Architectures of Hiding

Stefaan Vervoort

Principle of Dressing: Wall Paintings and Sculptures by Thomas Schütte and Ludger Gerdes, c. 1980

In his 1860 Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten, oder Praktische Aesthetik (Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, or Practical Aesthetics), architect Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) argued that architecture’s origins lie in the human need for making sense of the world through the sensuous play of surface. Architecture, Semper claimed, is rooted in textile art, fences’ wickerwork, and the woven fabrics that answer to a symbolic and utilitarian need at once. What he called Prinzip der Bekleidung (Principle of Dressing), then, implied that architecture’s sociability and politics originate in the act of dissimulation. Architecture creates domestic and public spaces through masking construction, like an “improvised scaffolding” that hangs the patterned fabrics and decorations that define social life.

This paper mobilizes Semper’s theory of dress to examine the early works of Thomas Schütte and Ludger Gerdes, artists (and close friends) that studied under Gerhard Richter at the Art Academy Düsseldorf in the late 1970s. Trained by an artist whose work mediates between the avant-garde and bourgeois paradigm of painting, Schütte and Gerdes, like their teacher, problematized both the idiom of critique or “unmasking” associated with avant-garde art and the notions of semblance and “masking” connected with bourgeois painting. Reacting to the entwined legacies of Minimal and Conceptual Art, however, Schütte and Gerdes negotiated these paradigms in and through sculpture. Their wall installations, reliefs, and scale models conceive of sculpture not in terms of any truth-to-materials or conceptual transparency, but as an act of veiling, cladding, and dressing. The central role and importance of architecture in the entwined and parallel work of these artists needs to be seen along similar lines: sculpture and architecture, for Schütte and Gerdes, are not defined by function, space, and materiality alone; rather, these fields have a tradition and history that, as Gerdes wrote in 1982, “root in Semper’s principle of dressing as leading onto a ‘practical aesthetics’.”

Keywords: dressing, sculpture-architecture, scale models

DR. STEFAAN VERVOORT completed his Ph.D at the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Ghent University, and works as a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University’s Department of Art History. His research engages postwar art and architecture, specifically architectural models and postmodern architecture theory in the visual arts. Besides developing his PhD into a book with The MIT press, he is currently preparing a new research into postwar sculpture and technology in Belgium.