of figures reduced to silhouettes, both of which were to be a shaping influence on his subsequent oeuvre, were developed at this time and in the content of these works. His first drawings on the theme of balancing as a sculptural problem date from 1979. From today s point of view, these works on paper can be understood more as preliminary sketches that are close to the basic artistic problem, but which need the clarification that comes with time before they are ready for realization as artistic projects.

The steps taken in his work in the early 1980s by reducing the figure to the two-dimensionality of a monochrome silhouette and abandoning the classical floor/plinth situation are steps that look easy, but which, in view of his own oeuvre, represent a revolutionary act. For Hubertus von der Goltz, this represented a departure from all of the artistic strategies to which he had been accustomed. The notion that a figure stripped of its physical volume and reduced to two dimensions should be capable not only of occupying space but also of completely defining it surroundings is something that stands the classical figurative approach to sculpture of the period after 1945 on its head. Instead of negotiating the volume of a figure in space, figure and space become one. The cipher reduced to its silhouette forms the point of departure for a dramaturgical networking of physicality and environment. The radical nature of Hubertus von der Goltz s break with his familiar sculptural position seems to shine through in his works of the early 1980s. With tentative steps, his protagonists make their way, always at pains to keep their balance.

Initially, the figures were flat reliefs with typical mimetic features such as mouth and eyes, stylized hair, fingers and muscles, or figurines made out of wire that traced out the human form. But this was only a halfway house. The dissolution of the three-dimensional figure in a concept that interprets space itself as a sculptural volume subject to artistic treatment needed to be more radical still, as suggested by the concept for Jeder für sich. The pseudo-haptic figures were soon to be replaced by the now-familiar formulations with their flat material and pictogram-like appearance. The monochromy of the silhouettes supports the typification of the figures and concentrates the dramaturgy of the motion motifs. The tentative, searching step and the arms held outwards for balance was to become a characteristic motif in the works of Hubertus von der Goltz. Over the years, the reduction of the figure to a silhouette and the motif of motion with its existential focus developed into a universal pictorial language that is understood in all cultures. This process took the artist from human likeness to existential symbol. From a sculptural point of view, the conceptual achievement consisted in freeing the figures of narrative over loading and anecdotal superficiality at a time when the influence on sculpture of vigorous painter-sculptors was stronger than any new ideas offered from within its own ranks to overcome an ongoing but increasingly unarticulated lack of objects. The works of Hubertus von der Goltz are an attempt to renew sculpture both aesthetically and formally, on its own terms.

If one takes a closer look at the above-mentioned works Crossing and Jeder für sich, they are readily identifiable as designs for possible large-scale projects to be installed in the open air. These designs are three-dimensional sets of instructions, tangible hypotheses that urge to be realized in full-scale versions. The temporary installations Über den Dächern von Kreuzberg (Over The Roofs Of Kreuzberg, 1983) and Aus dem Nichts (**, 1984) at the Kampnagel factory site in Hamburg provided the first opportunities for such artistic experiments in the open air. In spite of the degree of technical incalculability involved, the artistic potential and aesthetic power of his interventions in urban reality were enormous. His indoor works of this period, such as the installation Jeder für sich at Galerie Tupolew in 1984 and with the same title a year later at Kunstquartier Ackerstrasse in Berlin, differ strikingly from the figures placed in relation to architecture, although they pursue the same strategy. The space obstructed by wooden rods at Galerie Tupolew became a labyrinth of intersecting straight lines, with the glimpses through them and into the depths of the room taking on a graphical quality. What one saw was an apparently chaotic overlapping of lines in space, or the endless variety of polygonal gaps in between. If one looked very carefully, one saw very small figures balancing within the structure, making their way through the tangle. One year later, in the considerably larger former factory hall at Kunstquartier Ackerstrasse, Hubertus von der Goltz realized a freestanding installation that could be viewed from all sides. Here too, as in the installation at Galerie Tupolew, the individual rods were not connected to each other by any kind of fittings. The construction was calculated by the artist in such a way that it stayed up by itself, becoming a dense, self-supporting network. During this period, Hubertus von der Goltz discovered architecture, both interiors and exteriors, as a field of activity allowing him to create new and unusual spatial situations. The resulting insights regarding three-dimensional experience are still present in his current works for example in the crossroad series, in his more surface-oriented mural reliefs, or in the irregular rectangles that seem to tip away from the wall.

The installation Over The Abyss in 1985 for the Natur-Figur-Skulptur exhibition in Heilbronn had a shaping influence on his works of the following years. Figures balancing high up on roof ridges or on dramatically positioned bars or wedges quickly became a motif that was both impressive and distinctive. The metaphorical charge of the figure, the allegorical image of a human being on a high wire, becomes a carrier of emotions that people find fascinating. With his installations, Hubertus von der Goltz succeeds in redefining everyday spatial situations. The unaccustomed experience of space to which his work gives access also leads to an altered consciousness of space that goes beyond the customary four points of the compass up and down, the relationship between the viewer and the work are involved as the aesthetic focus.

In recent years, Hubertus von der Goltz has extended his scope of activity as a sculptor with numerous outdoor sculptures. The large free-standing works created, for example, in Chicago, Seoul, Berlin or Harderwijk (Holland) on the invitation of these cities stand for an artistic return from the lofty heights of architecture-related interventions back to more autonomous, standalone works. This artistic emancipation is exemplified by Crossing, a six-meter-tall sculpture made in 2001 for the Yongsan Family Park in Seoul a work that perfectly illustrates Hubertus von der Goltz s aim of giving the location where his work is installed a new, unmistakable face. The chevron with the balancing figure walking upwards is not only an eye-catching landmark in the new park, but also the symbol of a new beginning, for the return of life and culture to a former military zone. People wandering around in this extensive terrain bring to life the image of a journey through life. Ordinarily, human beings face forward, into the future. But there are also moments of looking back, of reflection. On the path of life, however, turning back or backing away is not possible. The human individual is always at the crossroads, faced with the choice between the right and the wrong path. Hubertus von der Goltz takes as his theme one of the great primal symbols of human life, unobtrusively but with a presence that makes a lasting impact. He is one of the few figurative sculptors of our time whose works succeed in combining topical content and timeless forms in a sustained formal idiom. The experiential value and recognizability of his works are the result of a mature and unique formal language. Their impact stems from the aesthetic dialog between figure and space, figure and architecture, figure and viewer. With these works, Hubertus von der Goltz defines a new space, a new spatial articulation of the specific place in question. This is how his sculptures make their mark in the context of both landscapes and architecture. They command our attention because they surprise us, fascinate us, and disturb our habitual modes of seeing. The simplicity of their public appearance seeming to have taken all the technical and tectonic conditions in their stride with such playful ease is the basis for their metaphorical impact as succinct existential symbols. The human figure always has an allegorical dimension, referring back to the viewer s own self, a figure for conscious or unconscious identification. It stimulates the human imagination. His chosen forms of address abstract because couched in general terms leave room for personal interpretation. The result is a dualism of artistic concept and active reception, a weighing up between the clearly articulated and the unspoken. Although closed in conceptual terms, on the level of their aesthetic impact, the works remain an open system, offered up for perception. This makes Hubertus von der Goltz one of the few German sculptors of recent decades to succeed in developing a distinctive figurative position that is also significant in historical terms.

Friedrich W. Kasten