Found objects form a special category in the history of modern art. It cannot be difficult to write this history on the basis of everyday objects. Conceived first as a joke or anti-art, everyday objects, discarded household goods, old newspapers and other artless objects have been part of the artist’s repertoire since early in the last century. Non-art becomes art. In using everyday objects, artists pose the question, What constitutes a work of art? They attempt to break through the boundary between life and art and they offer a commentary on popular culture and consumerism. And—it can happen so miraculously—it comes to pass that we see beauty in cotton balls or barbed wire on an artist’s canvas, in a shoe horn on a pedestal, in neon lights on a wall, in a collage of train and theater tickets. A page from a telephone book can be a poem. Klaus Baumgärtner feels a commitment to this history. He has added his own chapter.
“Whenever I find something useful I ask the question, do I make something from it or leave it like it is?” says Baumgärtner. “And when I make something from it, how far do I go? Sometimes I do too much and I have to throw it away.”
“When I was studying at the academy in Basel, I went to Brockenhaus quite often. A big store that sold second-hand things and used the profits to help the poor. I found everything there a person could collect. It was really a collection of collections, and that held a great fascination for me.” Everything Baumgärtner saw there was beautiful, useful or desirable. All his life he possessed this inspired interest in used things, preferably those that had been repaired or become useless. He brought a box of clothes hangers home from a flea market, some bizarrely shaped branches from a walk in the woods.
It is the same with the camera. Baumgartner uses it to collect impressions. In other words, he takes a picture of how a building, a circus wagon, a street, the interior of a café—over and over this world of things—presents itself to him. People are missing there, he captures only the traces they left behind. Big things or small things, it does not matter. A small can in a shop window can look as monumental as a skyscraper. He also likes to photograph how things are connected to the world, by their shadows, for example, or in a reflection, in a mark or spot they have left behind. Sometimes such a spot assumes mass and a shadow becomes an object in its own right. Traces, shadows, shafts of light, reflections, all are fleeting appearances, which have to be photographed quickly before they vanish once again. But they don’t in Baumgärtner’s work. There the fleeting elements are stable, like an unmoving shadow on a warm Sunday afternoon in summer.
One theme in his work is difficult to put a name to. He can make something from anything that attracts his attention or falls into his hands. Hierarchy is just as absent there. He makes small and big sculptures, installations, photographs, collages, paintings. He is a book designer and teacher. But everything is equally important. Actually there is no development either. Certainly there is a then and now, an earlier and later. However, one is not the result of the other. To a great extent, Baumgärtner’s work exhibits a form of simultaneity.
Incidentally there are only a few paintings. “I do like paint,” he says, “but I like it best when someone else has already smeared it on somewhere.”
Single works of Baumgärtner’s play a role in the context of his total oeuvre. You don’t necessarily have to know that to be able to value it, but you understand it better when several works can be seen at the same time. Then you see reciprocal relationships. For the last few years when we have looked at art we have looked for a concept, commentary, for history, cross references, for content that one can later relate verbally. The observer no longer has any faith in himself, he wants an explanation. But these works can be understood simply by looking attentively. Works of art also contain thoughts, just in a different form than is the case with words. The meaning reveals itself in the immediately visible. It is regrettable if one considers this superficial.
The meaning is not in a work of art the way wine is in a bottle. Nor is it, unlike paint, a characteristic of the work. Meaning is assigned by the viewer. If someone is unable to do this, the reason is not that something is lacking in the artwork, rather it is more probably because of a certain intellectual inability of the viewer. The works of Klaus Baumgärtner are frequently accused of not having a meaning. You can ask why this opinion exists. You can also ask what it would mean: Not to have a meaning. Does the viewer not trust his own thoughts when he is looking?
Klaus Baumgärtner’s oeuvre can be considered an extensive collection of re-worked and unre-worked objects and illustrations, each of which stand in a relationship to all the others. Over the course of time and in all their diversity, they reveal changing forms of correspondence: reflection, resonance, and echo.
The text above is a collection of letter fragments and diary notes adapted into a loose whole.