Thomas Schütte’s print series are once removed from the sculptures, models and installation pieces for which he is best known; they are more closely worked and sometimes produced many years later. Yet the prints are essential to these ambitious artistic projects that frequently incorporate them. (Indeed, the distinguished German artist’s vision has never been grander; last year his foundation opened an exhibition center, the Skulpturenhalle in Neuss near Düsseldorf where he lives and works.) Schütte’s most recent set of etchings, Gartenzwerge (Garden Gnomes), seen last fall at Konrad Fischer Galerie in Düsseldorf and Carolina Nitsch in New York, allowed him to experiment in a different medium with forms and colors he had introduced in an eponymous group of glazed ceramic sculptures made in 2015 and 2016. His 2006 series of 18 etchings Frauen (Women), shown recently at Skarstedt Gallery in New York, similarly provides a more intimate perspective on another sculptural series—monumental female forms in metal that themselves derive from his earlier ceramic models. And Alte Freunde (Old Friends), a set of ten etchings from 2010, is based on a series of polymerclay sculptures Schütte produced in the early ’90s (shown at Carolina Nitsch in 2012). Gartenzwerge was printed by Daniel Vogler and Lars Dahms at the Atelier für Druckgrafik in consultation with master printer Till Verclas. (Until 2010, when he closed his studio, Vogler and Dahms printed with Verclas, who has worked on all Schütte’s etchings since 2000 and says the artist remains his only client.)
The first Gartenzwerge sculptures (some 50 pieces organized into seven groups and now nearly complete, the artist reports) were commissioned by a collector in Düsseldorf and originally intended for a North Sea island in Germany (that part of the scheme did not work out). The sculptures range in height from about 18 inches to 6 feet and look like architectural abstractions of the ornamental figures that populate the front gardens of strangers to good taste in many Western nations. Schütte’s slightly squat forms, blank-faced and limbless, each different, are comprised of symmetrical sections of various shapes, mainly in bold colors. Grouped together, they have the effect of a small battalion of educational toys in bleak but determined confrontation with the viewer.
In the etchings, Schütte revisits the forms and the palette of the sculptures, describing each in simple white lines on a densely pigmented, monochromatic ground, different in each case. The lurid tones that collide in the decoration of garden gnomes seem to have been sequestered individually onto each sheet, creating something vastly more subtle. Schütte’s ceramic toy army is transmuted in the prints into a series of what appear to be drawn vessels, none of which is a precise transcription of a particular ceramic; these are refined versions of their predecessors, reflecting more delicate geometries. The fragile white lines against the dense color evoke photographic negatives or the white fronds and blue grounds of early cyanotypes by Anna Atkins and Henry Fox Talbot. In etching we see Shütte probe his initial ideas, and the works’ careful, highly finished manner conveys his understanding of the medium—one that is entirely compelling and ultimately anything but experimental.